The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is the eighth school shooting this year. As a parent who lost her son to gun violence 12 years ago, my heart breaks for the families whose lives have been shattered. As a mother still mourning my son, I am enraged that this is still happening.
Since my son was murdered, I’ve dedicated my time to learning about what works, and what doesn’t, to reduce death and injury. Saving lives from violent gun deaths requires critical thinking and action-oriented efforts—efforts that seem completely beyond our lawmakers.
However, they are not beyond our engineers.
As I write this, Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy is traveling through space with all systems go, thanks to the kind of thinking we need to solve our biggest problem right here on earth.
Engineers follow very systematic processes in solving problems, systems that allow them to reliably generate ingenious solutions, create effective teams and implement groundbreaking change.
Gun violence prevention would benefit from such systems-thinking principles. A successful system requires critical thinking to identify parts, creatively figuring out how to put them together, resulting in innovative problem solving. Gun policies are not based on solid and systematic research and development, especially in federal and state regulations. Political rhetoric and emotions have stymied common sense in approaches to prevent gun violence.
Here’s what we know works. We need systems thinking to develop solutions based on proven methods.
Educational systems based on child access prevention laws that promote safe gun ownership are recognized as effective in prevention of unintentional death and injury of children, as reported by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Be SMART, a program created by Moms Demand Action for Common Sense Gun Laws, is gaining traction as a leader in fostering safe gun storage. Everyone admits to the need to keep children safe from unintentional death or injury due to unrestricted gun access – Be SMART has a five-step systemic approach that can easily be instituted by all gun owners.
Background checks for all handgun sales result in fewer women shot to death by partners, fewer suicides by gun, and fewer law enforcement officers shot and killed on duty. Everytown for Gun Safety reports that more than 3 million gun sales have been blocked for those prohibited by law to own a gun as a result of background checks for guns sold at licensed dealers. The system breaks down when there are millions more guns bought and sold through private avenues. Anyone can go online or to an unlicensed gun show and purchase a gun with no background check. Guns are getting into the hands of criminals and others who should not be allowed to be gun owners. A system of universal background checks must be developed to counteract these statistics.
Keep guns out of the hands of abusers and emotionally disturbed people.
The FBI had been alerted to the danger posed by Nikolas Cruz, the confessed shooter, but failed to act. Similarly, we know the lethal danger posed by domestic abusers possessing guns—and yet a complete and successful system of keeping guns out of the hands of abusers and reducing gun deaths does not exist. With the national gun lobby hobbling all efforts by the U.S. Congress, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence endorses several steps that states should enact to protect women in abusive situations. These include limiting gun sales to abusive dating partners and stalkers, increasing required data reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to identify abusers and prevent them from possessing firearms, and systemic removal of any firearms in possession of an abuser.
So far, knowing what works hasn’t been enough to make change.
Each new shooting brings a fresh round of empty promises quickly thwarted by NRA’s stranglehold on lawmakers. This is precisely why we need to take an engineering style system’s approach to enact gun control change—one that takes the massive resistance of the NRA into account, and counteracts it, just as Falcon Heavy has defied naysayers, structural issues, technical delays and, at last, gravity itself.
Politicians and the public can indeed increase safety measures and reduce gun violence, but to get there, we need to innovative thinking and voices, along with collaborative teams working together to create systems that can be successfully implemented. Our safety, and that of our schools and our children, require us to think like engineers.
Joan Gilbert, a retired K-12 educator, is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project