Three Ways Politicians Can Make Progress in the Gun Control Debate
Even after another deadly mass shooting, presidential candidates avoided any real conversation about gun control. Politicians know the topic of gun control is so emotionally charged that meaningful discourse is nearly impossible. It would be suicide for any presidential candidate to jump into this mess. What’s the problem and how do we make any progress?
It’s not the about guns.
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. And people kill each other with many different tools, like baseball bats and kitchen knives. Guns make it a lot easier though. It’s convenient to focus on the gun as the problem, and naturally focus on controlling access to guns as the solution. The problem with this argument is that it distracts us from talking about the real issues. Why, and under what conditions, do people commit violence against each other? What shall we do about this?
Solution: Focus the conversation on the real issues and causes of human violence, not the tools we use to commit that violence.
Emotions and emotional facts drive behavior
Most human behavior is driven by emotions. I am scared and I want to feel safe. I feel anxious and I want to feel secure. I feel angry and I want vengeance. Yet how I feel safe, how I feel secure, and how I seek vengeance are unique to each person. For one it may be a gun-free house. For another the solution is to have a gun to defend myself. Neither of these solutions can be defended by purely logical arguments.
Things get dicey when we allow our emotions to impair our ability to see the facts. The horror of a mass shooting can hijack our emotional space and lead to all sorts of illogical emotional facts. Gun control proponents take advantage of these situations with impossible and illogical emotional arguments like, “If you don’t crack down on access to guns, then you don’t care about our children’s safety. Do you want a shooting in your neighborhood? Your child might be next.”
Emotions aren’t the problem, though. Emotions are critical. We all want to feel safe and secure. The problem is when we create emotional facts and then pursue solutions based on those facts. Victims of gun violence can be passionate advocates and do great things for the cause. However, if their mission is driven by emotional facts, they can inadvertently move us further away from a solution by polarizing the discussion.
Solution: Validate and show empathy for emotions. Then give equal attention to solutions that help people “feel safe” and solutions that actually increase safety. Recognize that these may not be the same thing but that both must be seen as equally important.
Entitled and outdated interpretations of freedom
The vast majority of gun owners are responsible citizens who recognize the danger and privilege, and step up to the responsibility that goes with it. Are there accidents even in this group of people? Or course. And it’s tragic. What kills more people; accidental gun-related deaths among responsible gun-owners or accidental automobile deaths caused by responsible citizens who are texting and driving? I don’t know, but I’m curious. Where should we be focusing?
The problem is with people who continue to cling to an outdated “wild west” mentality of gun ownership that ignores the dynamics of our current society, the potency of modern-day weapons, and the incredible responsibility that comes with the privilege of freedom, no matter what tool we have at our disposal. It’s a gun today. Tomorrow it’s your car. This weekend it’s the margarita.
Solution: Step up to the responsibility that comes with your freedom. If you support gun ownership for any reason, go beyond just defending your rights and do your part to build a safer, more just, and more peaceful society. Don’t dismiss people who are afraid and anxious. Reach out to them and show them that they don’t need to be afraid of you or your gun.
I recently facilitated a congregational discussion about whether to allow guns in a church. A most amazing thing happened between two parishioners, one who was deathly afraid of guns and another who was packing.
The gun-carrying member listened empathetically while the other shared her fear and anxiety about guns, acknowledging that while her fear may be irrational, it was a real feeling and she just wanted a solution that would help her feel safe. She shared several experiences in her life that supported her “emotional facts”. He validated her fear and anxiety and shared a little about his past, emphasizing that for him, carrying a gun was an expression of his rights and freedom to protect himself and his family. He also shared about the rigorous safety training he’d been through and acknowledged that their mutual goal was to feel safe, not more afraid. He asked her what things he could do, other than getting rid of his gun, to help her feel safer. They changed their discussion to an exploration of how church lighting, locks, and staffing schedules could be adjusted to help everyone feel safer in the church.
As with so many complex and emotionally charged issues, the best solutions can be found when people take time to learn about and appreciate each others’ perspective, and focus on solutions that address the deeper emotional concerns both parties have in common.
Politicians shouldn’t be avoiding the gun control discussion. They should embrace it, re-frame the conversation, and use the energy within this conflict to deal with the underlying issues we all want solved. Otherwise emotional facts and outdated attitudes about freedom will lead to the wrong discussions and ineffective solutions.
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