Nothing divides people like a solution. It seems the larger the problem, the larger the divide. I am reminded of this painfully with every mass shooting, as we had this past week at a community college in Oregon. We grieve as a nation, but we do not come together to solve this problem. Policymakers give solutions to make us safer. “We need gun control laws” some say. “No, we need more guns” say others. Our solutions divide us. In a few days, something else will top the headlines. The roots of this problem remain unaddressed and the risk uncontained.
Proposing solutions is a fundamentally different activity than problem solving. We could even say that they are diametrically opposed. The former is quick, intuitive, based on convictions, and often emotional. The latter takes time, requires analysis, is grounded in fact, and is more rational. The former works if one is lucky, the latter works as long as one follows the process. What is the process? There is more than one way to do problem solving, but the practical problem solving approach that I am concerned with is rooted in the scientific method, the understanding of human psychology and of organizational dynamics. How would we use practical problem solving to prevent unwanted gun violence in the U.S.?
The first step is to clarify what problem we are trying to solve. I don’t think U.S. policymakers honestly know. As citizens, we only vaguely know. The perceived problem of gun violence is so large and so clouded by history, emotion and deeply held beliefs, that it is difficult to state it clearly and objectively. What is the consensus target condition? How does this issue affect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of U.S. citizens? Do we demand zero deaths? Ninety percent fewer? Half as many? Opinions may differ, but a consensus target condition is required in order to define the problem. Then, we need to look at the facts. What is the current state? What is really happening? What then is the gap? Even just this first step is very difficult because we are talking about highly disturbing events that trigger defense mechanisms of fear and distrust. There should be no discussion of solutions or root causes at this point. Without a clear and agreed problem to solve, solutions are useless.
The second step is to break the problem down. It’s unrealistic to imagine that gun violence of all types by eliminated or even reduced at one time, by one law or one behavior change. There are different causes to gun violence, whether suicides, mass shootings by disturbed individuals, accidental shootings, street crime, shootings by police, or shootings in self defense. There are differences in gun violence by region, by economic status, by educational background, by type of gun, by age group, by sex, perhaps even by season and time of day. These are all examples of ways to stratify the data on gun violence in order to help us identify the most promising avenues of root cause investigation. By narrowing down our search for root causes, we increase our chances of finding smaller practical solutions that will make a near-term 5% or 10% improvement, and more importantly, will be accepted and not resisted by citizens and their elected officials on different sides of the issue.
The third step… we should stop here. There is little value in in committing to a target at this point. Today we are failing to even attempt steps 1 and 2 so this is where all of the focus should go. If U.S. society is in agreement that we have a gun violence problem, we can agree on a target eventually. If we can’t get through steps 1 and 2, perhaps the real problem is that a large portion of society sees no problem, and accepts the current level of gun violence as the price of personal freedom. When the problem of gun violence in the U.S. is clarified, agreed and broken down sufficiently, the remaining steps of practical problem solving will be easy. Those first two steps are not easy, or they would have already been done.
As a society, there are many things that unite us. An emotional event like a mass shooting causes us to forget that we have much in common, such as the desire for safety. Fear and anger make us less intelligent and we jump to defending our solutions. Problems unite us, whether we like it or not. When we start with solutions, we are united in struggle against ourselves. When we unite in problem solving, we can in time overcome all differences.