Attractors, Goals, and Guns: Part II

The debate that this essay was inspired by came from the proposition that banning guns was a common-sense approach to fixing the problem of gun violence. The previous section argued for a more nuanced differentiation of gun violence, such that planned criminal violence was worse than more ‘random’ gun violence that derives from the latent danger every gun possesses. This section argues for a more systemic approach to the problem of planned criminal violence.

The first issue with banning is I can only think of a handful of examples where banning something actually works. Almost all of the cases are toxic chemicals, like CFCs and DDT, which had easy industrial replacements. But in social systems, I can’t think of a single ban that’s “worked”. Banning drugs? Abject failure that’s created a de facto civil war in Mexico that’s killed almost 50,000 people in just the past decade. All the while drug use is more common after the ban than before it. Banning alcohol? It cemented and hardened of organized crime in America decades after Prohibitions repeal.

This is probably best understood with the idea of basins of attraction in dynamic systems theory.  In social systems, these basins are what the feedbacks in a system push the system state to be. I’ve used the “greenwashing” of Wal Mart as a classroom example, meaning that no matter how “sustainable” Wal-Mart executives want to be, the essential business environment will always push the company to be anything but. The only way to get a sustainable Wal-Mart would be change the system in which it works – such that sustainable practices are rewarded and unsustainable practices are punished. Being that it’s a business, rewards and punishments would have to be directly tied to profits. At present, however, the most unsustainable practices are the most profitable/rewarded and thus the system will almost always fall back to it’s old ways even after a sustainability “push.”

The same analysis can be applied to drug and alcohol prohibition. So long as people still want drugs and alcohol, they’ll almost certainly be supplied. It’s been argued Prohibition did almost nothing to actually reduce the consumption of alcohol in America. Instead, it punished previously legitimate sellers and manufacturers. In turn, it rewarded illegal sellers and manufactures. Al Capone replaced Jack Daniels. I can’t see why it would be any different with guns. If a system has attractors towards violence, it will continue to move towards those unless the feedbacks inside the system are fundamentally altered. Guns won’t disappear any more than marijuana has. You would lose the few gun controls America does have – like background checks, concealed weapons permits, and registration – and replace it entirely with the black market.

An underground gun factory in the Philippines

My own instincts go in the opposite direction. Take corruption – despite the shear size of the problem, the fact that money in US politics is done under the light of day makes it better than what is found in more covertly corrupt places like China and the Philippines. The US government has set realistic and enforceable parameters on odious behavior and succeeds in clamping down on the most crude quid pro quo corruption. Because the money’s going to be there, one might as well shine a bright light on it. I can’t help but legalizing some forms of common corruption in developing countries wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Once legalized, it’s inside a system than can be manipulated and significantly reduced over time. It’s only a matter of political willpower that lets as much money into the US political system as currently exists. Behavior inside a black market is completely outside the scope of realistic regulation.

Another important side effect is that while banning guns might, even in the short term, reduce overall gun-related deaths, there’s reason to think it might increase planned criminal violence. I’d like to look through the statistics, but I assume the common home burglary is less common in US states with high percentage of gun ownership than a low percentage. The consequences of breaking into the “wrong” house are a lot higher when the owner can legally shoot you and is statistically more likely to be armed. If we look to the extreme again, at Iraq, I think it’s clear that if the Iraqi police started confiscating household guns it might reduce overall gun deaths, but it wouldn’t likely impact the more important variable of reducing the level of public violence in the country. The result of a gun ban in Iraq would be to shift the monopoly on violence to only insurgents, gangs, and the government. Families would have no means of protecting themselves and the overall threat would not disappear. There’s a moral consideration to made about leaving people unable to protect themselves inside of a dangerous place.

Path Dependency

Like so much of development and political thinking, there are often wrong post-hoc assumed correlations between variables. For instance, it’s ludicrous yet common sense to suggest that neither Europe nor China have guns because of strict gun control laws. The comparison being that those places have strict gun control laws and America doesn’t, and they don’t have guns and America does. The truth is that there was never much of a gun culture to ban – just one to prevent from starting. America and the Philippines, two prominent gun cultures that I’m familiar with, have been chock-full of guns for generations.

