Midmorning Zone: Negotiating Conversations on Gun Control

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of gun violence, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to make it impossible for people to bring guns into public places and start shooting people.  We should do whatever it takes to eliminate gun violence.  

B: I agree that gun violence is something that, in the ideal case, we want to eliminate.  People should be able to feel safe in public places and in their own homes.  I’m certainly willing to put in extra effort to craft and implement plans to reduce gun violence and violence in general.  You don’t have to convince me of that.  Your values make sense to me.

A: Oh, that’s good.  I’m sensing a caveat here, though.  

B: Unfortunately, yes.  Before we lock ourselves in to a particular approach or combination of approaches to accomplish that goal, we should at least understand the other values at stake, because they do exist.  There are reasons that people want to allow public gun ownership in the first place.  We need to consider the costs and side effects of the approaches available so that we can eliminate gun violence as much as possible while meeting the needs that people currently rely on guns for.

A: That’s something I’ve never understood, so we should probably start with that.  Why do people value public gun ownership?  What is the advantage in allowing people to have weapons?  By definition, a weapon’s purpose is to amplify the ability of a person to inflict harm through violence.  

B: Well, I would argue that in modern society, a weapon’s primary purpose is actually social rather than physical.  Its ability to physically harm is a last resort.  Most of the time, guns serve as a deterrent for two different types of behavior.  First, they deter turmoil (physical violence and coercion) by acting as a force equalizer, hence why guns are sometimes referred to as “equalizers”.  In a world with no weapons, if two people fighting have roughly equal combat experience, the stronger person will usually defeat the weaker person; a person wearing armor will defeat a person without armor; and a group of people will defeat a single person.  A gun creates a situation of mutually assured destruction.  Wrongdoers who have a normal sense of self-preservation will not menace someone who can shoot them.  Everyone’s a glass cannon in that situation: the only way to not get hurt is not to fight.  Ideally no one would be threatening violence in the first place, but in this day and age the fundamental liability of conflict still frequently manifests as turmoil.  Unfortunately, for the time being guns are very useful for humans in many places to defend themselves from each other. 

A: I can spot one immediate problem with the idea of guns as a deterrent to turmoil, and that’s the possibility of violent people without a sense of self-preservation.  The existence of “good guys with guns” doesn’t scare them.  

B: Agreed.  Arming everyone is not sufficient to keep people safe from self-destructive violent people.  We do want to do something about that as well.  However, I still think that allowing people to arm themselves is useful for deterring ordinary crime committed by people who have self-preservation.  

A: Don’t we have a police force that already deters crime and turmoil, though?  

B: Yes, and that does help in many areas.  There are still a few gaps in police protection that we can fill in by allowing people to own their own guns, though.  Firstly, some people live in rural areas, far from police stations.  If they need police assistance, it takes the police a relatively long time to arrive, and if the people need to defend themselves or their houses during that time, a gun is essential.  Also, I have heard many concerns that the police may not always be completely trustworthy, and probably should not have a monopoly on force.

A: Fair point.  We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the primary purpose of the police is to draw their guns on people, because they should be striving to resolve conflicts without using violence or threats.  However, doesn’t that lead us back to the conclusion that we want to remove weapons across the board, from everyone?  We’d still have a police force; they just wouldn’t have weapons. 

B: If we could do that and have it work, that would be great.  The problem is that for the foreseeable future, there will always be people who try to get what they want through violence and turmoil.  Sometimes what they want is simply violence itself.  Until that changes, we will need the ability to defend ourselves against turmoil, and the most efficient way to do that is with guns, because they’re force equalizers.  We created a police system to protect ourselves from violent people (with and without guns) and that reduces the number of people who have to be armed, but unfortunately it turns out we may even need deterrents to protect ourselves from the police system, at least for now while we’re still working on the solutions for that issue we discussed earlier.  

A: Oh, how wonderful.  Does each additional solution to violence keep making the problem worse, or do things level off eventually?  

