A better way to talk about guns in America
Tragic events such as Sunday's Mother's Day parade shooting in New Orleans will fuel the debate over gun control in America, even if legislation is stalled. For a more productive conversation, what if we shelve policy debate and focus on understanding why people hold the views they do?
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In a Q&A between the three storytellers and Laoudji, Brother Lo explained that he thinks guns are the vehicles for violence in his community, but that he doesn’t see them, alone, as the problem. The problem, he emphasized, is the lack of positive role models, the lack of opportunities for the young men he works with. The gun that belongs to the evening’s first speaker, Timney, isn’t doing anyone harm just sitting in his closet, Brother Lo says.Skip to next paragraph
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At this, Timney turns to him: “I would give up my guns in a second if I thought it could bring back your son.”
If this had been a policy debate, Brother Lo might have just conceded a vital point to the gun proponents: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But this wasn’t a policy debate. Instead, two people whose backgrounds and views diverged in almost every way possible shared a moment of honesty that struck at the heart of the matter.
And their truth set the tone for the conversations the audience was to have in small groups, guided by Bob Stains, director of The Public Conversations Project. PCP’S business is to train individuals and organizations to talk constructively on issues that involve differing values and views.
Mr. Stains explained the guidelines for the structured conversations we were to have: Share air time, seek to understand, refrain from attempts to persuade, ask genuine questions. Then we slid our chairs somewhat awkwardly to form groups of four or five strangers.
Each of us began by speaking for one, timed minute about our personal experience with guns.
One woman in my group was a graduate student, interested in public dialogue. Another was a mother deeply shaken by the Newtown shootings. A third was a man who had once signed up for a firearm instruction course to learn how to handle a gun so that he could commit suicide – a track he later abandoned. I offered my own varied experience with guns – family members who are gun owners and NRA members, my own work in an urban community grappling with gun violence, but no personal experience shooting a gun.
A young man named Cory was the only one in our group with extended, direct experience with guns. He prefaced his remarks by explaining that he felt out of his comfort zone. He had come prepared to debate an issue – not to share his personal story.
He wasn’t alone. The mother who was shaken by the Newtown shootings had a thick manila folder on her lap that was full of articles and “evidence” to support her stance against guns. For all her efforts “not to persuade,” her perspective was clear.
For Cory, being forced to think about his personal experience with guns stirred some disarming self-reflection. Growing up, guns were a big part of his life. As he grew up and moved to Boston, they fell away from his experience. Within a year, he says, he’d lost the emotional connection to them. But some of his friends had not. Their interest in guns increased – and he began distancing himself from them.
When asked, he couldn’t articulate why his shift of views and friendships had happened. But he did know he was being prompted on this evening to look at his feelings in a way he hadn’t before.
I began to wonder if that was the entire point of this event. The goal wasn’t to change minds or make policy points. Rather, each of us was sharing of ourselves, collectively questioning, learning, reviewing.
After the event concluded, the members of my group continued talking. Will this really do anything to move the public discussion forward? Are we just beating around the bush by avoiding policy and sticking to polite and personal stories?
Frankly, I’m not sure. But I do know that if we had launched into a policy discussion afterward, and I had disagreed with someone’s stance, that person would not have been the faceless, amorphous “other side.” And I might have understood better how that individual’s story had shaped their view.
Cory told us that in countries torn by conflict, researchers have found that when former enemies work and interact together, their attitudes about the other group change. This personal interaction is far more effective in changing perceptions than first trying to teach groups to change their attitudes so they can later work together.
But I wonder if there were any real “enemies” in the audience or on stage that night. Were we representative enough of the vast swath of American society – or those who hold the most extreme views on gun ownership?
Admittedly, we were a self-selecting group, but it seems the model itself – not necessarily the participants – is what gave legs to the conversation.
Not all of us are sharp debaters or moving orators. But each of us is the expert on our own personal experience. If we begin with that story, and listen to others’ accounts, we start from an even playing field of individual experience. It just might set the stage for something more.