Reflections on Las Vegas--From an Intractable Conflict-based Perspective

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October 5, 2017, Updated January 2020.

It is commonly said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But that’s what we’ve been doing for years when it comes to responding to mass shootings and gun control.

Other things you can do to help.

2020 Introduction

This essay was written in October of 2017.  In January 2020, nothing has changed.  Las Vegas remains, perhaps, one of the more searing instances of mass shootings, but according to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 337 mass shootings in the U.S in 2018 and 417 in 2019. (They define "mass shooting" as four or more people shot or killed, not including the shooter.)

We continue to have the same political standoff between the people who want more stringent control of guns and those who oppose such, claiming (among other things) that owning a gun keeps them safer than they would be without one.  As is usual in intractable conflicts, the arguments for and against gun control are usually very simple--I'm right, they are wrong.  Guns make us vulnerable versus guns make us safer. And so far, the standoff is such that nothing has been done legislatively at the federal level to address the problem, except that finally, in December of 2019, Congress allocated $25 million dollars to fund research on gun violence, which had been outlawed since 1996.

2017 Article

Last week Guy and I set up our system to post one post from our new “Things You Can Do” Blog once a day for a week, and we left town to go camping.  When we were off the grid enjoying the fall colors, Las Vegas happened.  The post that came out the next day, “Sound the Alarm,” seemed completely out of touch. Our excuse:  we were! 

But we are back now, and are briefly putting our regular “Things You Can Do Blog” on hold—although we are adding this essay (albeit a very different format) to that blog queue—because we felt a need to post our thoughts on the recent event and reflect on what we (meaning concerned citizens in general, our colleagues in the conflict resolution field, and our governmental actors) can, should, and should not do in response.  If you do not have time to read this entire essay (I apologize, it is a bit long)—please jump to the DO/DON’T section.  But if you have time, we hope you will read the whole thing.

The Immediate and Standard Responses

As I was riding home, I was reading as much as I could about what happened.  Clearly, little is known about why the perpetrator acted as he did.  Most of our standard conflict warning signs were apparently not present.  It may, indeed, be that this was an unpredictable, and hence largely unavoidable event. 

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But our response to it—so far--is being extremely predictable.  Everyone seems to be horrified, wringing their hands, saying “not again!” We are deeply saddened for those affected, and the worriers among us wonder if we or somebody we care about is going to be next.  Nowhere, again, seems safe.  In response to that, we quickly retreat to our habitual two corners. 

The Left immediately starts calling for more gun control, believing that the problem is too many guns and too few regulations.  One can see why they believe this.  The U.S. has far more guns than any other country in the developed world, and more gun violence.  On October 2, just after the Las Vegas shooting, Vox posted a telling article, “Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts.” Astonishingly, it shows that the U.S. “has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns around the world” (Vox Chart 2). We have six times as many firearm homicides per million people as does Canada, and nearly 16 times the number of Germany (per capita) (Vox Chart 1).  It also references the Gun Violence Archive which documents that “on average, there is more than one mass shooting [defined as 4+ people shot at—not necessarily killed] for each day” in the U.S, totaling over 1500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook in December 2012. (Sandy Hook was a mass shooting at an elementary school that shocked the country, killing 20 six and seven-year olds and six adults.)  And for those who think these statistics might be unrelated, they point out that states that have a larger percentage of households with guns also have more gun deaths per capita, as do developed countries with more guns (see Vox Chart 5). 

Now of course, that is just correlation, not causation (fires that cause more damage have more fire trucks, but fire trucks do not cause the damage), but the likelihood that the easy availability of guns is one of the major causes of the problem seems high.  So bottom line, people on the left are frightened, and they think that the way to protect themselves and our country as a whole is to limit access to guns.

The Right is also frightened, but they see the situation differently.  They don’t think the problem is too many guns—they think the problem is the inability of our government (particularly our police) to keep us safe, requiring them to do that for themselves.  So they are actually made more afraid by the prospects of increased controls on guns.  They want to be able to own guns themselves, to be able to carry guns on their person wherever they go, and to be able to use them to defend themselves and others in the case of an attack.  Gun control, they argue, only takes guns away from law-abiding citizens.  It doesn’t take guns away from criminals, and it is criminals that use them to perpetrate mass violence.

The story wouldn’t be complete, of course, if one left out politics and the profit motive.  The National Rifle Association is an extremely powerful lobbying force that argues consistently on the side of gun manufacturers and gun owners against any limits on guns.  Though there are a number of smaller pro-gun-control lobbying groups, there is no commensurate lobbying force on the gun-control side.

