All we like sheep — guns and volition

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” — Isaiah 53:6 KJV

A sample of the classic musical form of this passage from Handel’s Messiah:


Here is the “thought experiment” of the day:

Hundreds of ordinary Americans over 18 years old are lined up randomly in front of you. You walk down that line of people, handing each one of them a loaded weapon, usually a handgun but sometimes a “high-lethality weapon” such as an AR-15. Each recipient is instructed “Do not fire this weapon!” but that is the only instruction. The first question is: “How many guns will you hand out before one of them ‘goes off’ in the line behind you?” The second question is: “How many guns will fire before someone gets shot?” And the third question is: “How soon before one of those weapons ‘going off’ is a ‘high-lethality weapon’?”

If you answered by asserting that the sound of a gun just “going off” would be rare, then you are placing a huge bet on the neuroscience/psychology concept of volition. I define volition as free will or choice, but without the religious and political baggage. Volition is “whatever it is” in your brain that makes it “feel” like you are consciously opting between a piece of chocolate cake or a luscious apple if the two are placed before you. Some good science suggests that this “feeling” is more of an afterthought, however, justifying a deeper unconscious choice, but that is another story.

My bet, by the way, is that you won’t have to wait too long before somewhere, back in that line, a gun fires despite your directive.  Welcome to America, where there are more guns than people. My long-standing assertion, backed up by the data, I believe, is that gun deaths in America have, as a primary driver, a random variable that says, “Given a set of millions of unsecured guns, a certain percentage of them will just ‘go off’ on any given day.” Yes, I know there is a person attached to the gun, but my point is that person may be more a statistic than a rational “choice-maker.” Statistically it resembles more a cruel lottery in its randomness.

The corollary to this rule is, “If there are millions of ‘high-lethality weapons’ in a population, there will be a regular statistical occurrence of mass injury and death.” That number is currently 1.7 incidents of mass shooting on average every day. In other words, if we are relying on the strength of the gun owner’s volition alone to keep the trigger from being pulled, we are fooling ourselves.

The gun owner or a person known to the owner is the most common victim. I frequently cite an Army study that the 10-to-1 difference in suicide rates among different Army bases around the world is primarily a function of off-duty access to firearms. Soldiers get depressed and drunk worldwide, but only on certain bases might a service or personal weapon be at arm’s length at the same time, due to local policies. Is it volition or instead the presence of the gun itself causing the suicide? If the gun were not available, the more common outcome is a hangover the next day.

Volition is a heavily studied, yet still mysterious thing. You will not find a simple A-B switch anywhere in your brain. Back to that cake versus fruit choice. In a now-classic 1999 study conducted at the University of Iowa, Dr. Baba Shiv found that, with just the added stress of making test subjects remember a seven-digit number, as opposed to the control group that only had to remember a three-digit number, the probability of choosing the chocolate cake offered to them over the alternative of fruit increased by 50% (with me likely guilty, here, I admit). This study has been repeated in numerous forms since then with similar results. In short, we are never “in control of ourselves” as much as we think we are.

Like Odysseus of the Greek myths trying to sail his boat past the Sirens, many of us find that we need to “put wax in our ears” to avoid the temptations of our most sinful foods, or the temptation to spend too much money, or even the urge to scream at a clueless customer service representative on a telephone call. The data show that far too much firearm bloodshed happens primarily because the gun was simply available and loaded when the rage or depression (or unattended child) was there. “Ear plugs” like locked gun cabinets, strict licensing, high-tech registration systems, training, and required insurance would likely save thousands of lives every year. We know this because that is how it works in other countries with depressed adults, video-game-playing youth, and unattended kids. This is the hard math of a “moral calculus.” The Congress of the United States has made the calculation that over 45,000 gun deaths a year (including many children) is “worth it.”

Gun advocates want to put all the blame on the volition of the shooter himself (and it is almost always a “him,” inserting genes into the volition mix). Guns are designed to be fired, and many weapons are explicitly designed to kill as many people as possible in as short a time possible. While you, if a gun owner, are likely to refuse to admit it, the gun is, by design and your actions, the master, while you are too often the “led astray” sheep. How easy is it to lure gun-toting sheep? Ask Donald J. Trump.

All we like sheep…

I remember many years ago being with a group of teenagers who were corralled into singing Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah one year to beef up the choir at church. However, we kept getting the giggles in practice every time we had to sing the chorus based on Isaiah 53:6. Handel had us repeating just the first part of the phrase only, “All we like sheep…” far too many times while only one part at a time of better singers riffed off on “have gone astray.” After a while we were singing, “All we hate sheep…”

You can choose your part and sing along with Handel’s oratorio here:


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