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Blame is not a strategy for dealing with gun violence.

This op-ed doesn’t exactly qualify as a “tip” but it does incorporate the perspective and science of social psychology. So it still has relevance to students.

As the latest shooting tragedy in America unfolds, I tiredly and resignedly wait for the ensuing conversations about how this could have happened and what should be done to prevent it from happening again. That I have not specified which tragedy to which I am referring demonstrates how fruitless these conversations are. Most, if not all, such conversations in the media devolve into assigning blame: “The shooter was crazy.” “No, it’s because of the irresponsible rhetoric from Trump.” But because lawmakers cannot—apparently—reconcile who is to blame, no solutions can be discussed, let alone attempted.

The central impasse is guns. One side says they should be regulated, if not banned; the other blames the shooter (“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”).

They should all know better, and sadly, probably do. Determining cause and effect requires moving beyond the logic of the average six-year-old. But the logic of a six-year-old is easy to articulate and inflames passions. Ergo, it’s politically expedient.

Did you know that smoking doesn’t cause cancer? It is a significant contributor to your likelihood of developing cancer. Other lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, along with biological factors, contribute to your risk of developing cancer. And all these factors are taken into account—if haphazardly—when crafting social policies designed to address cancer. In the service of easy of discourse, we refer to smoking as a “cause.” But even though America has not yet developed a coherent strategy for disease prevention or health promotion, the discourse is far and away more advanced than their treatment of guns.

No one thing causes mass-shootings. Many factors and their interplay are at work—be they social factors like poverty, education, culture, and the media; individual factors like upbringing, personality, and temperament; logistic factors like easy access to weapons; and, stupid factors like rhetoric from role-models that endorse the means of violence.

Unfortunately, the attempt to understand violence is confused for the attempt to blame and punish. Trying to understand the political, historical, religious, and economic factors that might have led up to 911 is characterized as excuse-making for terrorists and killers (these people are simply evil.)

Regardless of where you land in this “debate,” I think we can all agree, it has not proven productive.

There are three possible responses to a crisis: proactive prevention, inert helplessness, counterproductive action. The problem with characterizing horrific acts as evil and centring solely on individual perpetrators is that it leads nowhere. “Evil” and “crazy” are not real explanations and cannot be solved in a preventative sense. They render you impotent. All you can really do is curl up into a ball and hope it doesn’t happen again.

But don’t you actually want to do something; to exercise some control over the situation? If you were to open an introductory social psychology textbook, you would know that situational and environmental factors have vastly more powerful and immediate effects on human behaviour than genetics or other individual factors. If your intent is to influence human behaviour on a large scale—and do it cost effectively—then concentrate on what you do have control over; the situation, the immediate environment, the system, the guns.

To use a poorly-chosen-but-I-can’t-think-of-another metaphor, there is no magic bullet that will solve the problem of mass shootings. Gun-control won’t stop shootings from occurring because guns are not the only “cause” of why someone shoots another person. But easy access to guns perpetuates the problem and, if nothing else, it doesn’t help. So stop arguing that gun-control shouldn’t be enacted because it won’t stop all shootings. That’s an illogical argument based on a false premise. If you regulate guns, at least you’re actually doing something that will mitigate a part of the problem. Incremental change is better than what’s happening now, which is nothing.

When it comes to conflict management, in moments of high tension, humans will adopt the method that is automatic to them, that is most accessible in their minds at the moment, and that is easiest for them to use. If guns are present, they often become that method, especially to those without other means of managing and diffusing conflict. Guns are easy (have you actually tried knifing or axing someone? Not so easy, physically or mentally). Dialogue is hard. But Americans do things because they are hard, or so I’ve been told.

Greg A. Chung-Yan, PhD

Department of Psychology

University of Windsor

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