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A Practopian Approach to Gun Issues in the US

Various rifles, guns and pistols
image credit: iStock/MicrovOne

The Florida school shooting once again propelled issues surrounding gun violence into the forefront of our national dialogue.

The big ideas at The Practical Utopian may seem very broad and general, but I’d like to illustrate how they can be usefully employed in a specific debate such as this one.


The mission of The Practical Utopian is to identify and promote big ideas that will result in better outcomes for humanity.

Let’s try to remember that, when all is said and done, if we haven’t advanced our mission, then we’ve failed. This is the ultimate acid test for the direction of our discussions: we’re trying to create a better tomorrow. In this case, we’re trying to create a future in which fewer innocent people are killed by guns.


A primary Practopian value is balance, and we state it like this:

We believe in striving for balance between competing concerns. Although all of the values on this list are important to us, we have no desire to establish any one of them as fundamentally absolute.

Valuing balance above all is important, because it is all too easy to let our discussions get hijacked by one side or the other, as each strives to uphold some fundamental right that supports their side, and demonize their opponents as having a completely opposite view.

In this case, we want to uphold the value of liberty, and specifically the right to keep and bear arms. On the other hand, the value of balance reminds us that we cannot insist on a completely unfettered right for every citizen to bear every sort of weapon in every possible situation: the value of balance requires us to recognize some reasonable constraints on this particular liberty in order to achieve a greater good for society as a whole.

An Integral View

As Practopians, “We strive to integrate multiple diverse human perspectives in order to arrive at a more perfect understanding of the truth.” With that in mind, let’s look at some additional perspectives we might usefully consider.

Value Creation

Another Practopian Core Belief is in the importance of creating value for one another. We state it like this:

It is in the best interests of society to encourage its citizens to engage in activities that will create value for themselves and others and society at large, and to allocate capital so that the greatest amount of it is available for use by those with the strongest likelihood of using it wisely.

So it may be useful to consider how guns create value for people. Using guns for hunting is certainly a way to create value. Use of guns by our military and our police forces is certainly important to maintain our security. And it’s clear that many people get something valuable, if intangible, from their experience of owning and discharging firearms. We don’t want to discount these valid uses for guns. On the other hand, we do need to be prepared to weigh the costs and benefits of various sorts of gun ownership in a reasonable fashion.


We Practopians also believe in diversity, and state our belief as follows:

We believe in the diverse expression of human potential.

And so, while I’m not someone who has ever felt the desire to own or shoot a gun, I can confess to consuming a lot of fiction in which guns have played an important role: I’m not immune to the appeal of guns. And I certainly recognize that there are other people who do want to handle guns in a responsible manner, and I have no interest in marginalizing or criminalizing these sorts of people: if we’re serious about creating a more inclusive society, then we need to include law-abiding gun owners along with people of color, gays and other minorities.

Critical Thinking

At this point, it may be time to introduce our Practopian principle that advocates for critical thinking:

We believe that we can produce better outcomes for humanity through the application of critical thinking and the use of the scientific method.

One of the statements that surfaces frequently in our national debate on this topic is the assertion that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Very well. True enough. Guns don’t kill people. Point accepted.

But then, let’s ask ourselves, what do guns do?

And then, I think, the unavoidable answer is:

Guns enable us to kill more quickly and efficiently.

So yes, people do get angry, they take drugs, they grow despondent; we humans are vulnerable to all sorts of feelings and situations in which it might feel like a good idea to take someone else’s life, or to take our own. We humans aren’t perfect. And so, yes, people do sometimes wish to kill.

But does it add value to our society to have such ready access to machines whose only purpose is to allow us to kill more easily and more efficiently?

This seems to be an important question we need to collectively answer for ourselves.


We Practopians believe that science is one important way of understanding the universe in which we live.

We don’t think we have all the answers, and we think it’s important to fund more research so that we can get more answers.

On the other hand, we need to also pay attention to the data we already have available. And while the data offered up in these debates frequently brings to mind Darrell Huff’s classic remark – “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything” – most observers seeking any kind of objectivity in this context seem to conclude that the available data indicates that, all other things being equal, having more guns in a community results in suffering more lethal gun violence. This piece from Vox is a good example.

Stories and Storytelling

Practopians understand that we humans create meaning for ourselves through storytelling. This trait is particularly relevant to the gun debate because our American cultural heritage probably contains more stories of Americans successfully defending themselves and others with guns than it does any other single narrative arc.