B: Yeah, it turns out it’s very difficult to find a substitute for the ability of a community to defend itself.  After all, feudalism was based in part on the inability of peasants or serfs to defend their own communities.  Noble landowners received the sworn fealty of their serfs in exchange for the responsibility to suit up and protect them from… well, other noble landowners, sometimes from neighboring countries, but also from bandits and raiders.  Because the noble landowners had a monopoly on force, they wielded tremendous authority over their vassal populations, and often abused that authority.  However, feudalism started breaking down around the time guns and cannons got good enough to start making armored knights and other elite melee combatants obsolete, so we do have gunpowder weapons to thank for that.  A peasant soldier with a musket can beat a knight with armor and a sword.  That’s democratization of force for you.  

A: That is arguably a step forward.  However, feudalism lasted a while longer in Eastern Europe, if I remember correctly.  Plus, feudalism’s heir, aristocracy, survived for a long time afterward and is arguably still going on.  Are guns supposed to help us with… wait a minute.  I see where this is going.  Armed revolutions? 

B: Exactly.  The American Revolutionary War, like all other revolutions and wars of independence across the world, happened because people felt they were being oppressed by aristocratic or colonial rule, but had virtually no legal recourse because the aristocrats made the laws.  So they employed their last resort and engaged in violent revolution.  That revolution was only possible because the people were able to arm themselves.  That’s why the people writing the United States Bill of Rights, having fought and won a war of independence, felt it was so important to include the right of the population to maintain access to weapons–in case they ever had to do it again.  

A: So we have to put up with semi-regular gun violence as a necessary side effect of people retaining the option to overthrow the government?  I think we can do better than that.  

B: I agree.  This is just to go over the values at stake so that we can figure out an approach that works without sacrificing anything important.  

A: Fair enough.  So that’s the second type of behavior guns are supposed to deter: corruption.  I can see the value of having a last line of defense against oppression by the government and its laws and agents.  The government is answerable to the people because, if literally nothing else, the people can declare war on the government.  It’s that democratization of force you mentioned before.  

B: And let’s face it, we can barely hold governments accountable anyway.  Imagine how much worse things would get if they didn’t know we could shoot them.  

A: This all sounds barbaric and sad.  It’s just an arms race.  People have to hide behind increasingly powerful weapons but remain vulnerable, so now everyone is living in fear that someone will come along who just wants to watch the world burn.  Even leaving aside the occasional maniac, what if the people who try to overthrow the government are wrong?  

B: Good question.  I think both of those cases make it clear that if we’re going to improve the situation, we have to do something more than just dial up or down the number of guns per capita.  The more successful we are, the less it will matter how many or how few guns are out there.  

A: Alright, I’m willing to entertain that idea as we explore options.  I now think I understand the values you’re concerned about as well.  So what are our possible approaches here?  Let’s define the problem as simply as possible.  We want to prevent people who desire to inflict great harm from using tools that amplify their ability to do that.  We also want to avoid compromising the ability of the public to effectively deter turmoil and corruption.  (Time will tell if guns still seem helpful or necessary as such a deterrent.)  

B: That sounds like a good definition of the problem to me.  It sounds like the problem is mostly based on conflict, with maybe a bit of disaster as well depending on how much you want to look at a violent offender as a calamity like an industrial accident or a weather hazard instead of as a person with motivations.  Let’s take a look at the different angles we can approach this problem from.  I say “angles” instead of “options” because they’re not mutually exclusive.  We can pursue any or all of them to varying degrees, and they can support each other to offset flaws or side effects that might impact any one of them individually.  

A: I like that practice.  First we can get the preparation angle out of the way.  The idea of preparation comes up if we look at instances of gun violence through the lens of disaster instead of conflict.  That is, we can assume that random shootings are just a thing that will happen sometimes, and equip people with the tools and training to respond to active shooters and limit the damage they can do.  I know some people are suggesting this approach, but I don’t think we should rely heavily on it because I’d rather prevent anyone from getting hurt in the first place. Plus, this approach would take a lot of effort from everyone involved to implement, and in practice I don’t think that implementation would go very well in many places.  That said, it might still be a good idea to use metal detectors in places where we’re especially concerned about gun violence.  

B: I agree.  The damage mitigation angle of preparation is probably worth doing to some extent, but it will not be sufficient to satisfy either of our safety concerns.  A second angle which you’ve talked about is to regulate the quantity and power of weapons people are allowed to own, across the board.  That would impose stability by placing known limits on how much violence people are physically capable of inflicting.  