The NRA lobby is so powerful that Congress has rejected even the most common-sense gun limitations: for instance, limiting gun access to the mentally ill, and to people on the terror watch list. It seems hard to believe that Congressmen, acting according to their own conscience, would vote to do that--but they did.  According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, every time a high-profile mass shooting occurs, gun regulations tend to be loosened, not tightened. Why?  Because the NRA  -- and more importantly, Brooks point out, voters themselves, argue that people have a right and a need to defend themselves. Any limitation on guns, they assert, is a limitation on people’s “second amendment rights.” Would most people agree that the mentally ill and people on the terror watch list should be granted such rights?  I haven't seen a poll on that--but I doubt it! Yet Congress still voted that way! (It should be noted that the Las Vegas shooter was not thought to be mentally ill, nor on any watch list, so such restrictions would not have helped in this case.)

An Intractable Conflict View

All of this makes for an extremely intractable conflict—I was struck by how many times this word was, indeed, used in the news articles I read over the last three days.  So what do we know about intractable conflicts that could help in this situation?

First, we know they are very complex—but oversimplified as well.  There are many issues tied up in this debate, and many reasons why people think and act the way they do.  That means there are no simple solutions.  But as in most other intractable conflicts, people tend to over-simplify the problem into “us-versus-them,” the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.”  Such oversimplifications leave no way out other than overpower “the bad guys” and when “the bad guys” have as much power as they do in this case—such an outcome is not likely. So we are stuck in a stalemate, and mass violence continues.

Second, we know that intractable conflicts often are rights-based, value-based, and identity-based—and people don’t often compromise on rights, values, and identity.  So while compromise might be possible, it is certainly going to be difficult. 

Additionally, it is not even clear that compromise is desirable—or would help.   A small change in gun control laws would probably frustrate both sides—one saying it was not enough, the other saying it was unnecessary and too much.  (Both arguments are currently being made in a discussion about whether to ban “bump stock devices,” which are the inexpensive devices which allow semi-automatic weapons to be modified to act like fully-automatic weapons—devices indeed used in the Las Vegas massacre. (Surprisingly, though, I just read that the NRA is supporting a ban on bump stocks now—so maybe that might actually happen. Will that have a significant effect?  I doubt it!  But the NRA's willingness to consider ANY control on guns is a major change of policy--and hopeful sign that some useful changes might be possible.  (November 6 update: despite several more mass shootings in the last month after Las Vegas, Congress has apparently shelved any discussion of limiting sale of bump stocks! So much for hopeful signs!) 

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.

Most importantly, we must find ways to limit the alienation, hate, and mental illnesses that lead people to want to kill their neighbors. These are topics (more the first two than the last) that we will examine in depth in the rest of the MBI--in the Conflict Frontiers and Fundamentals Seminars and in the regular Things YOU Can Do Blog."   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.

In the meantime, there are some things that we can do, directly related to the gun violence/gun control problem.

DOs and DON'Ts

First there are things we should NOT do:

  • We should not call the other side names, or attack their fundamental values.  This just reinforces their belief that we are stupid, naïve, “dangerous,” and perhaps out to hurt—or even—kill them (directly, or by limiting one’s ability to defend oneself and one’s family from gun violence.)
  • We should not overstate what we know—either about this event—or about the problem of guns and violence.  Political interest groups on both sides commonly exaggerate threats as a way of building support. But when we overstate the facts, we lose what little credibility we might have. 
  • We should not use events like these opportunistically.  Typically—perhaps in all modern high-profile mass shootings-- the left is very quick to come out for gun control and the right responds—as Fox News did this time, by saying (as Laura Ingraham did), that it is “’Despicable’ for Hillary, Democrats to Politicize Las Vegas Massacre.  Now of course, given the political nature of gun control, one cannot discuss this issue at all without being political. And the problem MUST be discussed.   But the left should take care to be smart in their political actions and statements, not responding in the tried-and-failed methods that just enrage the Right even more.  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.

What SHOULD we do?

  • First, we need to look for areas of common ground that we can build on. There actually are several.  One is grief.  We are all grief-stricken about what happened in Las Vegas, just as we were for high-profile events from earlier—Sandy Hook, the Aurora Theatre shootings, and Columbine High School, for example.  A second commonality is fear and the strong human need for safety.  Events like these make everyone afraid, and the desire for safety or security is a fundamental need that all humans share.  So, we need to build on our grief and our fear to bring people together, not to tear us further apart.
    A second area of common ground ought to be respect for the Constitution, the rule of law, the legislative process, and court decisions.  This means respect for the Second Amendment as it is now interpreted by the courts and how it may be interpreted by the courts in the future.  It also implies a commitment to work within the system to advocate for one’s preferred interpretation.
    There should also be common ground with respect to the need for a clear boundary between Second Amendment gun rights and military-class weapons that should not be accessible to the general public.

