Introduction

Last week Guy and I set up our system to post one post from our new “Things You Can Do” Blog once a day for a week, and we left town to go camping.  When we were off the grid enjoying the fall colors, Las Vegas happened.  The post that came out the next day, “Sound the Alarm,” seemed completely out of touch. Our excuse:  we were! 

But we are back now, and are briefly putting our regular “Things You Can Do Blog” on hold—although we are adding this essay (albeit a very different format) to that blog queue—because we felt a need to post our thoughts on the recent event and reflect on what we (meaning concerned citizens in general, our colleagues in the conflict resolution field, and our governmental actors) can, should, and should not do in response.  If you do not have time to read this entire essay (I apologize, it is a bit long)—please jump to the DO/DON’T section.  But if you have time, we hope you will read the whole thing.

The Immediate and Standard Responses

As I was riding home, I was reading as much as I could about what happened.  Clearly, little is known about why the perpetrator acted as he did.  Most of our standard conflict warning signs were apparently not present.  It may, indeed, be that this was an unpredictable, and hence largely unavoidable event. 

But our response to it—so far--is being extremely predictable.  Everyone seems to be horrified, wringing their hands, saying “not again!” We are deeply saddened for those affected, and the worriers among us wonder if we or somebody we care about is going to be next.  Nowhere, again, seems safe.  In response to that, we quickly retreat to our habitual two corners. 

The Left immediately starts calling for more gun control, believing that the problem is too many guns and too few regulations.  One can see why they believe this.  The U.S. has far more guns than any other country in the developed world, and more gun violence.  On October 2, just after the Las Vegas shooting, Vox posted a telling article, “Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts.” Astonishingly, it shows that the U.S. “has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns around the world” (Vox Chart 2). We have six times as many firearm homicides per million people as does Canada, and nearly 16 times the number of Germany (per capita) (Vox Chart 1).  It also references the Gun Violence Archivewhich documents that “on average, there is more than one mass shooting [defined as 4+ people shot at—not necessarily killed] for each day” in the U.S, totaling over 1500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook in December 2012. (Sandy Hook was a mass shooting at an elementary school that shocked the country, killing 20 six and seven-year olds and six adults.)  And for those who think these statistics might be unrelated, they point out that states that have a larger percentage of households with guns also have more gun deaths per capita, as do developed countries with more guns (see Vox Chart 5). 

Now of course, that is just correlation, not causation (fires that cause more damage have more fire trucks, but fire trucks do not cause the damage), but the likelihood that the easy availability of guns is one of the major causes of the problem seems high.  So bottom line, people on the left are frightened, and they think that the way to protect themselves and our country as a whole is to limit access to guns.

The Right is also frightened, but they see the situation differently.  They don’t think the problem is too many guns—they think the problem is the inability of our government (particularly our police) to keep us safe, requiring them to do that for themselves.  So they are actually made more afraid by the prospects of increased controls on guns.  They want to be able to own guns themselves, to be able to carry guns on their person wherever they go, and to be able to use them to defend themselves and others in the case of an attack.  Gun control, they argue, only takes guns away from law-abiding citizens.  It doesn’t take guns away from criminals, and it is criminals that use them to perpetrate mass violence.

The story wouldn’t be complete, of course, if one left out politics and the profit motive.  The National Rifle Association is an extremely powerful lobbying force that argues consistently on the side of gun manufacturers and gun owners against any limits on guns.  Though there are a number of smaller pro-gun-control lobbying groups, there is no commensurate lobbying force on the gun-control side.

The NRA lobby is so powerful that Congress has rejected even the most common-sense gun limitations: for instance, limiting gun access to the mentally ill, and to people on the terror watch list. It seems hard to believe that Congressmen, acting according to their own conscience, would vote to do that--but they did.  According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, every time a high-profile mass shooting occurs, gun regulations tend to be loosened, not tightened. Why?  Because the NRA  -- and more importantly, Brooks point out, voters themselves, argue that people have a right and a need to defend themselves. Any limitation on guns, they assert, is a limitation on people’s “second amendment rights.” Would most people agree that the mentally ill and people on the terror watch list should be granted such rights?  I haven't seen a poll on that--but I doubt it! Yet Congress still voted that way! (It should be noted that the Las Vegas shooter was not thought to be mentally ill, nor on any watch list, so such restrictions would not have helped in this case.)

An Intractable Conflict View

All of this makes for an extremely intractable conflict—I was struck by how many times this word was, indeed, used in the news articles I read over the last three days.  So what do we know about intractable conflicts that could help in this situation?

First, we know they are very complex—but oversimplified as well.  There are many issues tied up in this debate, and many reasons why people think and act the way they do.  That means there are no simple solutions.  But as in most other intractable conflicts, people tend to over-simplify the problem into “us-versus-them,” the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.”  Such oversimplifications leave no way out other than overpower “the bad guys” and when “the bad guys” have as much power as they do in this case—such an outcome is not likely. So we are stuck in a stalemate, and mass violence continues.

Second, we know that intractable conflicts often are rights-based, value-based, and identity-based—and people don’t often compromise on rights, values, and identity.  So while compromise might be possible, it is certainly going to be difficult. 

Additionally, it is not even clear that compromise is desirable—or would help.   A small change in gun control laws would probably frustrate both sides—one saying it was not enough, the other saying it was unnecessary and too much.  (Both arguments are currently being made in a discussion about whether to ban “bump stock devices,” which are the inexpensive devices which allow semi-automatic weapons to be modified to act like fully-automatic weapons—devices indeed used in the Las Vegas massacre. (Surprisingly, though, I just read that the NRA is supporting a ban on bump stocks now—so maybe that might actually happen. Will that have a significant effect?  I doubt it!  But the NRA's willingness to consider ANY control on guns is a major change of policy--and hopeful sign that some useful changes might be possible.  (November 6 update: despite several more mass shootings in the last month after Las Vegas, Congress has apparently shelved any discussion of limiting sale of bump stocks! So much for hopeful signs!) 

Unfortunately, though, given that the United States now has more guns than people, it seems unlikely that even major changes in gun regulations would “solve” the problem, unless we authorized “authorities” to go house-to-house searching for and confiscating guns.  That certainly is not going to happen. Even if we did that, there will always be ways in which disaffected citizens can inflict mass casualties.  Cars and trucks used as weapons are becoming common in Europe; machetes were used in Rwanda.  So while limiting guns may help somewhat (and statistics suggest it would), we need to make more fundamental changes to our society to really solve this problem.

Most importantly, we must find ways to limit the alienation, hate, and mental illnesses that lead people to want to kill their neighbors. These are topics (more the first two than the last) that we will examine in depth in the rest of the MBI--in the Conflict Frontiers and Fundamentals Seminars and in the regular Things YOU Can Do Blog."   In addition, we need to reverse the “normalization” of violence, the romanticizing of violence, and the focus on violence as entertainment. These are all highly difficult and complex problems, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to address them.  But I hope our readers will start thinking about them and consider participating in the MBI discussions to explore ideas for addressing them.

In the meantime, there are some things that we can do, directly related to the gun violence/gun control problem.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999). www.beyondintractability.org