Every time there’s a mass shooting, the line “gun control means using both hands in my land” comes to mind from De La Soul’s song, Stakes is High[1]. The possible reasons for the shootings get more nuanced to respond to also.

Decades later, the problems they describe in their lyrics[2] are still here, Despite releasing the album with perspective from Brooklyn in 1996. The big difference is that I (probably you too or we) know more people who are working on solving those problems head-on, some of us even working on it systemically. At the same time, the stakes is high[er] even for discussing these issues.

I know responsible gun owners, including hunters and law enforcement officers. I know someone who survived terrorist attacks in the Nairobi, Kenya mall massacre. I’ve shot .22 rifles and shotguns as a Boy Scout. I’ve also felt the air compress by my face from gun fire as someone 8 feet away from me was getting shot at. I know people whose friends and family have been shot and killed from neighborhood violence here in Michigan. I have friends and family who served in or work with the military. They are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Athiests.

I wish we’d all meet or at least establish common understanding when discussion for nuanced topics arises. Meanwhile, I’ve compiled a kind of guide which might help with navigating discussion around gun violence.

I look at gun violence incidents from three levels:
1) Social Factors
Environmental, social, and intentional factors + alternatives via conflict resolution/transformation — what leads up to the event? What is the policy really designed to change in society?
2) Relationship to Guns
e.g. rigor & duration of training, ownership, and access to ammunition in Switzerland differs from the US despite similarly high per capita ownership [3, 4]
3) Lethal Capacity
Details about high volume clips & magazines, lethality by caliber, etc.

Knowing “complex systems thinking” science helps me make sense with “wicked problems” like a mass shooting (or any jarring and political issue). I hope it might be helpful for you too.


De La Soul’s paradoxical grammar in the track’s title reflects our relationship to complex events: the risks, stakes, are actually many but as individuals, we live with and look at all of them as a singular entity, the stakes. To get a feel for the science around complex systems thinking: think of cake.

For the sake of discussion, it’s okay if we don’t cut the complex-systems cake perfectly. Please pardon the rough metaphor. The point is nuanced things emerge from ingredients that go beyond our intuitive imagination. Meanwhile, enjoy this picture of cake by a flickr user named waferboard who was so kind to upload it into the creative commons.

Eggs, flour, and sugar on their own or even added together don’t make good cakes. They’re just ingredients sitting next to other ingredients even if they’re in a bowl.

When you collect (as in — we can only get wheat for flour when it’s ripe, and need to use fresh eggs), mix, and bake the three ingredients just right, new characteristics (magical chemistry in your kitchen!) emerge and you get a cake. That’s an emergent property or outcome.

We think of the cake, not the all the ingredients and work that goes into them. At the same time, we can discover characteristics which reflect the ingredients, their origins, and what might have happened over time once we put together our understanding about all the other processes that make cakes happen — chemistry, agriculture, ecology, culinary art, geography. Geography? Yes, geography. Consider how Birthday Cake in the United States might differ from a Moon Cake in China, and when these cakes are likely to be made. Things can get complicated rather quickly, but we can still identify common characteristics that make it manageable for us to interact with the magical culinary entity that is cake.

Mass shootings are what scholars might call a “wicked problem” — it’s like trying to decipher ingredients by untangling a [wicked] cake that’s already been baked and eaten.

Let’s be more accurate and call wicked problems “wicked processes” though — here’s why: calling something a problem suggests you can create a definite solution. With wicked “problems”, the things we’re trying to solve don’t just disappear or end, they can change or are hard to control because they involve ongoing parts of life which must be navigated [5]. Which is why I now prefer to call issues like figuring out how peaceably navigate the factors which create gun violence “wicked process” instead to minimize confusion.

And by the way, talking about these wicked processes at the dinner table or on facebook posts is often frowned upon because a concrete conversation is challenging to facilitate in reverse: the topics will continue to branch out with complexity and people tend to get lost in details essential to ingredients without context for the rest of the process.

They’re limited to their own perspective.

Or, we tend to debate as adversaries — championing one factor of reality over the other while failing to seek where both views come together in a way that works beyond compromising.

In our cake metaphor, imagine if one person was an expert in growing and collecting eggs, another was an expert in everything that involves flour, and the third was an expert in sugars, but the experts knew very little about how each others’ ingredients.

Going back to the cake metaphor, this is like trying to choose flour vs. eggs in order to make the body of the cake. You need context for both, not one or the other, and together better outcomes with new characteristics (like turning cake batter into a spongy cake) can emerge.

