Wicked Problems: Gun Violence

Ken Wilber Perspectives, Politics, The Ken Show, Video, World Affairs 26 Comments

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In this exquisite 8-hour series, Ken and Corey take an in-depth look at America’s ongoing struggle with gun violence, using the four quadrants to track many of the most critical and commonly-blamed factors, conditions, and causes that seem to be contributing to this terribly wicked problem.

Why does America have such a deadly problem with gun violence? What can possibly be done to solve the issue? Why do there seem to be no easy answers?


rom the foundation of the American union through the War of Independence, to its near dissolution during the Civil War, to the open frontiers of the Wild West and the digital frontiers of video games and first-person shooters — America has always had a deeply complicated relationship with the gun.

Firearms are woven into the very fabric of American life, society, and history, enshrined in our founding documents. Which makes the question of how to reduce gun violence in America an exceptionally difficult one to answer.

America’s pathological relationship with gun violence is what is often called a “wicked problem” — a deeply complex, multifaceted problem that cannot be fully seen or understood from any single point of view, and therefore requires an integral multidisciplinary approach in order to solve. Unfortunately, when it comes to gun violence, there are very few discussions out there that are even trying to put all the pieces together, choosing instead to politicize the brutal deaths of innocent children and families, and allowing the narrative to become dominated by these narrow biases, ideologies, and objectives. In the meantime, nearly 100 Americans die from gun violence every single day.

Because few people can fully see all facets of this incredibly complicated problem, our relationship with the gun — as a deadly weapon, as a defensive tool, and as a deeply-embedded cultural archetype — has become shrouded by shadow. On the one hand it is the ultimate equalizer of power, allowing the most vulnerable among us to defend their lives and land from those who would take them away. On the other hand they are machines designed for only one purpose, to kill other living creatures — and we are seeing far too many senseless killings in America today. For some they are a symbol of independence, individual freedom, and personal sovereignty. For others they are objects of obsession and even fetishization, a substitute gratification for our felt lack of inner power and control over our lives.

In this discussion, Ken and Corey try to identify the root causes of gun violence in America, and suggest some innovative solutions that might help us turn the page on this terribly wicked problem. Ken and Corey begin by identifying some basic facts in order to frame the discussion:

  • America has a serious gun problem. In 2010, the U.S. homicide rate was 7 times higher than the average for populous developed countries in the OECD, and its firearm-related homicide rate was 25.2 times higher.
  • However, gun violence in general has fallen sharply over the last 25 years, by anywhere from 49 to 74 percent depending on which numbers you are looking at.
  • Suicide rates represent the majority of gun-related deaths. Suicides have risen by 25% in a 15 year period, and represent about 60% of all gun deaths.
  • While mass shootings are the most terrifying form of gun violence, they also represent a tiny fraction of total gun deaths per year. In 2018 there were 38,658 gun-related deaths. About 23,000 were suicides. About 14,000 were homicides. Only 71 were victims of mass shootings, or 0.18% of all gun deaths.
  • The majority of politically-motivated mass shootings since 2008 have come from the political right wing. Right-wing terrorism outnumbers Islamic terrorism by a 2:1 margin, and left-wing terrorism by a 5:1 margin.

Ken and Corey then discuss some of the most important factors, conditions, and commonly-blamed causes of America’s affliction with gun violence, using the Four Quadrants to help illuminate and unpack the true-but-partial roles that each of these factors play:


    • Mental Illness
    • Mental Health in general
    • The decline of empathy

    • Pharmaceuticals and
      possible effects upon
      brain chemistry

    • The gun as a uniquely
      American archetype
    • Polarization and the
      culture wars
    • Neoliberalism,
individualism, and the
      loss of community
    • The resurgence of
      white supremacy
    • Family values and the
      rise of fatherless families

    • Access to guns
      and number of guns
      in circulation
    • Internet culture and
      as a platform for
    • Video game violence
    • Over-exaggerated
      wealth inequality,
      automation, and other
      economic factors

Because this is such a complex and Integal problem, and because people tend to only identify one or two of these as the “root cause” of violence — typically the political left looks at exterior right-hand causes and solutions to gun violence, while the political right emphasizes interior left-hand causes and solutions — this conversation is one of the most comprehensive takes on the issue that you will hear. And because Ken and Corey want to give the problem the time and attention it deserves, they only make it halfway through the list after three and a half hours! Which is why Ken and Corey are going to pick up the second half of the conversation soon, where they will complete their discussion of these root causes and then suggest some innovative and multivalent solutions that can help address many of these issues and pressures at once. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, please let us know what you think in the comments below. Were any of these perspectives new to you? Do you think we are missing something completely obvious? Let us know in the comments section!