A: Yeah, it’s preventative and seems as concrete and objectively measurable as it gets.  

B: I will give it that.  I’m not inherently against regulating what sorts of guns people can own, either, as long as it’s done with some knowledge of how guns and gun combat work.  I suspect the movie Batman Begins is responsible for people thinking that “semi-automatic” is some dangerous new escalation of guns, but it literally just means you don’t have to cock the gun before each shot like the old-fashioned versions of revolvers and rifles.  Semi-automatics still only fire once when you pull the trigger once, unlike automatics.  (Not to mention most of what we see Batman do is fight crime with violence rather than with strategic investment of his fabulous wealth, which is the method the “League of Shadows” said they used to cause all that crime in the first place, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)  That said, it’d be nice to take a serious look at what the guns we allow people to own can actually do.  I’m not inherently opposed to requiring firearms that have to be cocked before each shot, but we should look at what some firearms and combat experts have to say about the pros and cons of various models and features. 

A: In that case, I’d like to look up some basic firearm capabilities with you later.  But you mentioned that dialing up or down the number of guns per capita wasn’t going to work, so I’m guessing you don’t think this method is sufficient either?  

B: Right.  Humans are clever creatures.  A person with a will to cause harm can find a way even without weapons, so even if bans get stricter and stricter we’ll run into diminishing marginal returns.  We should draw some lines around what we can ban if we want to keep guns as a deterrent.  Obviously there are weapons of mass destruction that we definitely don’t want the public to have.  However, when it comes to smaller, more personal weapons, I don’t believe there’s an intersection in the Venn diagram circles of “weapons that let people deter crime and government oppression” and “weapons that a person cannot use to kill people in a public place”.  I’m not sure it’s logically possible for those categories to overlap.  Plus, and I hate to say this, but regulating guns across the board seems less politically tenable than some other angles we can talk about.  I realize that if we make a habit of saying “people won’t accept this change” we’d be giving up on improving society, but in this case we probably want to explore other angles before pushing too hard on this one.  A significant number of people really care about their ability to own guns, and they may have to think about why they want them before they’re willing to let them go or lose interest in them. 

A: I think this angle is still worth exploring later.  Before we do that, though, let’s look at the rest of the angles.  

B: Alright, the third angle borrows a bit from preparation as well, I think, because it revolves around acquiring knowledge and figuring out how to use that to prevent problems.  It’s about identifying people who want to commit violence, and preventing them from obtaining weapons.  We already do that with background checks and other requirements to buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. 

A: Part of the problem with that angle is that it’s not always possible to identify violent people in advance, even if everyone had to get a background check for every gun purchase.  I know you consider it a person’s right to arm themselves, so even if we could identify people as unstable based on psychological markers, I don’t imagine you’d want to take that right away if they hadn’t actually committed a crime, right?  But that means some nasty characters are going to slip through the system because they haven’t done anything bad yet.  

B: That’s true, there are ethical principles we must abide by when we create the criteria for who’s allowed to own guns.  However, I think this angle is still worth investing in.  Beau of the Fifth Column took a look at the statistics, and he says that if we deny permission to own a firearm to people who have committed domestic violence offenses, and actually enforce that policy, then that will eliminate a large percentage of gun deaths.  It’s not a complete solution, but it’s a major gain.  

A: Alright, that’s definitely worth pursuing.  It seems like something a majority of people can get behind, as well.  It does sound like what anyone would think of when they think of “common sense gun laws.”  

B: Great!  There’s one more angle that we should look at.  It’s not as simple as the angle of restricting weapons in general, but it’s preventative and addresses a lot of problems beyond just gun violence.  

A: You’re talking about addressing the reasons people want to commit violence in the first place?  

B: Right.  We can study violent incidents and figure out what motivates people to hurt other people.  Most of it we already know, though: poverty, social isolation, feelings of directionlessness and powerlessness…  Most people who lash out do so because they’re frustrated with their life or their environment, whether or not that frustration is earned.  Violence is the only way they know how to make any impact on the world.  Furthermore, their frustration makes them vulnerable to adopting or developing a violent ideology.  

