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By Aldis Petriceks

Data and Compassion: Radical Tools in the Fight for Gun Control

Uploaded: Mar 19, 2018

Students in Washington D.C. during National Walkout Day, March 14, 2018.

During last week’s National Walkout Day, a nationwide demonstration against gun violence, I sat in a crowded lecture room at Stanford’s school of medicine. Physicians, surgeons, and lawyers alike were presenting their ideas on this timely and contentious issue. Public health experts described the socioeconomic impact of gun violence; a trauma surgeon depicted the visceral reality of gunshot wounds; and a lawyer explained America’s past and present gun legislation. The event was convicting – a call to stand up, and speak truth to our nation’s power. I shared that conviction, which is why I’m writing today.

But if such a conviction is to move beyond rhetoric, it likely needs reframing. If we in Palo Alto are to advocate for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and for lives across the country, we must frame our advocacy with wisdom and compassion.

When I first heard of the Parkland shooting I, like many others, felt an unsettling mix of rage and cynicism. A similar outrage is pulsing through our national and local discourse. Mass shootings are preposterously prevalent, and the solution is, ostensibly, no more complex than passing a simple bill. We have knowledge, we have purpose, we have the stalwart Parkland survivors. Straightforward and visible victories should be at hand. The fact that they are not, calls for even more outrage.

But after sitting through the Stanford medical school panel, I’m skeptical that victory or loss are so simple in this case. Instead, after considering the social, public health, and legal contexts, I’ve arrived at three primary conclusions. First, that we in Palo Alto must resist grabbing at detached facts and figures surrounding gun violence, and constantly search for sound, reliable data. Second, that any subsequent advocacy must reflect our growing body of nuanced knowledge. And third, that our advocacy must burst beyond the insular – and perhaps self-defeating – Silicon Valley echo chamber. These points are simple, but often overlooked in the post-tragedy frenzy. I believe Palo Alto should embrace them, if local perspectives are to become relevant for dissonant minds. If the injustice of gun violence is to be rectified, we must understand comprehensively, speak wisely, and act compassionately.

Sound understanding is the simplest, yet most critical of these necessities. All too often, contentious debates are held around gun violence, informed by obtuse facts from the Facebook newsfeed. Think of any prominent national debate – how often do opposing parties ceaselessly revolve around broad, diametrically-opposed truth-claims? I am no exception, and often fall victim to this tendency myself.

For example: before the Stanford panel, I assumed that public health experts had studied every last crevice of American gun violence. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In 1996, the National Rifle Association lobbied for what is now called the Dickey Amendment, after a 1993 government-funded study found that guns did not, in fact, increase household safety. The NRA claimed that the study’s authors were biased, and pushed the bill which declared that “none of the funds made available [by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” To this day, public health researchers find it difficult to use CDC funds for gun violence research.

Meaningful data do exist, however, and we might all benefit by becoming well-versed in them. For example, it is shocking – though perhaps not surprising – that approximately 33,000 people die in the U.S. from gun violence each year (FiveThirtyEight). Nearly two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, with small-scale homicides rounding out most of the remaining third. In comparison, mass shootings comprise a miniscule fraction of gun-related deaths: just 14 out of 33,594, in 2014 (BBC).

The cultural and social nuances of gun violence are also evident. For example, white males comprise about 85% of gun-related suicides, and propagate the overwhelming majority of mass shootings. On the other hand, young black men are at disproportionate risk of homicide, with one Stanford panelist saying that “you can’t talk about gun violence in America without talking about race.”

As FiveThirtyEight notes, the common element in all these deaths is a gun. Nonetheless, our public discourse on gun violence may be too broad.

If any gun-control advocacy is to be effective – if it is to change minds and save lives – then anti-gun rage must be tempered with such nuanced data. It must also be tempered with the knowledge that – within a given geographic and socioeconomic environment – most people are predisposed toward certain views on gun control. I naturally reflect Californian gun control attitudes; but what if I were raised in Knox County, Ohio, where I went to college? If we in Palo Alto are to advocate for federal gun control, therefore, our knowledge must be both nuanced and self-reflective.

But knowledge is not enough, and no human is purely rational. This point came across during the Stanford panel: while data are invaluable to any gun control discussion, people and cultures are rarely convinced by facts alone. As such, it is not enough for us to absorb more numbers, churn them up, and spit them out into the bottomless Silicon Valley echo chamber. While I agree that these numbers are convicting, I’m also aware that my perspective on gun violence is purely abstract. If I want to change the minds of people in rural Ohio or West Virginia – those to whom guns are real, tangible parts of life – I cannot forsake humble compassion.

And let’s be clear: federal legislative victories will not come without changing minds. U.S. gun culture is far too strong for spiteful policy-pushing. Even the Stoneman Douglas students themselves have not yet affected federal discourse. This is not because they lack in wit or fervor; rather, it is because cultural attitudes must first be permuted, if life-saving policy is to be enacted.

And how does one shift cultural attitudes? By shaping and reshaping communities, which are comprised of real human beings. California has long been a pioneer in gun control legislature, and we should be proud of that. Now is the hard part: how do we make that pioneering relevant, especially to our friends in NRA-toting states and communities?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers in this discussion. To be honest, my interest in the issue was first sparked by the inspiring events of National Walkout Day. But as a researcher, a writer, and a human being, I know one thing. I know that minds and cultures are not changed through brute force and echo chambers; they are transformed through wisdom, outreach, and compassion. If we take any one of those factors without the other two, our efforts will be in vain. If we lambast gun-rights advocates as moronic hillbillies, our national laws will never change. And if we fail to unite our minds with our hearts? Then children, the suicidal, and young black men will continue to die preventable deaths.

We in Palo Alto like to consider ourselves innovators. Let us put forth a radical innovation, and change gun violence with wisdom and compassion.