Corey deVos
Music by Stuart Davis

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Ken Wilber

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Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.

Notable Replies

  1. Hello @BobandAnne, thank you for the discussion. But I can’t help but to feel like this comment is sort of missing the point. To me it sounds like you are saying, “this isn’t a problem, because there are other problems over there.” (But thank you for pointing out that health care is also a terribly wicked problem, as indicated by the statistics you shared. Another topic that is probably deserving of an 8-hour integral analysis as American society begins to transition to more universal solutions.)

    The fact of the matter is, gun violence in America far eclipses gun violence in the vast majority of other modern nations. And it is a “wicked problem” in that there is no single factor or cause behind this violence. The word “wicked” here means “deeply complicated” more than it means “heinous”. That said, I think our gun violence rates can indeed be characterized as “heinous”, especially when comparing to other nations.

    Gun violence is, in fact, a deep complicated problem, and one that absolutely requires an integral accounting in order to make any sense of whatsoever. Which is what we try to do in this very long and comprehensive discussion.

    “it is Gangs that are a much larger problem when it comes to gun deaths and not Far Right Extremism.”

    Yes, and we cover that. We also cover the fact that gun violence as a whole has been trending downward for the last several decades, despite a mild uptick in recent years. But this does not change the fact that, when it comes to domestic terrorism that results in fatalities, far-right extremism is the number one motivation. Because multiple things can be true at the same time.

    “There are no White Supremacists in public, and in fact do you know any personally? How about you Corey?”

    Yup, sure do. Extended family members. I mean, they probably wouldn’t call themselves “white supremacists” as some group identity they belong to, but they certainly believe that other races/cultures/people are inferior to their own, and often blame other people and cultures for whatever resentment or frustrations they feel in their own lives, whether it’s fellow American citizens or immigrants.

    Not to mention the fact that we have had several self-described white supremacists run for political office in recent years. They have not been able to establish a legitimate political foothold, as Ken mentions, but that doesn’t mean they ain’t trying.

    And as Ken points out, this type of thinking tends to come naturally to people who hold amber-level views. And that, unfortunately, describes most people. So yeah, some portion of white people at the amber stage probably have some degree of “white supremacy” somewhere in their system, whether conscious or unconscious. The thing is, as Ken and I point out, we used to have a lid on that sort of amber ethnocentrism — a lid called “modern universal values” — which is now being dismantled from both ends, and which makes people who hold racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. views that much more emboldened to express their views publicly.

    But yes, you are right. Guns don’t kill people by themselves. People kill people. And when they do, they usually use guns. Because it’s super effective at getting the job done. I’m just not sure how much this distinction helps move the conversation forward. It certainly doesn’t make the problem any less “wicked”.

    Thanks again for the conversation!

  2. Thank you for engaging.

    I missed no point. You do not like guns and would like to see them banned except maybe handguns. You align yourself with Government Red Flag laws, enhanced Background Checks.

    Have you ever been robbed? Raped? Or Threatened by a stranger in a violent manner? Unfortunately, I have experienced this and did not have a gun because I did not believe in them.

    I now believe in owning and knowing how to safely operate a gun and I am grateful for that which I did not believe before and I hope you never experience being robbed raped or threatened without a gun handy.
    I am not my beliefs.

    I would rather have a gun and not need one than need one and not have one.

    We already have background checks. Red Flag Laws are terrible laws that are inherently subject to abuse at a time when there are many examples of growing Government and Police abuse.

    You said

    To me it sounds like you are saying, “this isn’t a problem, because there are other problems over there.”

    I never said there is not a problem.

    I said 14,000+ individuals lives are taken through murder with an object called a gun and I pointed out that is less than 1% of our Population.

    Less than 1% is specifically, Point Four Percent of the population are murdered by a gun.

    The vast majority of those murders done with a gun, 96%, were done with handguns.

