Tim McGraw gun controversy: Is meaningful discussion about guns possible?

Country music star Tim McGraw faced criticism from gun rights advocates after agreeing to headline a benefit concert for a nonprofit aimed at protecting children from gun violence. Is there room for meaningful discussion in the polarizing gun debate?

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
Tim McGraw arrives at the 48th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. McGraw said in a statement to The Washington Post Thursday April 16, 2015 he supports gun ownership, but it requires education and safety

A social-media firestorm broke out last week at the news that superstar country musician Tim McGraw will be headlining a benefit concert for a nonprofit aimed at protecting children from gun violence.

The incident again reveals the deep divide among Americans in the national debate regarding firearms. It also raises the question of where advocates on both sides might find common ground amid what appear to be many purely contradictory opinions. 

The controversy began for Mr. McGraw on April 14, when Sandy Hook Promise – an organization named for the Newtown, Conn. school where a lone gunman killed 20 children and six educators in 2012 – announced that the country star would be the headlining act at their summer fundraiser in Hartford, Conn.

Gun rights advocates denounced McGraw, calling him a hypocrite for supporting what they called a “gun control fundraiser.” Others wondered whether the singer was in favor of tighter restrictions on gun ownership or simply "unaware that Sandy Hook Promise’s anti-gun violence stance equates to gun control." (Some of the organization’s founders and supporters have pushed for laws and policies that regulate the carrying and ownership of firearms, according to MSNBC.)

In response to the storm of criticism, musician Billy Currington, who was also set to play at the show, quickly pulled out of the program. The families of 11 people killed at the Newtown school massacre also tried to distance themselves from the controversy, clarifying on Wednesday that any funds raised at the concert would go to efforts at preventing gun violence – not to the families themselves.

The issue persisted even after McGraw denied advocating for gun control.

“Let me be clear regarding the concert for Sandy Hook given much of the erroneous reporting thus far. As a gun owner, I support gun ownership,” he told The Washington Post. “I also believe that with gun ownership comes the responsibility of education and safety – most certainly when it relates to what we value most, our children. I can’t imagine anyone who disagrees with that.”

“The concert is meant to do something good for a community that is recovering,” McGraw added.

Amid such a melee, the chances of finding common ground on the gun debate may seem slimmer than ever. Yet while some of the loudest voices in the discussion come from deeply polarized ends, plenty of Americans have opinions that lie somewhere in between.

“What I see us talking about in the media and on social media is this hardline, ‘Guns are evil, we need to get rid of all of them and the NRA’s [National Rifle Association] evil,’ and, ‘You can pry my gun out of my cold, dead hand; don’t come after my guns,’” Paula Reed, a Colorado English teacher, told Carnegie-Knight journalism initiative News21

“I think most of us are in the middle, but that’s not where the discussion is occurring,” she added. “And because of that, we can’t have a sane discussion that results in sane solutions.”

Ms. Reed’s comments stress the importance of focusing on matters acceptable to people on opposite ends of the debate – such as the importance of addressing mental health issues. 

The NRA has long “urged the federal government to address the problem of mental illness and violence… [and] will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans,” according to their website.

There are sticking points, of course. It's not clear, for instance, which bodies would define mental illness, or how much power they would have to restrict ownership of firearms. Gun control activists have lobbied for broader restrictions around people who have been committed to mental institutions and whom the courts have deemed a danger to himself or others.

Still, “even the reddest of red states have bans on firearm ownership by those who have been committed to mental institutions or judged unfit to own a weapon,” The Washington Post reported.

Having a mutually acceptable starting point opens the door not only for meaningful discourse, but also for progress, as Congress proved recently when Republicans and Democrats united behind 12 bills to combat human trafficking.

Minnesota lawmakers employed a similar strategy last year to pass, also with bipartisan support, a bill that ended gun ownership for domestic abusers. In that case, the key to success was focusing on preventing domestic violence – an issue that had broad public support, according to the Star Tribune.

“I find myself in a position to vote for a bill that actually has the word ‘gun’ in it,” state Rep. David Dill, who has repeatedly pushed for gun rights in Minnesota, told the paper. “I think that is progress.”

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