Pointing Fingers: Talking Guns with the NRA

By Story of America Team

I grew up in Central Missouri in the 1960s and 1970s. People drove around our town with guns mounted in the back of their pickups — mostly twenty-gauge shotguns and .22s. I had friends who hunted regularly. Duck season was big in our neck of the woods. So was driving around with a couple weapons for show. The idea of guns was part of life for us back then. Those were the days of the Vietnam War, too. Weapons, the potential for violent threat at any moment, and self-protection were an odd cultural focus that ran under the grain of everything else.

We were Quakers, though — my family. We were pacifists. I was also the son of social scientists. My parents knew the literature and the research. Guns make people a bit more edgy than they would be otherwise. Guns are more than just dangerous — they contribute to the illogic of violence and the idea that threat is a legitimate reaction to danger. There’s a lot of very good academic research on this topic going back decades. The media should report on this research more so that we all know the issues.

I don’t like violence of any kind. I never even spanked my sons when they were growing up (although my Quaker parents spanked me). And I find it utterly beyond reason that any parent would buy their child a gun for any purpose at all — including hunting.

A bit over the top? Not for me. My best friend committed suicide on his 19th birthday with a hunting rifle his father had given him as a gift that day. They had an argument because my friend wanted to change majors and become an art historian. His father wanted him to continue on the path to becoming a dentist. My friend locked himself in his bedroom and blew his brains out.

Was my friend crazy or depressed? I don’t think so. I’d seen him two weeks before. He was frustrated, without a doubt. And he was passionate about art history. He’d just given me a lecture on surrealist and modernist painters using a coffee table art book my mom had given me for Christmas. But he wasn’t leaning towards a violent ending of his own life that evening. He just wanted to become a professor of art history instead of a dentist. That gun just made it all too easy, I’m afraid. Sometimes we feel angry and desperate and we do the wrong thing.

So, I don’t like guns. I would imagine anyone who has lost a loved one to the irrationality of guns in any way feels the same way I do. Once you experience the viciousness of what a gun does to the mind, there’s only one kind of logic to go with.

But I understand that my point of view is not all there is in this debate. Hunting and gun sports are legitimate pastimes in this culture. And people buy their kids weapons in order to teach them those pastimes. Some people also feel strongly that they need guns to protect themselves. And, yes, I think there is at least some legitimacy to people’s concerns about government control of citizen access to weapons.

To me, serious talk between gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts is essential if we’re going to figure this problem out. Real dialog. This essay here comes from reading a blog post by John Cashon called “A Dialog on Cultural Traditions and Understanding.” In his post, John references the work of filmmaker Annabel Park. She has made it her career to document the extreme divisions in our society. You can access Annabel’s work through John’s blog or in the links below.

Both John and Annabel point to the problem of civilized dialog when discussing gun issues. Annabel witnessed confrontations last week in Washington, D.C. during gun control rallies. See her video HERE.

This issue of dialog is more essential on the gun issue than it is on any other issue we have in society. Guns in American culture are at the heart of the question of violence for us. Violence is normal here in this country — from video games to police dramas on TV to all kinds of movies to life on the streets. Violence sparks up at public events regularly. And we all remember those heady days on the playground and running around the neighborhood where older kids and bullies would try to dictate terms.

At the same time, too, of course, most of us are taught that violence is never the right answer. It’s going too far to say that Americans are taught to be pacifists, but virtually all of us would tell you that violence is a sign of evil and that we would only use force in a situation where we were being attacked (or others were).

So there’s a kind of schizophrenia here. Violence is part of everyday life and even seen as a form of entertainment (I love football and am always happy come January when the bowl games and NFL playoffs are in full swing). But at the same time we are taught that violence is bad.

Is it any wonder then that dialog on guns is so difficult? Whenever a culture has to negotiate sticky issues with competing concepts and a kind of mass cognitive dissonance it is almost hopeless.

But take things one step further, and this is the real point of this essay. The discussion between gun rights enthusiasts and gun control advocates always reaches its loudest volume after a brutal slaying of innocent people. And it always gets started by those who believe in gun control. Gun rights people feel that the finger is being pointed at them. So they defend their position, circle the wagons, and go into a kind of lock down self-justification mode. We just watched this happen earlier this week. The suggestion offered by the NRA was to put armed guards in every school in America. We continue to hear people speaking about the idea that teachers need to have access to weapons in the classroom.

I shake my head. I hope you do too. When Newtown’s community was first thrown into upheaval my heart was broken, but I also saw this cultural struggle coming. I wrote very briefly about my fears for all of us (go here to read “Who Are We?”).

Somehow the dialog on this issue needs to be carried out without making others feel that they are at fault for the acts of the mentally ill and confused who perpetrate these bursts of rage. Somehow pointing fingers at each other needs to stop. Somehow all of us grownups need to understand the need to rise above petty, futile, schizophrenic thinking (how many gentle, liberal, intellectuals do you know who love Dexter and The Sopranos?). Gun control is not about taking guns away from people. It’s simply about creating responsibility and doing the best we can to protect innocent people from this violent culture we so revere. But we can’t talk about this responsibility and the idea of protection as long as we point fingers at each other.

There’s so much more to the Adam Lanza story than we will ever know. This lack of knowledge is excruciating and contributes even more to the blame game and cognitive dissonance we all face. My hope for 2013 is that people on both sides of this issue work hard to overcome their inability to talk rationally.

This is one of those moments where our culture can take a huge step forward…not just by gaining a little bit more control over a major source of violence, but by understanding that we’re all in this together and that we all have a part to play here. No one is to blame when everyone is to blame. The real question here is whether we see that we’re building this world for our children and their friends, or whether we want to stay mired in a world that has proven, once again, that it doesn’t work.

I honestly don’t know what the answers are here, nor how we get to some meaningful change. I only know that peace and love are more important than violence and that no one disagrees with that. So how do we use them to dis-schizophrenalize our violent culture? That’s what we need to figure out.