Published Jan 30, 2023
Star Trek May Have Insight into One of America's Most Persistent Problems
'If we learn how to greet the future with extended hands and open minds, then the Trek future that we all want could be out there waiting for us.'
By Sean Kelly
CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of gun violence and mass shootings to follow.
To be a citizen of the Federation is to be free. Whether you’re on Earth, Vulcan, or Betazed, you’re free from war, free from hunger, free from discrimination. You’re free to pursue your interests, free to quit a job that doesn’t suit you, free to spend all your substantial leisure time playing Tall Chess.
Something else Federation citizens are generally free from is the looming specter of gun violence that haunts every waking moment of American life.
Mass shootings — whether they’re taking place at a grocery store, a movie theatre, or a school — are a distinctly 21st Century phenomenon, and a distinctly American one. Since two students assaulted Columbine High School in April of 1999, regular bouts of horrific gun violence have become a part of this millennium that are as dreaded as they are expected, up to and including the March shooting at a Colorado grocery store that left 10 people dead (the most-recent one at the time I’m writing this, anyway).
It can seem, at times, facile and silly to compare a true and tragic problem plaguing our waking lives to the dreamlike utopia of a television franchise. There are no mass shootings on Star Trek because that’s not what the show is about, after all. The show is a work of fiction, and many of the solutions underpinning Federation society are likewise fictional — replicators, warp drive, friendly aliens, super-intelligent androids with a penchant for oil painting.
Unlike many of the issues solved by indistinguishable-from-magic technology, however, the solutions that Star Trek presents for gun violence are, by and large, achievable here and now on planet Earth. Many other countries have already begun implementing many of these solutions to great effect, in fact.
If we are going to move from the blood-soaked now to the safe and prosperous future of Star Trek, there are a lot of things we’ll have to do:
“...even though he is the most heavily decorated fighting captain in Starfleet, he views resorting to force as an admission of failure.”
— Number One, Star Trek: Short Treks, “Q & A”
Starfleet is meant to be an organization of exploration and discovery, not of war. And though there have been times when Starfleet had to adapt to horrible circumstances, war is not something Starfleet is proud of. Jean-Luc Picard has engaged in battle many times, but his most-notable victories were the times when he let his shields down and took a chance on peace. Captain Kirk, known as a man of action in his boiled-down pop-culture interpretation, was famous for a speech that culminated with “We aren’t going to kill today!” And Leonard Nimoy made history when he decided that Vulcans should have a way of incapacitating their enemies with a touch.
Nonviolence is not an easy road to walk, as famous practitioners like Gandhi and Martin Luther King have demonstrated. But when nonviolence is held up as a respected cultural value, that trickles down into every interaction we have.
"I don't allow weapons on the Promenade, that includes phasers."
— Odo, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
In the future, almost anything you can think of is manufactured through matter replicators, allowing the user to input the pattern of the item they want and get a shiny new version indistinguishable from something handmade. This had the effect of ending the scarcity of virtually all needs and wants overnight, but it also has a lot of potential for misuse — access to a replicator means access to virtually anything your imagination can conjure, including weapons.
Star Trek specifies, however, that replicator access is tightly controlled; while any guest aboard a Federation starship or space station can use a replicator, only trained Starfleet personnel can replicate a weapon like the TR-116 (DS9, “Field of Fire”), and when that happens, the computer keeps a record of who has replicated the weapon and when — functionally creating a gun registry, so that if the weapon is used in a crime later law enforcement would have a lead.
Considering that Lower Decks established that only senior officers have access to fancier forms of pasta, it would also stand to reason that not every Ensign can replicate a rifle at will.
Much like the assault weapon bans here on Earth, the Federation also bans particularly heinous weaponry in their space. The Varon-T disruptor, which causes a slow, cruel death by disintegration, was so illegal to own that only five were ever made (TNG, “The Most Toys”) and, although a criminal did get his hands on them, the added years onto his sentence when he was caught probably made him regret the addition to his collection.
Non-Lethal Weaponry (That Never Malfunctions)
“Maximum setting. If you had fired this, you would have vaporized me.”
— Captain Picard, Star Trek: First Contact
Science fiction has long promised weapons that could safely subdue dangerous people — the TASER was named, after all, after Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle from an early-1900s sci-fi novel. Star Trek’s venerable stun setting has been subduing villainous aliens and out-of-control crewmen since the 1960s, leaving inventors salivating at the prospect of keeping people safe without hurting them.