  • Second, 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.  As I said earlier, there is a strong correlation between gun ownership and deaths from gun violence.  But we don’t know nearly as much as we need to know about why that is true.  Learning about why people buy guns, what they do with the guns, and what the circumstances were for all of the 1500 mass shootings that have occurred since Dec. 2012 are researchable questions.  So, too, is it possible to determine how many crimes have been stopped (or deterred) by a citizen carrying a gun, and how many people have, indeed, successfully defended themselves, their families, or others from violent attacks with their own guns. Likewise, we can find out how many accidental gun deaths have occurred in the same period, how many people have been shot by their own gun in a crime, and how many suicides have involved guns.  The vast majority of gun-related deaths and injuries do not occur in the context of mass shootings, but rather in accidents, suicides, and single homicides. We should not make the mistake of focusing only on extreme headline grabbing events when we try to determine if guns make us more or less safe.
    However, as Todd Frankel writes in the Washington Post on October 4, gun violence research has been pretty much shut down for 20 years, as it was seen to be pro-gun-control, so was cut by the Republican-majority Congress in 1996 and was never reinstituted. That is why we say that the research needs to be bi-partisan. 
    Since universities are widely seen as bastions of liberalism and are no longer trusted by many (even among liberals), we cannot just entrust the universities to do this research on their own.  At the same time, universities know much more about reliable research methods than do others.  So we argue for a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Gun Violence” that would be made up of university researchers with the strongest backgrounds in this area that can be found, representatives of the leading advocacy organizations on both sides—yes, including the NRA--and key Republican and Democratic Senators, Congressmen, and Governors along with selected staff members. 
    The advocates and politicians would be asked to come up with a list of questions to research, and if some were nixed by one side or the other, they would have to explain why they were nixing that question.  Unless the others could be convinced the question shouldn’t be researched, all the questions raised should be investigated.
    Qualified researchers acceptable to all sides should be in charge of designing, explaining, and carrying out the research, but all steps of the process should be overseen by the other committee members.  If one side or the other takes issue with the methods or the outcomes, they would need to explain why – publicly—and convince the others that the methods need to be changed or the outcomes re-examined.   There is also a lot to be said for using multiple methods to examine key questions.
    This would take considerable time and money, obviously, but it would give decision makers a strong basis of fact on which to make decisions.  If it turns out more guns do indeed cause more gun deaths and that people are indeed safer if gun ownership is restricted, then steps should be taken to do that.  (Another important question to research, of course, is how best to do that—particularly since so many guns are in citizen hands already.)  If it turns out that guns do help defend against crime successfully, then the winds might come out of the gun control sails—and we might examine how to most effectively empower people to protect themselves and each other.  Either way, the decisions need to be based on facts, and the facts need to be collected in a way that they will be believed by most people—on both sides of the current divide. (We acknowledge David Brooks' point in his article referenced above that people usually disregard facts with which they disagree and that decisions are seldom based on fact, but rather on deeply-ingrained attitudes.  This is true--but attitudes don't change facts, and if our attitudes about what keeps us safe are wrong, we are not going to be made safer by implementing them.  Rather, we need to undertake a fact-finding processes that is sufficiently trust-worthy for both sides that attitudes actually can be changed.)
    There are many other ways in which such a joint fact-finding effort could be convened. The key is to craft a process with as much broadly-based credibility as possible. It is, of course, not enough to do trustworthy research in this political climate. The research and the steps that have been taken to assure that it is trustworthy must be shared with the larger public and the questions raised by skeptics answered directly.
    It is also important to understand that substantial uncertainties are unavoidable and that fact-based answers to every question do not exist. The fact-finding process needs to clearly separate value judgment issues (including risk tolerance) from factual questions.
  • Third: Utilize Track II discussions and dialogue processes: It also may be that these issues are simply too hot for any political leader to risk their reputation on. This suggests that a “Track II” process might be particularly helpful. Here, “second-tier” leaders from both sides might see if they could identify a few areas of common ground that they could then bring to “first-tier” leaders for action – action that would be much less risky since the framework for the agreement would already be in place.
    This suggests focusing initially on a small number of sub-issues where common ground agreement might be possible. Hopefully, such agreements would yield modest improvements in the situation and constitute the kind of “confidence-building” experience that would enable the participants to address tougher issues as they proceed.
    It might also be useful for the Track II effort to focus on limiting the destructiveness commonly associated with confrontations over gun rights issues which are, for example, commonly used as a wedge issue to further deepen the divide that has separated the US into two warring political camps.
    Here a model might be the abortion dialogues held by the then-named Public Conversations Project (the organization still exists, but is called “Essential Partners.”). In 1994, a gunman shot and killed two women and wounded several others at two abortion clinics.  The Massachusetts Governor and a local Cardinal urged both sides to begin talking about how to lower the rhetoric that led to the violence. In response six women, three leaders on each side of the abortion debate, agreed to meet –secretly--with the founders of the Public Conversations Project four times in the following year.  The meetings grew into a series of conversations that lasted seven years, and profoundly changed the attitudes these women had toward each other.  They then took these changed attitudes to their followers, agreed to “go public” after five years in a article published in the Boston Globe.  The result was significantly lowered heat in the Boston area regarding the abortion conflict. (The Essential Partners website has many free resources for people interested in learning about their methods and how to copy them.)
  • Fourth:  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.  This means, among other things, that we should:
    • Learn as much as you can about this topic.  But be careful about your sources.  Right after the shooting, both Facebook and Google were carrying stories about how the gunman was “an anti-Trump liberal who liked Rachel Maddow and, that the F.B.I. had already linked him to the Islamic State and that mainstream news organizations were suppressing that he had recently converted to Islam.” (Kevin Roose, New York Times.) None of these assertions were true.  So, check your facts—even if they “ring true” and don’t spread information without confirming its validity. 
    • Also, be patient and wait for a reliable story to unfold. We don’t have to rush to judgment. (As I was writing this essay, I was writing that the NRA consistently supported unfettered rights to all things guns.  Now, within the hour, even the NRA has come out in support of a ban on bump stocks. Things change!)
    • Always be open to new information. Don’t assume that you know all there is to know. Don’t just consider facts that support your preferred view. Rather, seek out and consider facts that raise troubling questions.  Avoiding the serious consideration of views with which you disagree is just another way of embracing fake facts.
    • Once you do have facts, though, share them—with friends, family, and decision makers. Call and write our Senators and Congressmen, citing facts about gun violence, along with your opinions about what they should do about it.
    • Consider becoming active in advocacy organizations that shares your views, but push them to be constructive in their response to this and future episodes—not responding in knee-jerk ways, but rather more carefully and thoughtfully, really trying to come to grips with how to stop these events, rather than how to make political hay out of these tragedies.
    • Engage in what we call “constructive confrontation”—which relies on persuasion and exchange much more than force to confront problems.  Forcing people to do what you want against their will, almost never produces stable change. It simply lays the groundwork for future conflict.  Stable change comes from persuasion and compromise in the collective realization that a particular course of action is a step forward (even though significant continuing conflicts are certain to remain).
    • If we own guns, we should make sure we know the proper ways to use them, handle them extremely carefully, and keep them away from children.
    • If we don’t own guns, we should listen to those who do (your neighbors likely do) to find out why they own them and how they handle them.  While you can (and should) respond respectfully no matter how they answer, if their answer makes you feel insecure, you may want to change your relationship with them as a result.  (For instance, you might not want your child to visit a house that has unsecured guns.)
    • Lastly, we should approach this tragedy as we have others.  For example, we can look at how we respond to natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  Stories abounded after both of those events of people from all walks of life, and all races pulling together to help each other.  Racial, status, and political differences were ignored—people just helped where they could.  So too should we respond to human-created tragedies.  We need to pull together to help the victims, and we need to pull together to craft for the first time a response that might actually have political viability and social effectiveness. 

