"The environment shapes people’s actions."
— B.F. Skinner
Last Sunday, as I watched the San Francisco 49ers gearing up for their ninth consecutive loss this season, “breaking news” showed up on my TV screen. This time, the mass shooting happened at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, in Wilson County, Texas. Initially, it was reported that at least 15 people were dead. The killer was a lone man with an assault-type rifle.
By 1 p.m., the Wilson County sheriff told the news services that “about 25” people were dead, including the gunman. Around 2 p.m., Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who was out of town with his wife, said that his 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among the casualties. By 5 p.m., Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reported that 26 people were dead and 20 more were injured by the gunman; half of the injured were still in critical condition by mid-week.
This tragedy took place just 34 days after the shooting in Las Vegas where 58 people were killed by a single gunman with an enhanced rifle. Once again, the topic of gun control became the focus of national discussion during the next few days. The President of the United States as well as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle said that “it is too soon” to try to talk about any kind of gun-control policy, but they expressed their condolences to the families of those who were killed or wounded.
These expressions of sorrow have been well rehearsed by past performances and can be considered to be anticipatory rehearsals for the next occurrence. Unless Congress stands up to the NRA and figures out that the Second Amendment was a guarantee that each individual state would have a “well-armed militia” to prevent some version of European monarchy or totalitarian state from developing as a national government, the shootings will continue.
We should not be surprised if there is another mass shooting next month. Perhaps the news media will even christen it the Christmas Massacre. That will set the stage for the New Year’s Eve Slaughter. Then we’ll have the Martin Luther King Memorial Shooting, the Groundhog Day Killings, the Presidents’ Day Purge, March Madness Murders, and on and on.
There must be a middle ground that allows families to protect themselves from intrusion or harm by criminals, yet puts some kind of restriction on the type of guns that can be sold to civilians. The current open-season type of gun sales clearly isn’t working.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not opposed to people owning guns. I keep a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 in a safe place, but close at hand. I also have one of ten Winchester Model 1894, .45 caliber Colt lever-action rifles in a Madera County special edition issued by Investment Arms, but I’ve never even worked the lever or pulled back the hammer. Neither the short frame nor the long rifle is an assault-type weapon.
Lessons from Skinner
I am opposed to people being able to stockpile automatic weapons and gadgets, like the bump-stock, that enable a semi-automatic rifle to function like an Uzi or AK-15. Unfortunately, the people in charge of our government spend their energies trying to understand and then explain why certain people use these implements to kill as many people as they possibly can. The standard response from our politicians is, “It’s a mental-illness problem.” This has proved to be woefully inadequate and ineffective.
We need to take a lesson from B.F. Skinner, the American psychologist who dismissed the school of psychology that aimed at explanation. He focused, instead, on solution. Skinner is the acknowledged founder of the school of psychology that is known as behaviorism. Behaviorists don’t delve into the causes for erratic or undesirable behavior, they work on ways to control such behaviors.
Let’s try to imagine the U.S. as the country that the rest of the world looks to as a model of how to prevent mass shootings. I know that seems unlikely. But consider this: Before Skinner, the field of psychology was splintered by various theories of personality. There were Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians, Rogerians, Maslowites, and on and on. Skinner dismissed all of their theories and concentrated on changing the behavior of a single laboratory rat.
He accomplished his goals by creating an environment that was controlled by the experimenter (him). The environment came to be known as a Skinner Box, and its effectiveness was verified time and again. It was then up to behavioral psychologists to figure out how to control the environment of severely psychotic patients.
Initially, the techniques were used on people who suffered from schizophrenia. The researchers used a reward system based on “token economies.” The attitude of the doctors was, “We don’t care what the patient is thinking; we just don’t want the patient to continue acting crazy.” As time passed and more students were drawn to this branch of psychology, new methods were introduced (like reinforcement schedules) and environment-controlling techniques were modified. So, modern psychologists use cognitive-behavioral therapy, applied behavior analysis, and social-learning theory.
A new approach
In our current understanding of democracy, we cannot (and should not) set our goals on taking guns away from people. My hope is that we can gather some of the really big brains in our country to work on a completely different method of controlling the way that people think about their guns and how they use them. I know this sounds outlandish, but so did the ideas of B.F. Skinner before the latter part of the 20th century. Now, some version of his basic idea is commonly used by psychological practitioners.
Frankly, I don’t know what new approach can be used to tame the wanton use of firearms. Edison didn’t know how to keep a light bulb burning for more than a few seconds, while he was conducting more than a thousand experiments. When J.F. Kennedy said that we’d put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he didn’t know how to accomplish that feat. My point is that we may not know exactly what to do right now, but we need to set our sights on controlling behavior, not trying to analyze the motivations of various people who may have an unimaginable number of reasons for killing others.