The Unlikely Factor That Could Help Reduce Gun Violence in the United States

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After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, why is banning all guns in the United States a bad idea? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Tim Dawes, Author, writer, consultant in compassion and persuasion, on Quora:

Earlier this month, a 64-year-old, white man opened fire on a crowd of thousands gathered for a music festival in Las Vegas. He left 58 people dead and 527 wounded.

It’s tragic, the highest tally for a mass shooting in our lifetime. In the aftermath, we struggle to find an adequate response. There are abundant opportunities to give in support of the tragedy. And that provides help for survivors and an outlet for those of us who want to contribute. But we want something more, don’t we, or something different?

We want to stop the violence.

So, we turn to law enforcement and legislators. Yet, as we’ve experienced before, that route quickly turns into a tangle. There seems to be no gun-buying program, no gun feature, no gun, that we can agree to legislate. Quickly, almost reflexively, arguments give way to deadlock, and then to despair.

But what if there were another way toward safety, an entirely different approach to peace? Maybe there is. The idea comes from an unexpected corner—the economist and author, Steven Levitt.

Levitt took up the question of gun violence on a podcast based on his popular Freakonomicsbooks, the books that explain baffling social behavior through the application of economic research. He gave the interview, not in response to the Las Vegas shooting, but rather five years ago, in response to the gun violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A shooting that took 27 lives.

In the interview, Levitt proposed an unexpected answer to mass shootings. In a word: empathy.

“…fundamentally that’s where the answer lies. Right? If you don’t have people who have the desire to go kill large numbers of other people then you don’t have a problem with gun violence.”

We might be tempted to dismiss his prescription as merely hopeful and naïve. After all, Levitt isn’t a member of law enforcement. He’s not a legislator, not an attorney, or a mental health specialist. He’s a behavioral economist. Not the kind of profession we’d normally turn to in order to understand and reduce mass shootings.

But maybe we should.

Because Steven Levitt is not only coauthor, with Steven Dubner, of the highly acclaimed Freakonomics series. He’s also Dr. Steven Levitt, winner of the 2003 John Bates Clark medal, the most prestigious award in economics after the Nobel Memorial Prize. He’s the guy a survey of economics professors named as the fourth favorite living economist under the age of 60.

And his specialty is crime.

His proposal, then, isn’t rooted in wishful thinking or “can’t we all just get along” sentimentality, but rigorous research and a dispassionate drive to understand human motivations and predict actions.

So, when Levitt recommends empathy, he isn’t asking if you’ve hugged a mass murderer today. He’s making a deliberate calculation – drawing a line between an act of horror and the deep-seated needs that drive human behavior – needs like connection, acceptance, or significance.

Levitt thinks of mass shootings as having three foundational components: an available gun, someone with the will to use the gun to kill, and a way to put the two together.

It’s not coincidental, in Levitt’s analysis, that guns feature so prominently in modern mass murders. Guns are destructive, but not just destructive. They’re disruptive.

Here, Levitt draws from Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, the landmark memoir from activist Geoffrey Canada. Throughout most of history, even on the streets of the U.S. through the 50’s and 60’s, personal confrontations were settled hand to hand or hand to knife. And because those were the only available options, many fights that could have been fought, weren’t.

That’s because, as punishing as rocks or even knives can be, they don’t offset the natural advantages that big, strong, men have in fights. And because they don’t change the fundamental balance of power, the outcome of many fights were foregone conclusions. They didn’t need to be fought.

“As we got older and more sensible, we recognized that there was a system of checks and balances on violence, we learned to weigh acting violently with the consequences.”

Until you introduce guns.

Guns are so destructive they change the calculus of fighting. They make the outcome of a confrontation uncertain, more than offsetting any advantage that accrues to size and strength. “Kids with guns often see no limits on their power,” says Canada.

As a point of comparison, can you even imagine a man with a rock or a knife killing 58 people and wounding 527. It staggers the mind. But give a man an arsenal of guns that are powerful, long range, and capable of shooting many rounds in little time, and suddenly the unimaginable is entirely manageable

So, why isn’t regulation the go-to answer?

A common impulse is to get rid of guns or to heavily regulate them. We’ve found it difficult, though, in the United States, even to limit types of guns or their features. Witness the surge in sales of bump stocks since legislators pointed out that they were an element of the Las Vegas shooting that was both destructive and possible to regulate or outlaw.

Not only are guns disruptive, they’re abundant. No one knows how many guns are held in the U.S. but the most reliable surveys put the number anywhere from 270 million to 310 million, or nearly a gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. And guns aren’t only plentiful, they’re durable as well. A gun, reasonably well taken care of, will last 50 to 100 years. The implication Levitt draws is that even our best attempts to regulate the flow of new guns impacts only a small portion of the total stock.

The inevitable outcome of looking to regulation to stop mass gun violence in the current political climate, in Levitt’s analysis, is frustration.

“…anyone with any sense looks at the current political climate, thinks about the kinds of proposals that are being made and accepts the fact that none of these proposals are going to have any real impact at all.”

So, we’ve saddled ourselves with a ready supply of guns for people who want to use them. Our only option may be to lessen the likelihood that people will want to pick up a gun to hurt others.

But can we?

Levitt thinks we can.

“…if we’re not going to get rid of guns, but you want to get rid of gun violence, you got to get rid of the people who are doing violence with guns.”

That’s a provocative answer. And it’s frankly drawn a lot of ire and skepticism from people who question the kind of policy Levitt might be advocating. Some have suggested his position seems to verge on pro-abortion.

To be clear, Levitt has said he believes his work has little to no implication for abortion policy. Rather, he’s suggesting we find ways to raise children so they are less inclined to violence.