Our Plea!

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!

Question for You:  

What do you think are constructive ways to address the gun control/personal safety issue that do not get caught in the standard more control/less control dichotomous argument? Do you have other ideas about how we can truly come together as a society to help each other solve this shared problem?

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Common Ground

Thank you for this post, it offers much food for thought.  I think that you've identified an important starting point for dialogue about this intractable conflict; and that is the small piece of ground we have in common. You identify grief and safety as commonalities, the first of which is likely more universal even than the second.  There are two other elements of this issue in which see promise for collaboration.  The first is that 2/3 of all gun deaths are suicides. ( which strongly impacts all of us (see grief), regardless of our take on the gun control issue.  None of us is immune, and therefore that related issue is a potential unifier.  The second is research that indicates that 18-30 year olds support control more strongly than older generations.  92% support background checks, 89% support stiffer penalties for gun law violations and 57% support ban on semi-automatic weapons (  While they seem often maligned, I have so much faith in and hope about this amazing generation of young people who embrace difference like no prior generation, and who are generally more liberal and open to different ways of thinking, doinging and being.  This conflict will not be resolved quickly, and, therefore, I think that engaging that younger generations around the peripheral elements of this conflict (sucide, security, social justice) as a way to build a fresh and different cultural approach to gun ownership has the best chance of being successful. 

Diane Farineau

MS Student, GMU SCAR