Let No Factor Go Unheeded: Treat Every Causative Factor in Gun Violence as Aggressively as Possible

Published: Wednesday 19 December 2012

There are at least two widely differing positions in treating gun violence that surface every time there is a horrendous tragedy like that which happened in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, they are always just beneath the surface of any argument pertaining to gun control.

The first is represented by the movie/TV and video game industries; the second, by cardiologists of all people.

The first position argues that there is no firm causal relationship between (1) the prolonged exposure of children and young adults to violent movies/TV/video games and (2) their engagement in actual violent behavior. Correlations are all there are, and correlations are not hard definitive proof of causality. Therefore, lacking such proof, there is no valid reason for the producers/writers of violent movies/TV/video games to tone down their creations. Besides, aren’t they protected by the First Amendment?

The second position argues that no cardiologist would ever say that because a certain set of factors are low in their overall contribution to heart disease that one should therefore ignore them. Instead, no matter what their level of contribution, one should treat any and all factors as aggressively as one can.

To draw out the differences between these two positions even more starkly, let me put them in the form of two opposing ethical principles because that’s what they really are. The first says in effect that, “Whenever the correlation between what we do/produce as an industry and some important problem in society is low or beneath a certain ‘threshold,’ then we are warranted ethically in not doing anything; we are absolved as it were.” The question of course is, “How high would the correlation have to be before one accepted ‘ethical responsibility’?”

The second says, “No matter how big or small the correlation, do everything in your power to make it even smaller.”

The first principle is in effect a variant of Utilitarian Ethics. As such, it is a form of Cost/Benefit. That is, one weighs the “benefits” versus the “costs” of doing or not doing anything and if the benefits exceed the costs, or the costs are unclear, then one is justified in engaging in a certain set of actions.

The second is Kantian in spirit. It says do as little harm as possible. Even if the correlation is as low as 0.001 so act as to make it continually even lower.

Of course gun violence is a complex mess, where a “mess” is defined as “a complex system of problems that are so dynamically interconnected such that no single problem can be taken out of the mess of which it is a part and worked on independently of all the other problems with which it is intertwined.” So of course gun violence cannot be separated from mental health, video game violence, poverty, etc., etc. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attack one of the most critical components of the mess, the all-too-easy availability of military style weapons to virtually everyone.

It also means that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that while the correlations between viewing the worst depictions of violence may not rise to the level of “causality,” over 35 years of research demonstrates that the correlations are not negligible. Typically, the correlations vary between 0.2 and 0.4, but even more significantly, they rise considerably with children from high-risk environments. And, they rise with increased, persistent exposure to violence.

The arguments that rabid gun proponents use to justify the manufacture and possession of the worst weapons are so many that I could not possibly address them all. Instead, let me close by hitting straight on one of the most flawed arguments that is used far too often: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” This argument is not only “wrong,” but it is “dead wrong.” The more complete, correct proposition is: “People kill people more effectively by means of guns than by any other known weapon to which they have easy access!”

The time has never been more appropriate to see the arguments of rabid gun proponents for what they are: fundamentally unethical!

ABOUT Ian I Mitroff
Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert. He is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011.
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