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.

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