    I also pointed out the majority of those lives lost are Gang related in 5 Big Cities.

    Gangs are created by no father in the home usually a result of Government welfare cutting off welfare if a man is in the home, and a failing Central Federal Education system. Guns do not create gangs.

    You also seem to have missed at the very beginning of my comment on the fact that millions of lives are saved by guns in comparison to the 14,000 murders which are mostly caused by Federal Government policies that affect the most vulnerable populations of Large Cities.

    The part of the conversation I never hear from you or guests in discussion is how Government devolved from upholding rights and ensuring borders and trade, into the Legal Right To Initiate Violence and Engage in Coercion, becoming more lawless with each passing year.

    Do you agree that our Lawful Constitutional Representative Democratic Republic Federal Government has devolved into an Oligarchy of Career Politicians, their Deep State Handlers in a Grossly Inflated Bureaucracy, specifically the Intelligence; and a Judicial which has become corrupted by Executive and Legislative appointments, along with their Propagandists in MainStream Media and Hollywood? I would also lump in that list Tax Exempt Religion.

    The real Supremacists are the Oligarchy in Government and they empower themselves through division with the conspiracy theory of White Supremacy beliefs.

    Racism is not a white issue only.

    Racism as a belief that exists everywhere in all races and cultures.

    Like any belief, it becomes a problem when violence and coercion are engaged in.

    In your discussion with Ken, you spoke of your belief that guns are a problem and you linked that problem to white racism ignoring the vast majority of gun crime being brown on brown gang related a problem created by Government Policies and not guns or White Supremacists.

    I also mentioned preventable Death in the medical system a far greater problem that affects far more individuals than gun deaths, not to dismiss or demean gun deaths, but to point out the reality of preventable deaths and that guns do not kill as many people in comparison to other objects and systems.

    Ultimately, the problem is not white or brown lawful gun owners with AR 15s.

    Have you ever fired a gun? Have you ever fired an AR 15? There are videos of women on youtube shooting the 2 types of guns and the difference. It is that difference that answers why lawful gun owners will never allow an infringement to their lawful right to protect themselves with an AR 15.

    Violence is what we should be talking about. Protecting myself from violence with a gun is not violence.

    All Violence is wrong, whether a gun is used, a bat, a knife or Government.

    All violence is wrong.

    As a lawful woman, an AR15 or handgun allows me to protect myself from a criminal who desires to do me violence, and historically, the criminal over the last century that has killed the most unarmed people has been government, who passes laws that make it harder for those people to owna gun lawfull.

    You discriminate against guns used in violence from other objects used in violence and you equate that gun violence is somehow more wrong and affects more people.

    It is true that small tiny western nations with homogenous populations have less murder by guns, but it is not a true apples to apples comparison in my humble opinion.
    If you take out the 5 cities that have the most murders, the US murder rate is the lowest in the world.

    When you look at all violence and murder in foreign countries, like murder by knife, bat, etc then you will see that the US is by far one of the most safest places to live.

    What is wicked is ignorance of natural law, simply put, I am free to do all that I agree to do and to not encroach on others nor her / his property.

  3. Well, I agree with that statement 100%.

    I just think you’re going about it totally wrong.

    Do you think any kid suffering would have fared better under socialism? Millions of dead kids of the socialist health care system would suggest the answer is “no”… by far.

    On a related note, the actual procedure of liver transplant was not pioneered in Finland, Sweden or any other nordic socialist country. It was pioneered in the US by a US doctor supported by US medicine.

    We don’t have to solve a heart attack with cancer. It makes no sense.

    Truth be told I don’t think I’m qualified to discuss holons or Ken’s theories. I’m still trying to wrap my head around them.

    Socialism though is different. I’ve seen and experienced it first hand. It like I’ve been skiing for a good part of my life. My family has been skiing for almost all their life. To debate skiing with someone that has never hit the slopes and points to works by other people, who themselves never set foot on the slopes doesn’t seem productive.

    Mind you, I’m not saying Maslow’s theory is wrong. Just that achieving it through socialism is.

    A few lines later…

    So it doesn’t work if we put Democratic Republic of North Korea, but IT DOES WORK if we say “democratic” socialism?

