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?

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
From left to right: Elaine Frank, program director at the Center on Access to Lethal Measures in Lebanon., N.H., and Larry 'Brother Lo' Banks, a community activist with the Leadership Forum in Boston, both told stories of their connection to guns at a public forum hosted April 23 by The Christian Science Monitor. Nabil Laoudji, founder of The Mantle Project, coached them in the shaping of their stories.

The Senate gun legislation dealing with background checks may have met a resounding defeat a few weeks ago, but the political debate on both sides of the gun issue is far from over. And the debate over dinner tables continues. On Sunday, police say that 19 people – including two children – were shot at a Mother's Day parade in New Orleans.

Is there a way to move this conversation ahead? Is there a better way to talk about guns?

Those are questions this news organization, in partnership with The Public Conversations Project and The Mantle Project, set out to explore a couple of weeks ago. The April 11 event was set up as an evening of storytelling by three individuals with different experiences with guns, followed by small-group dialogue among roughly 60 participants who had signed up to attend.

As an event participant, by the end of a night spent talking with and listening to strangers, I had drawn a pretty clear conclusion: For most Americans, policy debates are personal. And logjams in dialogue often come from our inability to recognize the personal stories and experiences that inform our views.

What if Americans shelved the policy debate and began their individual – and national – conversations by telling those personal experiences, focusing not on who is right, but on where people are coming from? It may not necessarily change minds or translate to political compromise, but it’s a good place to start – a foundation of understanding.

Admittedly, I come to this proposition with some skepticism. I’m an editor in the Monitor’s commentary section; I follow, commission, and edit opinions on controversial issues like gun control. The divisions on most heated subjects are stark – even among seasoned, pragmatic pundits. 

On this Thursday evening in Boston’s Back Bay, I found myself sitting next to strangers on all sides of the gun-control issue. The event started with three stories – one from a gun enthusiast, one from a suicide prevention activist, and one from a father whose son was shot and killed.

These ordinary citizens were coached to tell the stories of how they came to their stances on guns by Nabil Laoudji. Mr. Laoudji founded The Mantle Projectto to showcase such stories and was recently profiled in the Monitor’s “People Making A Difference” feature.

Mark Timney spoke first. He’s a gun owner and gun lover. But little else about him fits neatly into a category. He’s a white, middle-aged college professor and former journalist. He owned his first gun at the age of five and became an avid trap shooter (competitive target shooting at clay pigeons).

Adult life took him on a series of twists and turns – divorce, career changes, depression – that ultimately led him away from shooting. It wasn’t until he hit “rock bottom” that he took it up again with an almost religious “born again” zeal, stoked by the book “Zen in the Art of Archery.” Rolling up his sleeve, he showed the audience a mantra tattooed in black ink across his forearm: “One arrow, one life.”

Elaine Frank then took the stage, adding dry wit and maternal candor. Hers was the only Jewish family in their cookie-cutter suburb of New York in the late 1960s. There she developed a “severe and chronic case of Christmas envy.” Moving later to Brookline, Mass., she graduated from what she called an “85 percent Jewish” high school.

That grounding in diverse worlds bred a bridge-building temperament – uniquely useful for what was to come in her relationship to guns. She spoke of a former Washington, D.C., neighbor who was killed in a drive-by shooting, a cousin who killed herself with a gun, and in her current hometown in New Hampshire, the accidental gun deaths of teenagers. Now she works with gun stores and dealers to promote firearm safety, particularly around suicide prevention.

The final speaker, Larry “Brother Lo” Banks, is a black father and grandfather from a Boston neighborhood plagued with violence, high unemployment, and all the statistics that go along with urban poverty. His story began the Sunday morning he received the deafening news that a mugger shot and killed his son.

But perhaps more wrenching for the audience was the emotional wrestling he underwent “between wanting to get back at who killed my son… and finding some sympathy” for the young man who did it. He described a moment – pinned on the floor of the morgue by his brothers after he’d begun clawing at the walls – when he said he felt touched by God.

In the days after his son’s death, he couldn’t stop thinking of the perpetrator – and the environment that led him to mug and kill his son. He pleaded with his son’s friends not to retaliate. And his mission continues today: With other community leaders, he works with youth, steering them away from crime. “When we have victories in the streets, I say to my son, ‘That was for you, man.’”

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.

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.

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