Having the flexibility to look at a topic from another’s viewpoint is necessary for making sense of senseless violence and complicated crises. It’s not flip flopping on issues, it’s the agility required for keeping up with the flow of the world’s events.

Here’s why being able to shift points of view matters: Mass shootings, to me at least, are the outcome of the three major factors multiplied together.


Introducing the three major factors, with their examples again:

1) Social Factors
Environmental, social, and intentional factors + alternatives via conflict resolution/transformation — what leads up to the event? 
What is the policy really designed to change in society?
2) Relationship to Guns
e.g. Rigor & duration of training, ownership, and access to ammunition in Switzerland differs from the US despite similarly high per capita ownership
3) Lethal Capacity
Details about high volume clips & magazines, lethality by caliber, etc.

Without one, a mass shooting won’t happen. While it seems like an easy conclusion to make, it’s also unfeasible to make the absolute elimination of one of those factors that a real solution: people have reasons for owning/buying guns, many of which are reasonable and legal, some illegal and not enforceable, etc.

However, we can and do safely navigate and reduce the risks associated with each layer, and issues can change over time.

Also, we are capable of isolating, managing (think controlling outcomes), or governing (think facilitating outcomes), the risks of a particular factor, place [6], or changing the risks created by particular people [7]. All of this makes safety and genuine peacebuilding possible and practical.

You might notice that the three factors I listed go from very abstract topics (i.e. “environmental factors”) to more tangible (high volume clips & magazines). I believe the list is in order from most effective to least — that does not deny the significance that a high rate of fire and lots of ammunition can have in a mass shooting.

While it’s easy to debate about magazine capacities and even monitor or control things like gun ownership, a complex systems scientist (especially one like Donella Meadows) would argue understanding the system and attitudes that shape it is the most effective way to intervene (read her “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” piece here [8]).

While it may be a stretch to compare, recall that the Rwanda genocides took place mostly with machetes — there’s more to violence than just the tools we use to create it. When we look at the 8 stages that lead to genocide [9], many of them revolve around social factors: classification, symbolism, dehumanization, organization, and to an extent even polarization 5 out of 8 steps involve non-physical violence.

I’m certain most contentious debate around a fuzzy concept like “gun control” will revolve around misunderstandings between one or all three elements I outlined above.


I don’t have any specific policy recommendations, though I hope the above can help inform people to navigate conversations and provide another perspective to help us consider what goes into gun violence more comprehensively.

For now, I think it’s best to learn and do focused on improving your life and the lives of others too — peacebuilding relies on very simple (not always easy) skills to navigate complex circumstances. Sharing a meal with neighbors, evaluating conflict with reason, seeing someone with a different point of view or different set of beliefs as people who can be understood — all of these actions remain within our purview.

As a quick exercise (try answering within 2 minutes — maybe write it down then ponder further later):

1) When you encounter something uncomfortable, how do you react or behave?

2) How do your behaviors and reactions affect interactions with people around you?

3) Let’s assume those behaviors might be beneficial when in the right context. How might it be constructive when applied in other areas of life (at work, in the neighborhood, through government, etc.)?

3) At what point does it become less effective in those environments, and how?

Cited in order of appearance; notable resources IN BOLD for Policy Makers:

[1] Music “Stakes is High” by De La Soul:
[2] For the lyrics, prescient and perhaps not what you’d hear often at the dinner table: 
[3] Gun ownership
[4] Gun ownership continued.
[5] The author’s guide to embracing Wicked Problems (which I now prefer people would call Wicked Processes — includes strategies for risk governance):

[6] A case and disambiguation for the role of gun free school zones and Peace Zones for Life in Detroit
[6.5] Basic procedure for stability operations (securing an area); the Peace Zones for Life initiative applied similar tactics on a school-by-school/park-by-park level
 [6.7] Distinction between managing risk and facilitating/governing risk:

[7] How the city of Richmond, CA’s Office of Neighborhood Safety reduces gun violence by 77% in one year through an intensive fellowship program, includes link to full impact evaluation report at end of article:
[8] Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System by Donella Meadows
[9] 8 Stages for Genocide; I believe this is useful as a guide for examining core behaviors that apply in other kinds of violence.

Ian Tran is the Principal Strategist at ISMOTION, founder of Allegorical Strategies, and a co-founder of the now dormant Dearborn Sustainability Coalition. He also wrote this article and very brief third person bio.

This post was originally published on Ian D. Tran’s personal blog in December 4th and revised to include citations in light of recent events.

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