    Moving on…

    In the 1970’s and 80’s a certain area of NYC, “Greenwich village” to be precise gave rise to numerous bands from the post punk scene. These bands had a certain sound that could easily be identifiable. It was a pop punk type of sound. If you wanted to be part of that particular sound and music scene this was the place to be.

    If you were a hard rock or metal band then you probably wanted to be in LA, on the strip, or maybe San Fran.

    In the 1910’s a neighborhood in Vienna gave rise to a very specific current that would take over the world. It was based on Marx’s socialist theories. Some of the future leaders that frequented this neighborhood were Lenin, Trotsky, Freud, Tito and Hitler.

    So my argument about Hitler being a socialist was not disingenuous in the least. Just because leftist academicians try to rewrite history doesn’t mean we have to swallow it whole. Why is it that today’s anti-fascist left resembles the Hitler youth so much?

    On a rather ironic sidenote: most of these “academicians” and now waging war against spirituality and religion trying to erase and suppress both. * well unless it’s Islam, then we know there can be no wrong and everything is cool *

    Let me leave you with this thought:

    What kind of system designed for the “progress” of society does so at the barrel of a gun both figuratively or literally?

    You don’t have to go far (to venezuela) to see the damage socialism has done. Here is an example closer to home and how ‘socialized’ things really work.

    British court orders life support removed from 21-month-old Alfie Evans, who has rare brain disorder

  4. This is an incredibly important topic and I applaud Ken and Corey’s presentation of it. I began writing a reply when I first heard its original form, live, several weeks ago, but other priorities got the better of me. So, let me scribble my response here now, before I lose my train of thought a second time…

    Corey brings up the topic of American gun culture and links it to individualism. A very powerful point. But I’d suggest that an additional important aspect of American individualism, historically, is Christianity. Combine these two dimensions, and we get an interesting insight into American individualism/exceptionalism.

    I’m from Australia. The individualism dimension is lacking in Australian culture. Australia is nowhere near as Christian as the USA… indeed I’d suggest it is among the most secular cultures that exist. Furthermore, Australians don’t have the same sense that Americans have traditionally had, of fighting for their freedoms. Indeed, freedom has been squelched from Australian culture, from its inception. Today the absence of freedoms continues… gun ownership is strictly regulated, free speech exists in name only (so long as it does not become “inconvenient”), voting is compulsory, Australia does not have a bill of rights, regulation piled upon regulation, and so on and so on. Superficially, from the perspective of logos, Australian culture seems very similar to American culture. But in reality the two cultures are universes apart.

    Integral to understand all cultures is imitation. Imitation manifests itself along a gradient, from rabid groupthink through to unity of higher purpose. A lot of people condemn America for rabid groupthink, but most of them don’t know what they’re talking about. Sure, groupthink plays a significant role in American culture, most evident at the extremes, like the NPC progressives and fascistic “anti-fascists” (Antifa). But until one explores the deepest nuances of what groupthink really implies, most people don’t have a clue, because they are speaking from within the cocoon of their own groupthink (Buddhists talk about “seeing the world from their own level”). Or to put it another way… you cannot rely on the dysfunctional narratives of a broken culture to explain Broken Culture.

    Now for the crux of the point that I want to make. Why has Christianity been so important to American culture? I’m not a Christian, and I find the anthropocentric god of the Judeo-Christian religions “problematic”. Nonetheless, Christianity has provided a vital positive force in both Renaissance Europe and the founding of America. What was Christianity’s secret?

    Communism and other religions do indeed talk about a higher purpose. As do other aggregations of society. Social obligation is fairly standard in almost any culture. But it generally expresses itself in the context of groupthink and the need to belong. Christianity is different, because it synthesizes a kind of individualism with higher purpose. The notion of Christian love enters the narrative. The courage to sacrifice for what you believe in. Does Hinduism do this? Maybe. But its historical context is different. Buddhism? Buddhism is more secular, less individualistic, and constrained by filial piety, though they still are inspired by love of truth. Could Hinduism (or even Buddhism) rise up as a religion of an advanced future? Maybe. Watch this space. Islam not. The European renaissance was inspired by something different. If some Middle-Eastern cultures have shown signs of advancement, as they have on occasion, that’s because they’ve piggybacked on Christian-European influences.

