The Systems Problem of Mass Shootings

Mass shootings are a systems problem; a problem that involves complex environments in which multiple inputs of varying degrees of dependency act together to produce some systemic outcome. And while we may find some intellectual satisfaction in debating the cause of mass shootings—fire arms, mental health, societal rot, toxic ideology—the exercise doesn’t really yield any effective solutions. Because in reality, mass shootings are some combination of all those things, and more. And so, any solution to mass shootings needs to address the systems problem with a systems solution. Anything less is best suited for political signaling.

Solutions and political signaling rarely occupy the same space.

It’s easy to say we ought to take away the guns. Presently that is politically impossible. If we cleared that hurdle, collecting the 100 million guns in America would be nearly impossible to execute. If it weren’t, ensuring that no guns would ever re-enter the country, would be impossible. There are presently no populations of modern humans in which there is no existence of fire-arms. There have been no populations of humans without weapons. And so we must treat the existence of weapons and even fire arms as some constant within the environment that exists within a range. Simply yelling “gun control now” is as unhelpful as yelling back, “it’s not the guns.”

Thinking of it as a range to be managed is perhaps more helpful. Less guns would probably mean less gun violence. But not always. And for different reasons. Because gun violence and more specifically, mass shootings are systems problems.

Sometimes you’ll hear someone refer to a systems problem as a “perfect storm” of events that yielded a rare and unpredictable outcome. This misses the idea of a systems problem. Systems problems are not often “perfect storms.” Things do not have to be “just so” in order for the event to be triggered. On the contrary, the very nature of the nearly countless inputs means that things can be many different ways and the outcome can still be the same. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be a systems problem. It would be some sort of linear causal one in which the chain of events is easily identified, easily broken and the outcome predictably avoided. This isn’t the case in systems problems. And so it isn’t the case with mass shootings.

Certainly, we could try to ratchet up security at group gatherings to reach airport levels. But we wouldn’t be able to support as many group gatherings. So the group gatherings would stop. Except that they wouldn’t because there are no populations of humans that don’t have group gatherings. As there are no populations of humans without weapons. They are emergent activities. And so we see another aspect of the systems problems.

Mass shootings are not a perfect storm. Instead they are a compilation of many different things that can fall within a range of probabilities. Some combination of ranges drives some range of outputs. And some inputs weigh more than others.

If I had only one motivation, to stop mass shootings, I would address it the way I address any systems problem.

Look at the ranges of inputs that yield the best outputs.

Stopping mass shootings likely requires some investment in the following.

-Reduction in the availability of high capacity fire arms.

-Innovations in security of gatherings of mass people.

-Increased access to mental health.

-Increased accountability for fire arms owners/dealers and how the weapons they own/sell are used.

-Legally supported limits of the identity distribution of those that commit them (If we can keep child porn off the mainstream internet…we can limit the distribution of names, manifestos etc of mass shooters.)

Mass shootings appear to be some sort of network emergence; something that happens more because they happen more within a network where information is shared effectively. And so the goal of reducing them yields a compounding effect by removing one of the inputs.

Life in a society in which this is a thing that happens regularly.


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