Revisiting the Gun Violence Issue and America's Declining Trust and Increasing Sense of Threat

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 75 — January 27, 2023

In this newsletter the Burgesses reflect (again) on reducing the frequency of gun violence in the U.S. We follow that essay with a review of Beyond Conflict’s last two major reports, which, while not focusing on gun violence, show that the same steps that could reduce gun violence could help address the ills that are leading to political violence as well.


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


Revisiting the Issue of Gun Violence

This week, as we contemplated yet another horrific series of mass shootings, we found ourselves thinking again about what our work and our field has to offer to those looking for some way to better address this very intractable problem. This will be our third post on guns and gun violence. It could have been our 103rd. Or our 1000th.  We posted our first in October of 2017, shortly after the Las Vegas music festival shooting. Our next post came in the spring of 2021, when the supermarket a half mile down our street was attacked by a gunman who killed ten people, including a shopper who may have been shopping for us, as we'd put in an online order for afternoon pickup. And those were just two of the 100s or 1000s (depending on how you define "mass shooting") incidents that have occurred in the U.S. since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting (which came close to us personally as well).

And this doesn't count the many, many more people who die from guns in in interpersonal conflicts, and by suicide.  Pew Research reports that over 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2020.  And that was not an abnormal year. 

In short, this isn’t a problem that affects other people in other places. Most of us, at this point, have probably had close calls. We all have a vital interest in doing more to stop this nonsense?

In 2017, we discussed the likely inadequacy of gun control: 

Unfortunately, though, given that the United States now has more guns than people, it seems unlikely that even major changes in gun regulations would “solve” the problem, unless we authorized “authorities” to go house-to-house searching for and confiscating guns.  That certainly is not going to happen. Even if we did that, there will always be ways in which disaffected citizens can inflict mass casualties.  Cars and trucks used as weapons are becoming common in Europe; machetes were used in Rwanda.  So while limiting guns may help somewhat (and statistics suggest it would), we need to make more fundamental changes to our society to really solve this problem.

That said, there are persuasive arguments for realistic changes that would regulate guns in much the same way that we regulate other hazardous activities. Nick Kristof’s recent New York Times article does a superb job compiling and documenting these ideas.

We went on to say that we need to find ways to limit the factors that drive shooters to act: 

Most importantly, we must find ways to limit the alienation, hate, and mental illnesses that lead people to want to kill their neighbors.  ... In addition, we need to reverse the “normalization” of violence, the romanticizing of violence, and the focus on violence as entertainment. These are all highly difficult and complex problems, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to address them. But I hope our readers will start thinking about them and consider participating in the MBI discussions to explore ideas for addressing them.

Since that first post was included in our "Things YOU Can Do to Help section, we went on to list things that we should not and should do in response to such incidents.  All still seem valid:

  • We should not call the other side names, or attack their fundamental values--that just drives anger and promotes violence.

  • We should not overstate what we know and pretend that opinions are facts. We loose credibility when we do that.

  • We should not use gun control for political purposes--to get out the vote on the left or the right.  As we said in 2017 "We can use gun control as a “wedge” issue designed to mobilize supporters and win elections, or we can try to find ways of addressing the problem. It’s awfully hard to do both."  

  • We should look for areas of common ground.  Grief, we suggested, was one of those. A second, surprisingly, is fear.  Can we not agree to work together to tackle the problem of gun deaths so we all can be less fearful and suffer less grief?

  • We should insist that policy making be based on facts, not untested beliefs, and we must reinstitute bipartisan efforts to collect facts upon which both sides can rely. 

  • We should utilize Track II discussions and dialogue processes.

  • While we can hope that our leaders will finally engage in effective research and then action, if they do not, then we, as individuals should endeavor to press them to do so in constructive ways, not destructive ones.

We ended by saying: A commonly stated quote is that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  That’s what we’ve been doing when it comes to responding to mass shootings and gun control. Let’s do something different this time!  

We didn't.

So three and half years went by with 100s (or 1000s, depending on how you count) mass shootings, and then we got one down the street. At that time we wrote:

What we desperately need is to dial back the inflammatory rhetoric and really work to start reconciling our deeply-divided society in ways that promise people from left and right-leaning cultural orientations a future in which they would really like to live. In addition, we need to treat everyone with respect (even those we do not think deserve it), and make it possible for them to meet their fundamental human needs.  That means accepting their identity without disdain, allowing them to practice their religion and live their values (as long as they aren’t hurting others) and have the security of a loving family, home, education, a job that earns a living wage, and health care (among others).


Those of us with an interest in conflict and peacebuilding fields need to redouble our efforts to find a way to bridge the political divides in this country to help people find security and hope. We must help the U.S. rebuild a sense of community, and a desire to work together to confront our many pressing problems—including gun violence and systemic racism, among many others.