    Bottom line… this all revolves around the problem of groupthink. Yes, other systems talk of higher purpose and social obligation. But Christianity synthesizes its higher purpose with individualism and the love of truth. I think that this is the distinction between Christianity/Hinduism and the rest. The individualism that has within it the cure for groupthink. Groupthink is the disease you get when imitation (knowing how to be) turns pathological. Christianity’s individualistic Jesus introduced a very different template for knowing how to be. Ultimately, this relates to the distinction between the cowardice of groupthink and the courage of higher purpose.

    Groupthink is a very real problem. A large part of what we are witnessing in the messy politics of today is the battle between the groupthink of gullible progressivism versus the conservatism that has only recently begun to see through progressivism’s masquerade of moral superiority. Groupthink needs an antidote, and for Renaissance Europe and New-World America, Christianity met that need.

    You don’t have to believe in Christianity, as I don’t, to respect that of all the movements and religions that exist today (with arguable exceptions among Eastern religions, eg, Hinduism), it is perhaps the single religion most aligned with life for a higher purpose. Life for a higher purpose is the antithesis of cowardly, approval-seeking groupthink. Courageous individualism based on moral foundations is a treasure that is missing in groupthink cultures. Directness, freedom, being intimidated by neither mobs nor fools. Never timid or shying from responsibility. Not unlike Jesus Christ.

    Higher purpose? Some people might use the god-word, and we can respect them for that, given that all that anyone ever has are assumptions (guesses). But I’m happy, for the time-being, just sticking with my best guess of a living, interconnected universe… it’s all the higher purpose that I need.

  5. Hi steljarkos, I think if you read carefully what I wrote, you will see that I never stated or even implied “natives good, Christianity bad.” I am well aware of the historic violence of indigenous Americans, north and south; I was not arguing for the moral superiority of native people over Christians. What I was doing was bringing the other side of the story you presented to the fore, by pointing out that in their ethnocentrism, the love, higher purpose, and truth of the Christian colonists/settlers was limited; it did not embrace “all of us,” but rather a specific and limited “us.” And that that kind of love, in addition to its in-group worthy acts, can also do some pretty awful damage to those excluded.

    I’m also aware of the culture wars and the tribalization of race/gender etc. and ideologies, and it is part and parcel of integralism to analyze and critique all sides in order to present a more-whole story. Of course, all lives matter, and yet, I think we have to be cognizant and respectful of certain facts, one fact being the long-term systemic racism that blacks have experienced.

    There is a phrase, “spiritual bypassing,” that you may be familiar with. It refers to the tendency to use spiritual ideas/practices in order to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues or psychological wounds or unfinished developmental tasks. I sometimes think there is also a “humanist bypassing” that occurs in some people, the tendency to use humanism to sidestep or avoid unresolved cultural issues and wounds around race, for instance. So instead of deeply hearing and taking in at deep levels the actual experience of actual humans who have been, indeed, victimized by individual occurrences or systemic racism, “all lives matter” becomes the rallying cry, to the detriment to some extent of any healing or resolution in the culture. As I said, of course all lives matter, and unity-in-diversity is at the top of the list of my values, but I don’t think a true or more whole or fuller and freer humanism can take shape if the real and legitimate concerns of people subjected to racism are devalued or dismissed. In all the radical tribalization and “weaponization of interests” movements, there is still at the core of most of them, I believe, at least a few legitimate concerns.

    No, we can’t undo the past “evil.” The purpose that acknowledgment of those “evils” serves is to give us a more-whole story/picture of things.

    This is a great question. From my perspective, the fact that the human Jesus not only had a “direct line” to “God” (or whatever term one wants to use), but knew himself as God (“I and the Father are One”) is the most important aspect of Christianity that I would want to see preserved. And that through this direct line and identification, his message of love was shaped.

    Ironically, most Christians think it blasphemous for we other humans to believe or identify ourselves as Spirit, God/Goddess, whatever. Yet in both Hinduism and Buddhism, this identification or realization of one’s Self as the “Divine” is mostly what it’s all about. That, to me, is an individualism of paramount importance, and certainly Jesus exemplified this realization. (And yet, it is an ‘individualism’ that in essence includes everyone and everything.)

    Finally, just want to say I appreciated hearing your views about Australia, given that you live there.
    I learned a few things, for sure.

Continue the discussion at community.integrallife.com

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