“By get rid of I don’t mean, you know…There are a lot of ways to get rid of them. I mean, one is to parent better, to have society indoctrinate people into more empathy…I think those are the ultimate solutions.”

But – and it’s a big but – is there any reason to believe that empathy can work to stem mass shootings? It turns out, there are at least two.

First, mass shootings tend to be committed by people who might respond to empathy.

There’s a popular trope in the media of the mentally ill picking up a gun. That happens, but only in a small minority of cases. The Stanford Geospatial Center has compiled a database of so-called indiscriminate murders. They, and others, have documented mental illness as a primary factor behind 15% to 23% of mass murders.

The great majority of mass murders, on the other hand, stem from people with a grudge. Or rather, not just a grudge, but people who see themselves as victims in life. After studying mass shooters for decades, Northeastern University criminologist, James Alan Fox, concluded that mass killers are often driven by a constellation of motivations, but above all else, revenge.

“They seek payback for what they perceive to be unfair treatment by targeting those they hold responsible for their misfortunes.”

Empathy addresses the pain and experience of victimhood. Recognize a person’s fundamental needs, and they have less reason to be bitter. There’s a surfeit of research showing the positive effects of receiving empathy, including fortifying kindness and cooperativeness, trust, support, and effectiveness in negotiations.

In fact, new research shows that the ability for empathy to inhibit violence may be more than a mere social dynamic, it may be a biological one. Aggression and empathy share similar neuronal circuitry in the brain and “stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other.” In other words, if you’re processing empathy, your brain may not have the bandwidth to practice aggression at the same time. Evidence indicates those effects can start in childhood giving credence to Levitt’s call for empathetic parenting.

That’s certainly heartening and reason to hope for a more peaceful future. But what about today? Must we wait decades for the kids of enlightened parents to come of age?

Maybe not.

The second reason to believe that empathy could be a potent answer to mass murder and violence is an emerging body of anecdotal evidence.

For a clear example of how empathy can stop gun violence, we can turn to Denmark in 2012. ISIS recruitment had begun to gain traction in earnest.

Aarhus, a city about half the size of Seattle, was hit particularly hard. In the space of a few months, the town lost 34 recruits to Syria. Two cops on the missing persons beat—Allan Aarslev and Thorleif Link—put together that the missing Moslem kids had gone to Syria.

That put Allan and Thorleif on the horns of a dilemma.

They could see how authorities in Europe and the U.S. were responding to the recruitment of Moslem youth into ISIS. France was raiding mosques while countries like the U.S. and U.K. were tracking down suspected recruits, taking away passports, and mounting prosecutions.

Given their experience, Allan and Thorleif could see two likely outcomes of such heavy-handed policies. Either the kids would stay in Syria and become hardened terrorists, or they would return home and bring their bitterness—and possibly their guns—with them.

So, Allan and Thorleif took a different approach.

They looked with an empathetic eye, asked themselves what the kids might need. Then, they found a city official who could hook the kids up with Denmark's extensive network of social services – help the youth get jobs, health care, an apartment, and even reenroll in school.

The offerings met not only practical needs, but deeply emotional ones as well. The kids were able to find a sense of belonging, efficacy, and empowerment in their own communities, without resorting to flying across Europe in search of a new one.

And the result?

In the first year, 34 young men were recruited from Aarhus to Syria. Six were killed, and ten stayed in Syria. Eighteen came home; all of them showing up first in Allan and Thorleif's office. In the past four years, they've worked with 330 potential radicals in Aarhus. As the recruiting escalated across the rest of Europe, in 2015, only one boy left Aarhus for Syria.

So, the question is, was the Aarhus approach an outlier? Were they lucky? Allan and Thorleif don't think so.

Rather, it was an example of empathy—recognizing and feeding fundamental human needs—wielded powerfully. After working with 330 kids, Allan and Thorleif can readily identify common needs among these kids, “they want identity, recognition, mostly to belong. They are literally dying to belong.”

But if we’re going to put our weight behind a program of empathy we want to know if this kind of approach is generalizable, and scalable. Can it stop the escalation of mass murder in the U.S.?

For the answer to that question, one of our best sources perhaps is Andre Simons. Simons is in charge of Behavioral Analysis Unit 2 of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group. Yes, it’s one of those units made famous by TV shows that feature psychological profilers. But no, they don’t profile. At least not proactively.

Instead, they do two things.

They respond to tips about a person of concern, literally a person whose grandmother would agree is “behaving in any way that worries you.” And, when they find a person of concern, they intervene.

In their world, intervening means plugging resources into the person’s life. Simons considers his colleagues consultants. He literally refers to persons of concern as “under the care of a threat assessment team.”

Does that approach work, can it possibly, should you trust your life to it?

At the end of 2016, then-Attorney General Eric Holder credited Simons and BAU2 with preventing no less than 148 mass shootings and violent attacks.

Simons would qualify that number. He’d tell you that he and his team have participated in interventions with people on the “pathway to violence.” Five hundred since the unit was formed in 2010. And none have ever committed mass violence while under their care.

So, what should be our take away, what does all that tell us?

It tells us that it’s time. It’s time we change our minds about empathy and compassion. Whatever story we’ve told ourselves in the past about empathy, about it being for the weak, or for a fairer gentler world, about it calling us to be nice, or take on the emotions of others, it’s time to let that story go and to see it for what it is.

Empathy is a powerful tool. A tool that can work when other can’t, maybe one of the few tools powerful enough to head off a future scarred by heavily armed men bent on revenge.

And maybe, it’s a program or a policy we can all rally behind.

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