This American belief in the efficacy of guns is also reinforced by our special history. We used guns to achieve our independence. We used guns to expand our American boundaries. We used guns to preserve our union during our Civil War. We used guns during World Wars I and II to defend freedom, not just for us, but for others all around the world.

Our national experiences in the two World Wars, I think, further explain our love of guns. Unlike many European countries, we did not suffer either invasion or occupation during these 20th century conflicts. In WW I we lost 0.13% of our population in deaths attributable to the war. In contrast, the United Kingdom lost about 2% of their population and France lost over 4%. So while Europe was sick of war and guns by the end of WW I, the US was still able to see them primarily as heroic instruments.

Similarly, the US lost only 0.32% of our population in WW II. This is roughly one tenth of the 3.0% average for all countries involved in the conflict. The United Kingdom and its colonies lost almost 1% of their population, Germany lost over 8%, Russia lost over 13% and France lost almost 1.5% of their population.

Another factor affecting American attitudes towards guns can be seen in our relatively low population density. Even though America has a large population, it has an even larger expanse of geography. When we consider average people per square mile, the US comes in at position 185 when all countries are ranked by population density. We have an average of 86 people per square mile, compared to 319 for France, 601 for Germany, and 702 for the United Kingdom. So when we Americans visualize how guns are used in our country, it is still relatively easy for us to see them being used out on the range, out West, on farms and ranches and other rural areas. Use of guns in these contexts still has considerable appeal for us, even for those now living in more suburban environments.

Also, because of the timing of our own American battle for independence, images of ordinary citizens taking up guns to battle an oppressor seem to be forever fixed in our collective consciousness. Whereas older cultures might maintain a reverence for swords or bows and arrows, such weapons ultimately played no triumpant role in our own national heritage, and so we Americans have seemingly transferred all such affections to firearms.

These unique American cultural elements matter, and must be taken into account as part of any discussion of guns in our society.

Cultural Evolution

Practopians recognize that no human culture is fixed or static or absolute, and that our collective beliefs, attitudes and institutions are in a continual state of evolution.

We can see this sort of cultural evolution in the gradual acceptance within our society of racial integration, and then acceptance of equal rights for gays. These sorts of attitudes don’t change overnight, and they don’t change for everyone at once. Sometimes it seems like they will never change. But then some dramatic public event – something like the Selma marches – catches the public’s attention and galvanizes us, makes us feel like we can’t allow similar tragedies to continue to play out in our society, before our very eyes. And it is often an event such as this that pushes our society as a whole past a tipping point, pushes those seeking change past the halfway point, giving them new power to make the rules, and to influence further societal changes.

For the gun debate in the US, of course, the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may yet prove to be such an event, and provide sufficient impetus to propel us past a tipping point. For while we have sadly but inevitably grown accustomed to mass shootings in the US over the past several years, there are elements of this particular event that seem to be capturing public attention and exercising lasting influence: not just images of the students who were murdered, but the images and voices of their classmates – still alive, and close to voting age – expressing frank disbelief that they live in a society that is willing to continue to tolerate such a profusion of weapons designed solely for killing with such terrible rapidity and finality. When we open our eyes and ears and hearts and minds to these young people, it is increasingly difficult for the rest of us to return to the status quo that we have grown so accustomed to.

Individual Action

We Practopians believe that ordinary individuals have the power to shape our cultural evolution – individuals like the survivors of the recent shooting, like you, and like me – and our goal is to help all of us make broader, better informed, more deeply felt, more conscious decisions that will help us advance towards a more positive future.


So where does all this leave us? Here are some key points worth remembering as we all continue to participate in conversations on this important topic with politicians, with fellow citizens, and with our children.

  • Our collective culture often seems to change slowly, but it does change over time.
  • America has a particularly strong attachment and reverence for guns, and this certainly won’t change significantly in any of our lifetimes.
  • We all have a responsibility to take action to help prevent such terrible massacres in the future.
  • It’s important to respect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens who wish to own guns for lawful purposes.
  • Rational and productive discussions will be easier if we give up trying to defend extreme positions, and stop demonizing those who have opinions and interests different from our own.
  • It is hard to visualize any sort of reasonable compromise that will continue to allow weapons designed for mass slaughter to be so widely distributed within our society.

February 27, 2018