In real life, however, so-called “less lethal” weaponry has a poorer track record. TASERs have been known to kill people with heart conditions and other health problems, and things like tear gas and bean bag rounds can be equally deadly depending on how they’re deployed. When a phaser’s stun setting doesn’t work, it’s usually because it was insufficiently powerful for the alien of the week; when modern-day non-lethal weaponry doesn’t work the way it’s meant to, people get killed, hurt, or blinded. And sometimes, the person causing that harm is doing so deliberately.
While we wait for reliable stun settings to be invented, most justice-reform advocates talk about shifting our focus from weaponry to things like de-escalation, so that law enforcement can talk down dangerous or agitated people without hurting anyone.
Mental Health Care For All
“But you can't let that brief moment define your entire life. If you do, if you pull that trigger, then the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend."
— Doctor Bashir, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Counselor Troi is more than just a gifted mental-health practitioner; she’s a symbol that in the ideal future of Star Trek, everyone will have access to the resources they need to keep themselves as mentally healthy as possible, without stigma. Everyone aboard the Enterprise, from anxious Barclay to surly Worf, visits Troi regularly to keep their mental processes in tip-top shape.
At one of his lowest points, Miles O’Brien gets hold of a phaser with the intention of hurting himself (DS9, “Hard Time”). It’s a well-known statistic that people with access to weapons are more likely to hurt themselves than others. Doctor Bashir was able to talk him down (there’s that de-escalation thing again) and soon, Miles was willingly attending sessions with a station counselor.
No Poverty, No Crime
"Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself, and you're telling me that isn't how it is anymore?!"
— Mark Twain, Star Trek: The Next Generation
A lot of people commit crimes out of desperation, and a lot of those desperate crimes can turn into shootings with a little bad luck. The world of the Federation helps curtail that sort of thing by making sure that every person living in Federation space is looked after with access to food, shelter, and medical care.
This is, admittedly, more difficult to pull off in a world without replicators. But many other developed nations around the world have met this challenge head-on to provide the least among us with resources designed to stave off the type of desperation that leads to violent crime, including free medical care, decriminalization of drug use, and more. That’s not to say that these other countries don’t have poverty or violent crime; of course, they do. What they don’t have is the kind of violent crime that reaches the levels seen in the United States.
When people’s basic needs are cared for, they’re less likely to hurt other people.
No More Toxic Masculinity
"That attitude is outmoded and sexist. Besides, you look good in a dress."
— Commander Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation
We can all agree that when Reginald Barclay decided to make Holodeck simulations of all his co-workers, that was pretty disturbing. What he didn’t do, however, was replicate a compression rifle and charge into 10 Forward one fateful day.
Far too often, the men (and it’s almost always men) who commit acts of mass gun violence are doing so to rectify a perceived slight on their masculinity (which also often intersects with other issues, such as racism, homophobia, and more). Maybe they lost their job, maybe they were rejected for a date, maybe someone laughed at them. Whatever it was, the only way these men feel like they can re-establish their own masculinity is by hurting people.
The future of Star Trek doesn’t have this problem. In Starfleet, men and women both serve, and serve equally. There are no traditional gender roles for ship’s doctor, chief of security, or captain. Even Chakotay, a wanted terrorist/freedom fighter for the Maquis, agrees to serve under Captain Janeway without even the slightest mention of gender. The crew of the Discovery adapts to one of their own having they/them pronouns with a simple “Okay.”
Feats of masculinity aren’t how people prove themselves in Starfleet. Their society isn’t structured around earning respect that way. Scientists and artists are the true rockstars, and combat is viewed as a failure of diplomacy by Starfleet captains. Self-improvement and self-actualization are the goals of the future, and those are goals we can set for ourselves today.
A Beautiful Future
"Where is your mother?"
"She died about a year ago. Father said she went to a beautiful place, where everything is peaceful and everyone loves each other and no one ever gets sick. Do you think there's really a place like that?"
"Yes. I do."
— Data and Gia, Star Trek: The Next Generation
In the evil future of the Mirror Universe, Zefram Cochrane greets the arriving Vulcans with a shotgun. In the Star Trek Prime Universe, on the other hand, he greets them with a hand extended in friendship.
The choice we’re faced with in the real world is no less stark — if we lean on guns as the answer to our problems, our future will likely be as dark as the Mirror Universe is. If we learn how to greet the future with extended hands and open minds, then the Trek future that we all want could be out there waiting for us.
This article was originally published on April 9, 2021.
Sean Kelly (he/him) is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He occasionally gets depressed that he’ll never know what raktajino tastes like.