The Crisis of Gun Violence: Mature, Big-Picture Perspective

The kind of big-picture/long-term vantage provided by culturally mature perspective stretches usual understanding in a couple of key ways. First, it commonly requires that we take into account multiple, interwoven causal factors (it challenges simple “silver bullet” solutions). Second, it alerts us to the fact that effectively addressing many of those factors necessarily involves thinking and acting in ways that before now would not have made sense to us.

Today’s crisis of gun violence in the United States makes a good example. Most attempts to address the issue reduce to ideological debate. Liberals argue that gun control measures will make us safer. Conservatives argue that such measures will make us less safe, often shifting the focus to mental health concerns. Pieces of the truth lie in each claim, but each position is limited by simplistic assumptions. And other critical aspects of the gun violence question are rarely part of the conversation.

Numerous factors play a role in the modern problem of gun violence, with many of the most important requiring that we stretch how we usually think. Given this complexity, a brief listing of factors can provide but a start toward the needed more complete understanding—but here is my list. Only the first two factors below are directly addressable through policies. At the same time, all must play a role if we wish to reach a mature, systemic understanding of this essential issue.

1) Limiting access to guns certainly has a place in curbing gun violence. Statistics show that gun violence is less common in countries where guns are less readily available. But limiting access to guns, alone, is less of a solution than people like to think. Gun advocates are correct in their assertion that people who are determined to get guns will find ways to do so.

2) As a psychiatrist, I agree that increased availability of mental health services can make a significant difference—both better treatment for those whose mental states might lead them to commit violent acts and better systems for identifying such individuals. But many people who perpetrate gun violence do not have obvious psychiatric diagnoses. And while those who resist gun control measures can be quick to shift attention to the mental health of perpetrators, often these same people are the first to resist increased spending for mental health services.

3) The remaining factors all in some way concern the degree to which people experience meaning and possibility in their lives. When people do not, they become more vulnerable to perpetrating violent acts. As a start, poverty, bigotry, cultural background or simply temperament, can deprive people of meaningful options. In the long-term, improving economic opportunity, reducing bullying, and increasing multi-cultural awareness should all have important roles in lessening gun violence.

4) The role of violence in media and popular culture is frequently acknowledged, but the mechanism of its effect tends not to be fully appreciated. Certainly violence is dramatically more pervasive in the media than it is in daily life. “If it bleeds it leads” too often determines what is on the evening news, and it is rare to see television programming after 9:00 pm that doesn’t include at least one shooting. And violence is central to the easily addictive attraction of video games. Research supports that this constant barrage of violent imagery by itself contributes to the problem. But there is also a more troubling mechanism at work beyond just familiarity. At a deep neurological level, people come to associate the jolt of excitement that accompanies witnessing violent acts with significance (see The Digital Revolution and Cultural Maturity: Synergies and Traps). Given violent imagery’s defining importance in the media, we should not be surprised when someone who feels a lack of purpose in his or her life responds violently.

5) Fully grasping the last two factors more explicitly requires culturally mature perspective. First is the need for a new maturity in our relationship with death (see The Radical Implications of a New Maturity in Our relationship to Death). The fact that we keep death at arm’s length is directly tied to the sense of false significance we feel when viewing violent imagery. Nothing is more precious than life, but given that all of our lives end eventually, it is also true that few things are more ordinary than death. A more culturally mature relationship with death should help us better recognize violent imagery in the media for what it tends to be—artificial stimulation used to manipulate emotions (and sell more products).

6) The last factor is likely the most important, ultimately, but it also most specifically requires an understanding of the broader cultural change processes that the concept of Cultural Maturity describes. Again it concerns people’s experience of significance, but here at the most encompassing of scales. The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that underlying all more specific crises in our time is a more basic crisis of purpose (see Confronting Our Time’s Crisis of Purpose). As culture functions less as a symbolic parent, traditions and cultural dictates stop providing the same ready sense of meaning. Today we reside in an awkward “in-between-stories” place in these changes, and often feel adrift. Ultimately, the most important factor in reducing gun violence may be the recognition of a new, more mature cultural narrative able to provide a renewed sense of individual meaning and shared purpose.

Given the complexity of this picture, a person attempting to make sense of gun violence could easily feel overwhelmed, or even dispirited. But we have to accept that the challenge confronts us this deeply if we are to really make progress in addressing it. Like it or not, easy-answer solutions of any sort are going to leave us short. I am reminded of Einstein’s observation that things “must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The “good news” about applying culturally mature perspective to public policy is that it helps us understand with the systemic sophistication needed to act wisely. The “bad news” is that it doesn’t let us off easily. It alerts us to how single-cause/single-cure thinking most often has its roots in ideology, and it makes clear that with most policy questions multiple, evolving, systemically related causal variables come into play. It also confronts us with the recognition that effectively addressing key variables may require that we think in new—often fundamentally new—ways. The result asks more of us, but it offers the possibility of getting us where we need to go.