The gun debate is front and center in the United States again. Mass shootings across the country dominated headlines in December.
Early in the month an NFL player shot and killed his girlfriend, and then himself. One week later, at an Oregon mall, a 22-year-old man shot three people, two of them fatally, before killing himself. Then, on December 14, a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, killed his mother with her own firearm before continuing the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 20-year-old shooter killed twenty children and six women before turning a gun on himself.
That night, a plethora of Facebook updates referenced the shooting. Most of them offered condolences, thoughts, and prayers on their walls. Others Tweeted similar sentiments. Mainstream, fringe, and social media gave the event its nearly undivided attention and offered their political views. My Constitutionalist friends expressed concern about the government exploiting the shooting to disarm a nation. Gun-control advocates found those worries inappropriate in light of the death of twenty children. Some emailed jokes like these:
Q: How many NRA members does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: More guns.
I found this neither offensive nor particularly funny. I did find it an example of appealing to ridicule, a tactic employed to discredit an opponent’s argument with humor or mockery, not reason or debate. Such approaches can invoke laughter, but they do little to encourage open discussion and plausible solutions on which most people can agree.
The school shooting captivated the entire country, and reached others around the globe. When any one story captures worldwide attention, my cynical side asks, “what else is going on from which the government needs the public distracted?” As it turns out, the country is about to fall off something called a fiscal cliff.
Anyway, since Newtown’s tragedy, the small, affluent, New England town––virtually unknown to the rest of the country or world––has become a household name. And, predictably, everyone is talking guns. Like the political hot potatoes of abortion, capital punishment, and gay marriage, to name a few, the firearm issue is boiled down to two polarized camps: pro-gun rights vs. pro-gun control.
On one side of the oversimplified argument is America’s “gun culture,” a term coined by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1970. It conjures up caricatures of gun-toting, backwoods Republicans who like to hunt, donate money to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and staunchly defend the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). They are usually older, white men who resemble Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck.
On the other side emerges the image of liberal pacifists in Blue States––several of them Hollywood actors who Tweet their political views––who want the government to crack down on crime and make the streets, malls, and schools safer for citizens. They deem the NRA an all-too-powerful lobbyist group full of right-wing nut jobs with guns.
I subscribe to neither of these groups. I suspect that most Americans, like me, can see valid points in both arguments, as well as seeking something more viable in between. But when I went hunting through articles, opinion pieces, and videos on this topic, what I found was a line of demarcation separating those two opponents. From Fox News and MSNBC to Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura to some dude in his basement filming himself for a YouTube video, only two forces emerged, no matter how articulate (or not): protect citizens’ civil liberties to arm themselves, or further restrict gun use to protect citizens.
In search of something that resonated with my more nuanced and complex views, what I found instead was a divided country, each side screaming their own perspective while ignoring the “opposition.” The closest thing I found to an argument that transcended the blind stone throwing was an opinion piece by CNN contributor Roland Martin.
In his December 28 article entitled “National gun ‘conversation’ mostly a waste of time,” Martin writes:
“The tragedy has allowed the usual suspects to declaim from one side or the other. It’s either pro-Second Amendment or restrict guns. Very little else has broken through to put this gun violence epidemic into the proper context.” He continues, “If we are going to keep saying, ‘let’s have a conversation,’ then by God let’s do it. Right now, we are seeing advocates against guns and for guns try to score points and demonize one another. That’s not a conversation. It’s an exercise in futility.”
One point on which everyone does agree is that what happened in Newtown (or Clackamas Town Center, Aurora movie theater, Columbine High School, or any other mass shooting) was tragic and should be avoided in the future. The approaches to working toward that end differ. The NRA suggests that more armed guards at schools can protect against shooters. Gun control supporters call for stricter gun laws, comparable to those in Europe and Australia.
In a country that thrives on buzz words like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom,’ open discourse with varying viewpoints is to be expected, even encouraged. But I have yet to hear a variety of arguments. I have yet to see either side listen to the other. I have yet to come across a viable solution to this problem. It starts with a conversation, which requires both sides to listen. Then, maybe, more than two arguments can infiltrate the discussion.
This article was published in The Politico Magazine on 1/28/2013.