It is clear that doubling down on hostile confrontational tactics—even when they seem “justified” by the need for “justice”— is only going to deepen the mutual hatred that is at the core of our problems. It isn’t going to persuade the other side that we are right. It likely isn’t even going to “win justice” because it will be fought every step of the way by those who define “justice” differently.


If we want to avoid much more violence and, potentially, large-scale civil unrest, we need to work together with “the others” to meet our many shared challenges. We do need to examine and acknowledge the truth about our past (examining both the virtues and the wrongs done by all parties, not just the White elite.) And we need to work towards a future society built on mutual understanding, fellowship, and one in which the human needs of everyone on both the left and the right (and in between) are truly met.

We still believe all those things. The last two shootings in California just confirm those ideas.  Gun control didn't work to stop that violence.  The violence probably wasn't political, in those cases. But the unraveling of the social fabric that our political conflicts produce is one of many socio-economic factors that is throwing people off balance, increasing our overall level of worry and stress.  If people are already on the edge, if they are feeling hopeless and despondent about the future, it becomes more likely that unbalanced people might decide to end their life through a mass shooting, in which they take out their anger and despair on others before they die themselves.  If we are going to stop this continuing carnage and widespread fear that it creates, we need to start building a society in which everyone feels they have a place, that they are needed, and they are cared about.  That's not the only change that is needed, of course, but it seems to us that that would be a major step in the right direction.

Just as we were finishing up this essay, we read this New York Times piece examining the explanation given for many last shootings over the last decade. It confirms—the issue usually is that people didn’t feel they had a place in their community, they weren’t needed, loved, or cared about.




BI/CRQ Discussion Banner

From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Beyond Conflict's Reports on America's Divided Mind and Renewing American Democracy

These themes are echoed and expanded upon in Beyond Conflict’s two latest reports which we profiled in the discussion a week or so ago. America’s Divided Mind was first published in 2020, but everything in it is still valid, just as our old gun-related essays are still valid, because nothing has gotten better, and the need for change is evermore acute. The newer report, which came out in 2022 goes beyond the first report’s focus on polarization to explore a broader range of psychological processes that are driving division in the United States, and threatening democracy. They point out, for instance, that

The US is rapidly changing in a way that heightens uncertainty, triggers perceptions of threat, and increases the impulse to protect what feels safe and familiar. The nation’s racial, ethnic, and religious landscape is evolving such that majority populations, which are White and Christian, are projected to have decreased demographic representation and socio-cultural influence in the decades to come. Simultaneously, mobilization of the largest civil rights movement in our nation’s history is inviting a national reckoning on race, forcing us to confront the consequences of centuries of structural inequality. segregation, and marginalization. Levels of economic inequality are at an unprecedented high, trending in tandem with national-level polarization. At the same time, COVID-19 has disrupted any sense of normalcy, highlighting our interdependence while providing fodder for our divisions.


For majority groups, these changes could be perceived as identity threats––particularly as fear, conscious or subconscious, over losing their relative power and status. Increases in perceptions of identity threat among majority group members, can lead to greater support for populism and authoritarian tactics, making it more difficult to see ourselves as a unified American people and work cooperatively together to solve the pressing challenges of our time. 


Investigating the psychology behind social divisions in the US reveals how identity threat, competitive victimhood, and feelings of exclusion combine to interfere with healthy democratic practice. (Emphasis theirs). (p. 9-10)

Despite the challenges, however, Beyond Conflict still says that there are things that can be done to reduce the sense of threat and increasing polarization and hostility:

Promoting intergroup contact between partisans can dampen anxiety and promote trust, empathy, and solidarity across group lines. Specifically, contact that highlights the common interests among economically disadvantaged groups could replace resentment and hostilities with interracial solidarity. Leveraging the common, distinctive, and multiple cross-cutting identities across groups could mitigate stereotyping and bolster identification with others across group lines. And correcting exaggerated meta-perceptions about other groups and stemming the spread of misinformation may reduce animosity and mitigate the possibility of social media platforms being used to incite violence. Ultimately, to renew American democracy and strengthen the capacity of Americans to address the fundamental challenges confronting the nation, it is essential to understand the psychology behind the fear and anxiety that drives us apart. Without understanding how growing identity-based polarization shapes our psychology, we will be stymied in addressing the endemic and systemic problems that jeopardize the wellbeing of all Americans and the future of our country. Only together will we be able to build a more inclusive and representative democracy for the American people. (p. 36)

This is just a very small sampling of ideas from two very rich reports. We urge our readers to check them out more fully!



Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.


About BI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us