We are all broken hearted – again – by the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and at the Santa Fe High School in Texas.  The hashtag #neveragain signals a new determination on the part of our country to prevent further school shootings.  The teenage survivors are using protest marches and social media to voice their resolve to bring about changes in our laws to protect us from gun violence at schools.  (In the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D C, earlier this year, the marchers publically expanded their agenda to include all gun violence, not just mass school shootings.)  Their efforts raise the question about what needs to be done to prevent further massacres.  Some of the most talked-about solutions are laws raising the age for gun purchases, expanding background checks, mental health screening, and arming teachers.  Public opinion is divided and often rancorous.

How do we know which of these options — among others — is the best choice for reducing gun violence?  

Bernard Lonergan presents us with a way of approaching this question; such questions are in a way native to our humanity.  By following the innate tools of our consciousness we are prompted to:

  • pay attention to the data – be attentive!
  • have insights into the data – be intelligent!
  • double check our understandings – be reasonable!
  • make decisions based on our findings and values – be responsible!

These tools or processes are given within our consciousness.  They spring into action when we ask a question.  If we are open to them, our questions arise spontaneously and lead us to intelligently and responsibly answer them.  This is the process by which we come to know anything, and then decide on the most worthwhile course of action.  Here, as prescribed by Lonergan, we put the question of gun violence and mass shootings through the scheme of our consciousness as we ask and answer questions.  We begin the process by being attentive to the data that concerns our question.

A question for attentiveness: What data do we have on gun violence?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considered the gold standard for comprehensive and accurate data.  For 20 years the Dicky Amendment prevented the CDC from gathering and using data on gun deaths in order to suggest solutions.  Lonergan would call such stifling of research a deliberate “flight from understanding” because we cannot have correct or complete insights into an issue without the pertinent data.

Thanks in part to the Parkland students, the 2018 omnibus-spending bill lifted this prohibition, but the research remains to be done.  We do have results from other trustworthy groups that stepped into the breach; the links to these studies are given below:



A question for intelligence: What is the cause of gun violence?

We do have some useful data, yet numbers alone do not give us the cause of the violence. We need such an insight into the data.  A new study by Adam Lankford does just that. According to the article in The New York Times, Lankford’s study is the most comprehensive study yet on the question of gun violence.  He uses a comparative approach with other countries having populations over 10 million.  Below, The New York Times reports his question in the article, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.”  The study’s central insight finds the number one reason the US experiences more gun violence then other countries is due to the sheer number of guns in the US.  We are awash with guns (only Yemen has more).

A question for being reasonable: Is the study’s finding correct, yes or no?

The New York Times reports on how Lankford verified his work:

Worldwide, Mr. Lankford found, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when he excluded the United States, indicating that it could not be explained by some other factor particular to his home country. And it held when he controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence.

 The study also shows that mental health does not make the critical difference in the occurrence of mass shootings.

A question for being responsible: If the number of guns is the most probable cause of mass gun violence, what then, is the best course of action?

Put simply, we need to reduce the number of guns in the US, especially military-style weapons.  They are the weapons of choice for mass shooters.  If we are to take Dr. Lankford’s insights seriously, we will have to change the way we assess and judge this issue.  We will need to go beyond popular or political opinion and self-interest, and beyond group prejudices.  We will need to use the knowledge that can be gained with scientific methods and theory.  We will further need to determine which values will guide our decisions and actions.

A further question for being responsible: How do we apply good theory to practical concern?

Lonergan names the kind of knowledge generated by Langford’s study “statistical intelligibility,” the same way of knowing used in predicting the weather or determining the cost of a life insurance policy.  Statistical intelligibility is the result of analyzing the data in order to estimate the probability of some occurrence.  The common way of speaking of the results of statistical intelligibility is, “the odds are that…”  To predict the strength of a hurricane, the meteorologists factor in the sea surface temperatures, low-vertical wind shear, warm moist air, and the ocean area along the projected storm track.  In the case of pricing policies, actuaries in the insurance companies factor in the likelihood of death due to diseases, chronic ailments, and common conditions found among certain groups of people.  Lankford’s study analyzes the number of guns per country, homicide rates, mental illness, etc.  He controlled for each factor to determine if the initial finding held true.  In this way, he verified which factor was the critical one.  He found the number of guns in the United States to be the most significant factor associated with mass shootings.

A question for deciding: Which values will guide our choice of actions to prevent gun violence and mass shootings?

We the people of the United States are called by these latest mass shootings of our young to deeply reflect on what we value the most. Lonergan explains that our values guide and motivate us to act in the best possible way.  Discovering the truly valuable in the case of mass shootings also requires consulting our feelings, but we can be misled by a distortion of our feelings.  Lonergan notes how an individual’s or a group’s bias can blind us to the feelings that would help us prioritize the value of human life.  These school shootings raise the question of our individual and group order of value.  Questions, Lonergan shows, begin the process of understanding and choosing value.  After the Sandy Hook massacre when Congress chose to do nothing, one commenter said the cause of gun control in the US was hopeless.  He said he then realized, that as a people, we prized our guns more than our children.  Is this true?

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.