This breaks two ways, both starting with the principle that we get different results when we start with two different system states. One of the principal lessons from complexity theory is how important ‘initial’ states are even with the same rules inside the system. The Conway’s Game of Life was one of the first computational ‘proofs’ of this. The first issue is the artifact that the guns still exist after a law is passed, which I’ve already spoken of. But the second is political.

To speak of removing the second amendment is speak of fantasies. I won’t get too deep into the traditional American approach to ‘gun rights’ other than to say that it’s just that – a topic wrapped up with the veneer of fundamental political rights. For historical reason, many Americans feel that the right to own a gun is on par with their right to vote or write political essays. It’s essentially a right of distributive power, in that it potentially limits the government’s monopoly on violence. One should see this in context to the idea that many of the people who advocate gun rights see the ideal “United States of America” as essentially the Bill of Rights, with the rest of the Constitution being relatively disposable. In short, meaning, loyalty is not to the institution of government but to an ideal form of what the government should be. In this logic, a government that would want to legislate tough gun control law is one that is disregarding the Bill of Rights and is consequently illegitimate. This is all to say a lot of the far right wing of America seems to be permanently on guard against an authoritarian coup. They see the presence of a well-armed citizenship as the best guarantee of the rest of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps more importantly, they see this as how the system was set up at the beginning. Consider the Thomas Jefferson quote that, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

To condense the above paragraph into a single point, it’s that talking about getting rid of something as seemingly illogical as the Second Amendment in America would be about as difficult as getting rid of the royal family in the UK. It’s a deeply ingrained historical tradition, even if it’s only “fully” appreciated by a minority and deeply hated by an even smaller minority. There will not be an appeal of the Second Amendment in our lifetimes. I would be surprised if there were any major changes in the Constitution in my lifetime.


So we’re stuck with an unmoving political system that wouldn’t institute a gun ban to begin with and millions of guns that won’t disappear despite legal writs banishing them. I’ve also argued that guns are a proxy issue for what we really care about – planned violent behavior, like armed robberies. This stands in contrast to focusing on reducing overall gun deaths. What type of policies are we left with then?

Photograph by Robert Yager

If there’s a single answer, it is that there is no single answer to reducing the level of violence in a society. Multiple approaches need to be tried and allowed to be duplicated if successful and fail if not. Approaches that work in one context might be extremely harmful in another. But the overall goal should be to “raise” the basin of attraction, such that violence is increasingly uncharacteristic. It means changing feedbacks inside the system away from rewarding violence towards punishing it. This is extremely difficult to do in practice. I’d recommend a study of David Simon’s exploration of inner-city violence in The Wire to show how “local” cultures reward, through peer approval, of even children using violence to gain social prestige. This is something that can’t be taught or legislated away.

But I’ll conclude this already-to-long post with some solid recommendations. I think Truth and Reconciliation Committees are often overlooked as a potential “big jump” option from one state to another. It would involve doing some potentially hugely unpopular things – like amnesty for violent criminals. Gun buybacks – wherein the community pays above-market prices for guns just to get them off the street – have been successful in some areas. It’s easy to see how, like an antibiotic, it’s a medicine that would need to be taken in careful doses. It could, in some cases, award gun ownership too much. I’m sure if the prices were high enough and the program lasted enough, eventually people would be importing cheap trash weapons to make a profit off the system. Finally, one of the more successful programs I’ve heard of treats exposure to violence like exposure to a pathogen. Violence, in this case, is “transmitted.”

But perhaps this misses the simple point: there are no simple options. Violent criminality is a “wicked problem” and many attempts to mitigate it only make the problem worse. It requires adaptive co-management to deal with. Meaning those tasked with solving the problem must adapt to not only their successes and failures, but how society and criminal elements respond to their interventions. It must be co-managed because there are no top-down solutions, only the diffusion and implementation of ideas and methods.

One Comment

  1. Barrett Nahrstedt said:

    Gun control laws should really be passed. There are just so many violent events that is happening these days because of loose firearms. I just hope that the government will be more strict when it comes to guns.””;*”

    Hope This Helps!“>

    July 24, 2012

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