Gun Violence? We Need to Start Listening to Each Other

By Michael F. Mascolo

In recent years, each time there has been a mass shooting, a familiar non-dialogue emerges. Many on the left call out for some form of gun control, while those on the right maintain that the problem of gun violence has its origins elsewhere — in untreated mental illness or, perhaps, a failure of honest citizens to be able to use guns to protect themselves from such shootings. The distance between these positions is vast. We seem unable to move the debate about gun violence beyond this impasse.

As is often the case when it comes to polarizing debate, we are not listening to each other. Each side continues to see the other as an enemy. The other side is stupid, evil, unthinking, uncaring, and so forth. If only the other side would see the error of their ways, the problem would be solved.

But this is simply not going to happen. Progress on this (and other polarizing issues) will not be made until advocates on both sides start to put aside their beliefs and convictions long enough to listen — genuinely listen, with empathy and compassion — to the concerns, fears, and pleas of the other. Rather than demonizing the other, we need to find ways to truly understand each other, even if we don’t agree. Only when each side feels that their concerns have been heard and respected can there be any chance that both can join forces to find new ways to address old and lingering problems.

For example, what is called “commonsense gun control” (something I personally support wholeheartedly), even if it were implemented tomorrow, would do little to stop the spread of gun violence. There are approximately 300 million firearms in the United States today. Even if every firearm were cataloged and distributed to only eligible gun owners, it would still be painfully easy to gain access to a firearm.

On the other side, research suggests that arming citizens for the purpose of self-protection would do more harm than good. Might armed citizens be able to stave off mass shooters? Yes — this is possible, as the recent case in Texas shows. However, even under the best of circumstances, the arming of citizens increases the possibility of greater carnage both in and outside of the context of a mass shooting.

If we force ourselves to really listen to each other, we might find that, in fact, the problem of gun violence extends beyond the availability of guns. Instead, it is a problem of culture. It is a problem related not only to our beliefs and attitudes toward guns, but also to the way we, as a culture, understand and approach the larger issue of conflict. As a culture, we do not handle conflict well. We cannot address the problem of gun violence unless and until we are willing to confront the fact we are, in many ways, a nation of individuals who can too easily be moved to aggressive action.

What will it take to address this problem? We first need to extricate ourselves from the influence of polarizing political extremes. Next, we must seek to acknowledge, honor, and reconcile the moral principles and practices held by people across the political spectrum. On the left, for example, this might include a national movement toward embracing principles of conflict management and non-violent communication.

Conflict-management principles are both powerful and effective. They teach us that in a conflict, it is often possible to advance our own interests by constructively seeking to meet (rather than dismiss) the human interests, needs, and pleas of the other with whom we may disagree.

What would happen if we taught our children to approach disagreement not as a threat to their self-esteem or identity, but instead as an opportunity to reconcile the needs of the self with those of the other? What if we treated care and compassion for the other with the same moral force that we give to asserting our individuality?

On the right, there is a long tradition of deep respect for the power of guns. We should acknowledge and hold up the moral ideal of the responsible gun owner — that is, the typical gun owner who respects the power of the firearm teaches his or her children to do the same, and embraces the ethics of responsibility in gun use. Such individuals are not the enemy in the debate on gun violence.

The task of reducing gun violence is not a simple matter of honoring rights or regulating behavior. It is a question of values, attitude, and ethos — our collective sense about who we are, what we owe each other, and how we are to treat each other.

Yes, we need sensible gun regulation; yes, we need to address the mental health concerns of individuals who have been marginalized. But these are not nearly enough. To build a less violent society, we need to work toward a national ethos of compassion, care, and respect for the humanity of each other.