#LetsTalk: The Gun Debate in America

Written by: Aaditi Lele

Whether you’re talking to friends, family, or co-workers, you’ve probably found that there are a lot of ways to talk about guns in America. While some people frame the conversation as a mental health crisis and others raise legal and policy questions about gun reform, the gun debate is robust and complex. So how can you ensure that these conversations are productive and not divisive? And how do we bring together all of these perspectives and approaches without clashing?

Samar Ali moderated a panel discussion with Jonathan Metzl, Sophie Bjork-James, James Blumstein, and Joseph Blocher.

Here is what we learned to make sure your next discussion about guns pushes the conversation forward.

Who is Responsible? Understanding Narratives and Facts

When beginning conversations about gun policy, it’s important to establish an agreed-upon set of facts and narratives to ground our discussions on.

For the gun violence debate in particular, one of the most important understandings is who is responsible for the crisis. 948 school shootings have taken place since the tragedy of Sandy Hook December 2012. Since 1999, nearly 300,000 students have been on campus during a school shooting. So, what changes need to take place, and more importantly, who is responsible for them?

Framing– both in media and in public discourse– plays a large part in shaping how we assign responsibility and accountability for the gun violence crisis.

Framing can help us see an issue in multiple dimensions. For instance, a lesser-known fact about gun violence is that the majority of gun deaths are actually suicides. It’s easy to think about gun violence as just an issue of bullets and bodies– especially as news and media desensitize us to mass shootings– but how we frame that conversation has so much power.

While some media focus on portraying the gun ownership of law-abiding citizens, other sources may report different imagery. Similarly, some forums focus their discussion of gun violence on the idea of constitutional rights, and might frame proposed policies like background checks as violations of their second amendment rights.

How we talk about a problem matters. Check out our last blog post on the effects of misinformation to learn more.

Building Consensus

After grounding discussions in a common set of narratives and facts, what does it take for us to reach an agreement on what responsibility and solutions should look like ?

When it comes to accountability, media and public discourse around gun violence tends to fall into two divided schools of thought. On the one hand, you have people discussing gun violence as a public health issue, and on the other hand, some people approach it as a problem of freedom and liberty.

Creating a dichotomy between personal liberty and constitutional rights versus public health is harmful to reaching effective solutions– it doesn’t have to be one or the other! This pits ideals of freedom against those of responsibility, and the clash prevents us from being able to bring multiple perspectives together for problem-solving. Gun violence is an issue that requires multiple stakeholders to be at the table, not competing with each other.

Now that we know which stakeholders and ideas we need at the table, it’s important to ask if our democracy is built in a way that allows for these compromises to take place?

Many times our political system is built to pit interests against each other, and that competition impedes shared solutions. Our political system does not reward compromise but rather competition. We need various different voices at the table of decision making.

So, there’s not one clear answer to who’s responsible for the gun control issue in America. In fact, it is our shared responsibility that brings us all to the table. Whether we place blame on one another or our political institutions, we share the responsibility to fix the crisis. One of the most critical and accessible portions of this shared responsibility is our individual ability to influence policy change. With midterm elections upcoming this year, the public has an opportunity to voice that we want a safe society and get involved politically.

The complexities of the conversation

While everyone is responsible to solve gun violence, we need to build a shared understanding of the complex roles that we have to navigate. For instance, it matters whether gun control is placed at the beginning or end of policy conversations. Because gun violence often occurs in a variety of contexts and scenarios, dealing with each context by its root cause– whether it be a social issue, mental health issue, etc.– might result in different policy solutions.

Whether we center our discussions on the root causes of events like school shootings or the gun violence itself, framing is critical to developing effective policies.

What solutions do we need?

Effective solutions can be found at the center of a Venn diagram with three key components– constitutionality, political effectiveness, and popularity. Many policies only satisfy one or two of these conditions. But to be popular with voters, compliant with rights and liberties, and still be politically effective, a proposed policy solution should fall at the intersection of all three of these.

That’s exactly why a “one-size-fits-all” approach won’t work when it comes to the gun violence issue in America. Instead, we need a suite of solutions, equipped with different kinds of policy to address each different aspect of the problem.

Some argue that proposed gun laws should be put to the test through a variety of scenarios. The question we need to be asking about policies, could any particular gun policy have prevented this particular gun death?”

Policy solutions, like background checks and red flag laws, have been regarded as fairly successful throughout the years. Those may address some gun violence issues (like suicides) more than other situations.

It is also critical to regulate the extremist domestic movements that fuel much of the ideology behind gun violence. The white nationalist movement, for example, as well as established groups which spread antisemitism or racism are some of the root causes of gun violence.

Ensuring that public figures and lawmakers denounce these ideologies is critical to furthering the conversation around gun reforms.

Solutions can also take place not just at the federal policy level, enacting change on a state, local, community, and even individual level is critical as well. Seeing as the gun violence issue involves so many mental and community dynamics, it’s important to check in on the people around you.

The conversation around gun violence is going to require a series of talks and discussions with the people around us. Seeing all the different paradigms that people bring to this issue, it’s critical that we communicate those directly and avoid misinformation. Finally, when evaluating different policy solutions, it’s important to ask questions about what the implications of that solution might be– on rights or liberties, on effectiveness, and on community needs.


How can I learn more about the gun violence debate?

Learn more about how rights, responsibility, and policy interact through the Duke Center for Firearms Law here.

Find more information about gun laws and policy in states around the country, as well as at the federal level, at the Giffords Law Center for Gun Violence Prevention here.

And check out these resources from the Alliance for Gun Responsibility here.

How can I have a conversation about these topics with others?

Starting difficult conversations creates a space for you to make your own voice heard, all the while making it possible for others to speak for themselves too.

We know it can be challenging to have conversations about politicized issues, like gun violence and rights. That’s why we created a system of tools you can use to help bridge the divide. Our Listening Guide is our research-informed guidebook on how (and why) to have difficult conversations.

Finding common ground with members of our community who are vested in making change and coming together around those shared challenges is a cornerstone of progress. 

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