A: Good point.  Violence is almost always just a symptom of a deeper problem.  Even if we were to take away every gun in the country, those problems and the frustration and misery they cause would still be there.  We can address the underlying problems in society by identifying the people and communities experiencing those problems, and supporting them with a soft approach rather than imposing more laws and regulations on them.  We can supply people with what they need to deal with their problems without violence.  There’s no reason anyone should be pushed to the point of violence by a lack of support from their community, or a lack of support for their community, for that matter.  

B: I remember we mentioned economic issues before in our climate change discussion.  We talked about how even if an industry is threatening public health in some way, people will try to keep it alive if they think there’s no other path forward for them to make a living.  It seems like a lot of the solutions to that problem will also help address this problem, by alleviating poverty and the stress that comes from it.  We’ll have to have a talk dedicated to economic safety nets such as Universal Basic Income at some point. 

A: Definitely.  We should also talk about improvements to the education system like we briefly touched on in the law enforcement discussion, so that children can grow up in good environments and learn skills for both solving problems for themselves and for supporting each other.  

B: Yeah, those are both excellent things to work on.  In the meantime, something we can get started on immediately is shifting gun culture in a healthier direction.  That’s another thing Beau of the Fifth Column has talked about. People need to learn respect for guns as tools for protection rather than as props to command respect.  They need to find some status symbols that don’t rely on the ability to inflict harm.  For people who struggle to develop a positive identity for themselves outside of weaponry and the feeling of being dangerous, we can show them how to develop an identity and self-esteem based on creative skills and activities that contribute to the world.  

A: That reminds me, we still need ideas for dealing with people who just want to cause chaos.  We’ll have to identify them based on their behavior.  Although we can’t put special restrictions on them just for having behavioral markers without risking corruption, we can deliberately guide them to more constructive paths to find fulfillment.  We can also help them integrate with their communities and develop a sense of belonging, so that they actually value other people.  Worst case scenario, we can just have people keep an eye on them informally, and if they start out with minor offenses that’ll give us a legal reason to step in before they decide to escalate.

B: That’s worth looking into as well.  We’ll probably want to discuss that with legal experts of different political perspectives to see what options there are that won’t lead to a corrupt police state. And regarding those misguided armed revolutions you asked about, we can have more conversations like the one we’re having right now to show people how to resolve political disagreements ethically instead of with violence.  If we couldn’t reconcile our concerns by applying ethics, we’d have to fight a war over gun rights, which in addition to being enormously ironic would accomplish nothing good while hurting many people.  

A: At least demonstrating constructive conversations will be easy enough, considering we’ve already had three of them and are wrapping up the fourth.  So to recap the angles we’re looking at, first we can prepare people to deal with gun violence when it does happen, but we really don’t want to have to rely on that.  Second, we can consult some experts on what sorts of firearm regulations would be most effective for reducing public gun violence while still allowing people to defend themselves and resist oppression if necessary.  Third, we can make and enforce laws that people who have committed certain crimes like domestic violence are not allowed to own guns.  Fourth, we can address the underlying problems that lead to gun violence, like poverty, dysfunctional education systems, social isolation, and the inability to reconcile political disagreements.  Some of these problems will be more difficult to address than others.  However, addressing these problems will accomplish even more good than just reducing gun violence. 

B: Right, and it will take as many constructively skilled people as we can gather.  We’d better get started!  

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

These Midmorning Zone conversations do not purport to have all the research or all the answers.  They are meant to show how you can move a conversation forward.  That means you don’t have to know all the answers in order to have one of these conversations yourself.  You don’t even have to agree with the approaches you read here.  All you have to do is understand your own values, understand other people’s values, and frame the situation constructively.  

As you explore new angles together with other people, you will find some solutions which require more effort to bring to fruition, but which are even better than what any of you had in mind.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

P.S. I do recommend checking out Beau of the Fifth Column’s playlist on gun control. He has constructive takes on many topics, and gun control is one of those topics. Videos are ordered from oldest to most recent: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZOMlO2_17fvGixcyOOWmwU_mpEm_T58E

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