How to debate Obama's gun proposals

This week, President Obama gives his post-Newtown proposals on gun regulations. But first, Washington must adjust the way it debates guns.

AP Photo
President Joe Biden, center, speaks to leaders of gun-related groups as part of a series of meetings leading to policy proposals by President Obama in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

This week, President Obama will propose new policies on guns. They come after only one month of intense debate among Americans over how to prevent another massacre of children like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In such an emotional climate, will Mr. Obama’s proposals pass Congress in any form?

Not unless the emotions of this debate are first addressed.

Facts and reason ought to prevail in a national dialogue about curbing gun violence. It can be known, for example, if background checks of gun buyers do work. The gun lobby’s proposal for armed guards at schools can be evaluated by looking at the record of schools that already have guards. And legal scholars can perhaps find a consensus on whether the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Second Amendment gives legal leeway for more gun regulation.

But facts and reason can’t always break through the emotions that run through the gun debate. And the most common emotion is fear.

Those who want weapons for their own safety or against a tyrannical government often have the same intensity of fear as those who see guns as causing more harm than good. The fear itself is common to both. Yet the reasons for it are not. Thus reason itself may not prevail.

The renewed strength of sentiments over guns has only pushed Americans into more hardened opposing camps – almost tribal-like – with little listening and a lot of claims of being right.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a New York University professor and author of the recent book “Righteous Mind,” says we must understand this emotional dynamic to begin tackling difficult challenges like gun policies. “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives,” he writes. “Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.”

Becoming part of a social group over a political position carries an emotional appeal. The group takes on a type of righteousness that then blinds it to the possibility that the other side includes people who are decent and may have something valid to say.

Political tactics become more important than addressing the respective emotional needs. Will the president enact new gun rules by executive order? Can the Senate filibuster be broken?

Mr. Haidt warns against this group tendency toward self-righteousness by reminding us that the English word for righteous comes from the Hebrew tzedek. The word describes “people who act in accordance with God’s wishes, but it is also an attribute of God and of God’s judgment of people.”

Righteousness of this higher sort calls on qualities that drive our relationships with each other. How we treat each other in a discussion over gun policy should be more important than the policy itself. Do we demonize the other side and fail to look at our own biases? Do we talk more than listen? Do we understand the fears that drive each side to selectively pick facts in a desire to win?

Unless lawmakers and the gun-related lobbyists in Washington are driven by Americans to first consider the emotions of this debate and treat the other side as good people, few positions may change. Calming the passions first will then open the way to reasoning. It’s a good lesson to set – especially for those would-be killers with strong passions and a gun.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How to debate Obama's gun proposals
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today