To Address the Problem of Guns, We Need Both Data And Emotion

To Address the Problem of Guns, We Need Both Data And Emotion

In the span of two days, two mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have once again brought anguish over gun deaths to the forefront of the public conversation. An outpouring of emotion was followed by questions of how many times this needs to happen again before lawmakers make substantial steps to reduce gun violence.

Soon afterwards, Neil deGrasse Tyson attempted to help bring reason to a very emotional topic:

Understandably, Twitter and the media excoriated him — for the timing, for some potential inaccuracies in the numbers, and for coming off as cold-hearted. 

Where I think his biggest mistake was, though, was in separating emotion and data. For any kind of solution, we need both.

Fear and anger are what compel us to act, including the willingness to gather data. As psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote in his book Emotional Intelligence:

All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is motere, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-” to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion. (6)

I think (or at least hope) everyone would agree that we want fewer gun deaths in our country. And if we are angry about those deaths, or scared for our children’s lives, we need to lean into those feelings in our efforts to bring about positive change. As John Oliver remarked, “while the depressingly familiar numbness that you may be currently feeling can help you handle the pain in the short term, in the long term it can actually be a real problem because unless something hurts as much as it’s supposed to, nothing gets done about it.”

So we do need to feel this fear and frustration, and Tyson’s calm comparison of mass shootings to others forms of accidental death didn’t help. Yet on one level, Tyson was at least a little correct — to truly solve problems, we need more than just emotions. We need data. We need research. We need dispassionate conversations, and dispassionate doesn’t mean caring less; it’s just a better alternative than screaming into our social media echo chamber about how awful these shootings are, or that “these politicians need to get their act together and pass some legislation,” or, “we’re clearly safer if we have more guns, and no law will stop a murderer.”

Now, if we do look to data, we cannot go in with preconceived notions, and those of us who support gun control may discover things we may not like or agree with. We may discover other factors instead of or in addition to access to guns. Or we may not. But that’s why we do research — and articles such as these can help us understand what’s really going on.

Indeed, the biggest reason Tyson’s tweet was so bad was because each of these saddening statistics he shared has spurred helpful interventions — and that hasn’t happened with gun deaths. People like Dr. Atul Gawande have experimented to find ways to lessen death by medical error by having the World Health Organization follow checklists. Each flu season, there’s a huge publicity push to remind people to get their flu shot. Innovations like seatbelts, carseats for children, and airbags have lessened the greatly lessened the number of deaths by car accidents. In other words, our emotions have motivated us to stop those kinds of deaths, but they somehow haven’t done the same for gun deaths. And that’s why we need significant data and research on how we can actually stop them. 

So if you are feeling angry or scared, and feel like there’s nothing you can do, let me direct you to Do Not Stand Idly By, an organization started by my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Mosbacher. Through significant research on what would actually be effective in lessening gun deaths, they felt that a market-based strategy, investigating how people actually obtain guns, would be better than a legislative path. 

Indeed, they have discovered that

there are [actually] two markets for guns in America:  a primary market involving sales of new and used firearms through regulated dealers, and a secondary market involving sales of new and used firearms outside these regulated channels.  Many of the problems come from the secondary market – and from the porous boundary between the two markets, resulting in a steady supply of cheap guns, new and used, available to those who shouldn’t have them.

To lower the emotional temperature among those who feel threatened by gun laws and instead try to address the real problems, Do Not Stand Idly By has specific, achievable campaigns that gun-owners can potentially get behind, and aims to partner with gun-owners, gun manufacturers and police forces. You can see the whole list of their campaigns and suggestions for gun manufacturers here and for public officials here

Emotions drive us to want to change things, and there are steps you and I can take. But emotions aren’t enough. We do, in fact, need real data to help us try solutions. And while it’s true that “often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” to truly lessen the number of gun deaths in America, we need emotion to be truly motivate us to want to do so – and then we can use the data to try to take effective action.


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