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The right time for productive dialogue over gun deaths is not after a mass killing

A police officer walks by an entrance to The Covenant School after a shooting in Nashville, Tenn. on Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/John Amis)

The recent Nashville school mass killing exposes a dark side of our nation. With three innocent children and three adults dead, everyone mourns the loss, hoping that no one will ever have to endure such a heinous act again. Not only are six lives lost, but family, friends, co-workers and fellow students are traumatized by the incident, possibly impacting them for many years.

This is a time for processing, for grief, of raw emotion. Unfortunately, it is also a time for partisans to conduct political positioning, when productive dialogue cannot occur. Indeed, any solutions for the problem of gun-related deaths has to come during non-crisis periods when clearer heads can prevail and when the focus is on much more than a lone mass shooter. 

Such a dialogue is necessary because events like this, which occur randomly, will most certainly occur again. History shows that. 

There have been 13 mass killings to date in 2023, defined as four or more people killed, excluding the shooter, with 77 people in total killed during these events. That is just slightly more than the number of firearm suicide deaths on an average day so far in 2023. 

Everyone wishes that all premature deaths by firearm could be stopped. Yet, there is no obvious solution that can appease all stakeholders. 

On one side are people who call for bans on specific types of firearms. They believe that if such weapons became unavailable, then premature deaths by firearm would be reduced. 

On another side are people who support the right to own firearms for self-defense. They believe that the problem lies with the assailants, not the weapons. 

One Tennessee lawmaker believes that little can be done by government to fix gun violence.

All sides of this debate are passionate about their positions. No one approach will be effective in moving the needle to reduce premature deaths by firearm. 

The biggest challenge is that reducing premature deaths by firearm has become more political than pragmatic. And anything that becomes political rarely yields positive outcomes. 

The problem with politics is politicians, who are motivated to do whatever is necessary to keep their power, at what seems like almost any cost to the country. None of these people began their political careers this way. Yet, for some, over time, their addiction to power overcame their altruistic instincts to serve. The biggest losers with such transformations are the American people.

We see this with out-of-control spending that has resulted in a multitrillion-dollar deficit. Our national debt has gotten so large that it can never be paid down, unless inflation soars to levels that make our currency worthless, something that would be unthinkable considering the importance of the U.S. dollar to the world economy.

Yet, unthinkable events do occur under extreme pressure. 

What some of our politicians lack is accountability. It is easy to pontificate on policies, but hard to identify and implement practical solutions. 

So, what are possible steps forward to reduce premature deaths by firearm? 

1) Focus on the low-hanging fruits. Suicides account for over one-half of all firearms deaths. Any actions that can keep weapons away from potentially suicidal people and provide support for their mental health can lead to positive improvement. 

2) The best time to discuss premature deaths by firearm is not in the aftermath of a recent event. Emotions are charged and on edge, and rational discussion is impossible. Create a forum for such discussion that starts from scratch. Much like how people ask what the internet would look like if it was restarted today, begin such a dialogue under such conditions. By removing all conditions, ethical, legal and moral constraints can be avoided, and pragmatics principles can be put forward. Once such solutions are identified, then bring in the ethical, legal and moral constraints. 

3) Focus on gun safety. The vast majority of gun owners are responsible. Providing education and guidance to enhance gun safety efforts can go a long way to reducing premature deaths by firearm.

4) Take the “I” and “fear” out of firearms. What remains is “rms,” restraint, moderation and safety. When people fear what they will lose rather than what can be gained, positive progress becomes impossible. 

Bans on firearms are highly unlikely to be made any time soon. Nor are untethered access to all firearms realistic to expect. When people can put themselves in another person’s shoes, perhaps a perspective can be gained that can begin discussing a path forward. 

Everyone can agree that premature deaths by firearm are undesirable. What cannot be agreed upon is how to achieve this. Let’s focus on the process before we debate the policy. Then perhaps we can move forward to reduce premature deaths by firearm.   

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags Firearms Gun control Gun rights Guns Mass killing Mass shooting partisan politics Sheldon H. Jacobson

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