Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Plea for Meaningful Conversations: Gun Violence Edition

I want to have productive conversations about gun violence in this country, in part because I want my children to be safe and healthy and alive--and if we just shout at each other every time there's another mass shooting, we won't be able to take the steps that it makes sense to take.

When I first started seriously wrestling with this issue in the wake of Sandy Hook, I discovered that many of my own thoughts on guns were deeply naive and based on misunderstandings. This is not surprising. I grew up in a family that would never even consider owning a gun. I have not only never fired a gun but I have never physically handled a functional gun. I have absolutely no interest in ever doing so. But living for close to two decades in Oklahoma, I am immersed in a gun culture where gun ownership is routine and living without guns is as unthinkable to many as possessing one is to me.

I learned that as someone who has never physically touched a gun, I am understandably ignorant about them. I've made some effort to overcome this ignorance on a theoretical level (I now know, for example, that a semi-automatic AR-15 is not functionally very different from a standard hunting rifle), but I can imagine very few conditions under which I would be willing to actually touch a real gun. To me, they are symbolically bound up with human death in a way that makes the very thought of touching one fill me with nausea. And each new mass shooting--especially when the victims are children--only increases my aversion.

But guns are tools. They have legitimate uses. Some people use them to hunt, and the traditions of hunting give meaning across generations. Some find legitimate pleasure in target shooting, testing and improving their marksmanship in competitive sports. While I think the protective power of guns in private hands is overrated compared to other ways of staying safe--good locks on your doors, cultivating strategies of nonviolent conflict resolution, affirming the dignity and humanity of everyone you meet--there are occasions when a gun in the right hands could save lives.

And there are occasions when a gun in the wrong hands could turn vibrant young adults with their futures ahead of them into corpses. And while a culture that treats guns with respect, as tools that should be used with due care, has value, there exist subcultures that seem to fetishize guns in a way that is almost pornographic--subcultures that take twisted pleasure in the very things that make me nauseous.

We need to have honest conversations that distinguish between law-abiding users and those who would do violence, between a culture in which guns are a dangerous tool to be treated with caution and respect and a culture in which guns become a focus for feeding unhealthy and dangerous psychological urges. We need to make distinctions so that we can make changes--changes that keep us and those we love safer but respect our diverse heritages and traditions and experiences.

How can we have these conversations? What steps can we take to open ourselves up and have meaningful, productive dialogue with people whose views on guns are very different from our own?

I would discourage any answers that are only about how "they" have to change, how "they" are too unreasonable to talk to. What can "we" do to open up conversations in ways that inspire reasonableness and honesty and, hopefully, progress?


  1. Eric, don't hold your breath. Gun nuts are .. nuts. They have a mental condition, both viz guns specifically and their phallic allure, and viz the political system (state), which they want to burn down to the ground, so that their feudal local systems can gain power, and so that their prepping will be rewarded. Trump is totally their creature. Now, why this narrative has found such wide purchase among putatively sane people, I have no idea. Working class and rural people have felt shut out of the go-go coastal high-tech elite system, and this a way to fight back. The state has gone, narratively, from the protector of the common man to the protector of the "elite" and oppressor of normal people, who just want to farm, mine coal and buy gas. Obviously, this is totally backward, if you view the elite as the rich, whom Trump is making so much richer, at the expense of normal Americans. But we have to talk in signals, archetypes, and feelings, not in reason, in this debate.

  2. Guns, such a "loaded" topic (pun intended). I, for one, disdain guns. They are an instrument of death, whether against animal, human or whatever.

    There is great hypocrisy I face in myself. I conveniently eat steaks/hamburgers/lamb chops etc. while not adopting vegetarian options, benefit from a democratic society brought forth from bloody wars, and wish to bring down the "evil doers" that threaten my affluent way of life.

    We live in a world where it takes violence to tame violence. But violence begets violence and even inflames it. Enough said by me, but I think we need to think deeply about this and escape the Republican/NRA rationalizations that ensnare us in this pernicious cycle of bloody violence.