After the recent shooting in the high school in Parkland, Florida, Dr. Jean Soto, a delegate of Augustinians International, wrote a reflection on gun violence as a phenomenon in the United States. She originally wrote the reflection for a blog post at the Lonergan Institute at Boston College. Her reflection uses insights from the philosopher and Jesuit Bernard Lonergan. Her reflection is as follows:
A Reflection on Gun Violence in the United States
By Dr. Jean Soto, Ph D
We are all broken hearted– again– by the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The hashtag #neveragain signals a new determination on the part of our country to prevent further school shootings. The teenage survivors are using protest marches and social media to voice their resolve to bring about changes in our laws to protect us from gun violence at schools. (In the 3/ 24/ 18 March for Our Lives rally in Washington D C, the marchers publically expanded their agenda to include all gun violence, not just mass school shootings.) This raises the question about what needs to be done to prevent further massacres. Some of the most talked about solutions are laws raising the age for gun purchases, expanding background checks, mental health screening, and arming teachers. Public opinion is divided and often rancorous.
How do we know which of these options – among others – is the best choice for reducing gun violence?
Bernard Lonergan presents us with the way of approaching this question; it is a way native to our humanity. By following the innate tools of our consciousness we:
- pay attention to the data – be attentive!
- have insights into the data – be intelligent!
- double check our understandings –be reasonable!
- make decisions based on our findings and values –be responsible!
These tools or processes are given within our consciousness. They spring into action when we ask a question. If we are open to them, our questions arise spontaneously and lead us to intelligently and responsibly answer them. This is the process by which we come to know anything, and then decide on the most worthwhile course of action. Here, as described by Lonergan , we put the question of gun violence and mass shootings through the scheme of our consciousness as we ask and answer questions. We begin the process by being attentive to the data that concerns our question.
The question for attentiveness: What data do we have on gun violence?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considered the gold standard for comprehensive and accurate data. For 20 years the Dicky Amendment prevented the CDC from gathering and using data on gun deaths in order to suggest solutions. Lonergan would call such stifling of research a deliberate “flight from understanding” because we cannot have correct or complete insights into an issue without the pertinent data.
Thanks in part to the Parkland students, the 2018 omnibus-spending bill lifted this prohibition, but the research remains to be done. We DO have results from other trustworthy groups that stepped into the breach. Read the reports in the links and be prepared to be horrified.
The question for intelligence: What is the cause of gun violence?.
We DO have some useful data. Yet numbers alone do not give us the cause of the violence. We need insight into the data. A new study by Adam Lankford does just that through the most comprehensive study yet on the question of gun violence. He uses a comparative approach with other countries having populations over 10 million. Below, the New York Times reports his question:
“What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html
The study’s central insight finds the number one reason the US experiences more gun violence then other countries is due to the sheer number of guns in the US. We are awash with guns (only Yemen has more).
The question for being reasonable: is the study’s finding correct? Yes or no?
The New York Times reports on how Lankford verified his work:
Worldwide, Mr. Lankford found, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when he excluded the United States, indicating that it could not be explained by some other factor particular to his home country. And it held when he controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence. The study also shows that mental health does not make the critical difference in the occurrence of mass shootings.
The question for being responsible: If the number of guns is the most probable cause of mass gun violence, what then, is the best course of action? Put simply, we need to reduce the number of guns in the US, especially military style weapons. They are the weapons of choice for mass shooters.
If we are to take Dr. Lankford’s insights seriously we will have to change the way we assess and judge this issue. We will need to go beyond popular or political opinion and self-interest. We need to go beyond group prejudices and use the knowledge that can be gained with scientific methods and theory.
The further question for being responsible: How do we apply good theory to the practical concern?
Lonergan names the kind of knowledge found in Langford’s study “statistical intelligibility.” It is the same way of knowing used in predicting the weather or determining the cost of a life insurance policy. Statistical intelligibility is the result of analyzing the data in order to estimate the probability of some occurrence. To predict the strength of a hurricane, the weather people factor in the sea surface temperatures, low vertical wind shear, warm moist air and the ocean area along the projected storm track. In the case of pricing policies the insurance companies have employees called actuaries who factor in the likelihood of death due to diseases, chronic ailments, and common conditions found among certain groups of people. The NYT’s description above of Lankford’s study gives the components of his study such as the number of guns per country, homicide rates, mental illness, etc. Lankford would omit each factor after another to determine if the initial finding held true. In this way he could verify which factor was the critical one. A common way of speaking of the results of a statistical analysis is, “the odds are that….”
The question for deciding: Which values will guide our choice of actions to prevent gun violence and mass shootings?
We the people of the US are called by this latest slaughter of our young to deeply reflect on what we value the most. Lonergan explains that our values guide and motivate us to act in the best possible way. Discovering the truly valuable in the case of mass shootings also requires consulting our feelings. But we can be misled by a distortion of our feelings. A group’s bias can blind us to the feelings that would help us prioritize the value of human life. After the Sandy Hook massacre and when congress chose to do nothing, one commenter said the cause of gun control in the US was helpless.
He said that he then realized, that as a people, we prized our guns more than our children. Is this true?
(Originally submitted for a post at the Lonergan Institute at Boston College)