What If We Begin Discussions of Guns With Our Commonalities Rather Than Differences?

I wrote recently about the challenge of finding a publisher for my book on American gun culture, and my chagrin that some acquisition editors think there is not a market for a “calm, thoughtful approach to the charged topic of gun ownership” (to quote one rejection). Or, as another editor wrote, “it will be difficult to locate readers looking for a ‘tonic’-like approach such a heated issue.”

Although this is frustrating, I also had a number of experiences last year (2022) that convinced me of the possibility and importance of bringing “light over heat” to the issue of guns. I will post about each of these in turn.

Last fall I was invited to serve as a panelist for a discussion of gun violence organized by Deseret News as part of their “Elevate” initiative. The panel was held in conjunction with the publication of a symposium in Desert Magazine on “How to stop the next mass shooting” (which also looked at the issue of gun violence more broadly).

Of note was the diversity of the panel and the audience at the University of Utah’s Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City. I represented sociology on the panel, Abigail Vegter from Berry College is a political scientist, and Gary Kleck is a well-known criminologist at Florida State. We were joined by Amy Swearer, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, and Ari Davis from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Audience members included gun rights and gun control activists, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the Mayor of Salt Lake City Mayor and the city’s Police Chief.

What made this event special, beyond the diversity of opinions represented, was that it was structured to begin not with our differences but with what we held in common. None of the panelists or audience members, regardless of their differing views on guns and gun control, were pro-mass shooting or pro-criminal violence.

Although that starting point does not (and should not) mechanically lead to agreement in the end, it fundamentally changed the nature of the conversation we were having. And in a breakout session among the audience, each table was able to find points of agreement in terms of actions that could address the issue of gun violence while respecting the rights of gun owners.

I was pleased that the Deseret News article covering the event began with my point that “guns are normal and normal people use guns.” I was also quoted as saying,

“The more we just focus on mass shootings, the more we’re going to get stalled out. But if we think about why we’re concerned about mass shootings and we leverage that to address broader concerns, and then within that, recognizing that there are legitimate cultural differences in the way people understand guns.”

Another aspect of the event that I thought was very important structurally was that it was held face-to-face. Something I have been thinking about more and more recently, so more on that in my next post.

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  1. I am surprised that there is rarely representation of psychology, be it clinical or social psychology, on such panels. The field has much to offer in understanding people’s inability to discuss reasonably and find agreement. It also offers opportunities to support rational discussion of why people bear arms and that guns are normal and normal people use guns. Of course, my observations suggest that academic psychology (and academia in general) clearly has a position staked out in this debate. It is illuminating that social and behavioral “scientists” are as subject to emotional bias as anyone else.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Social scientists (and physical scientists for that matter) are definitely human and subject to all of the biases that come with that. Of course, part of the discipline of social science should mitigate against that – it’s failure to in the case of guns is part of the problem you’re pointing at here, for sure.

      In terms of academic social psychology, there is a small literature that I engage with here and there. Jonathan Haidt does great work: https://guncurious.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/gun-studies-peer-review-and-jonathan-haidts-the-righteous-mind/

      Nicholas Buttrick is a social psychologist who is central to what I have called “the standard model”: https://guncurious.wordpress.com/2022/02/18/the-standard-model-of-explaining-the-irrationality-of-defensive-gun-ownership/

      Liked by 1 person

      • There is no doubt that psychologists reflect the common biases. As a clinical psychologist in academia, I can attest that a vast majority are anti-gun yet totally unfamiliar with guns. I am constantly amazed that those who call themselves “clinical scientists” seem to have left the science part of that behind in this case, preferring uninformed advocacy.

        I did look at Buttrick’s work when you cited it – sounds like an interpretation somewhat akin to “terror management theory.” In fact he cites some literature on it; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (1997).

        Liked by 2 people

      • I see a lot of this Terror Management in everyday supporters of gun control. (Not in the lead activists themselves, who I believe have ulterior motives.)


      • Sorry this took a while – busy semester.

        TMT basically posits that people engage in a number of behaviors – some positive, some negative – to cope with or avoid confronting the reality of their own mortality. It is often used to explain why people engage in unhealthy behaviors or avoid making decisions or engaging in healthy behaviors, as they act to avoid confronting their fear (terror) of death. Can’t say I am a believer in it, as it certainly has some Freudian undertones (Late in his career, Freud became more focused on the role of death). But Buttrick’s notion that people own guns for production to so as a means to “aid in the management of psychological threats” seemed to be consistent with that notion. I suspect someone could apply TMT as an explanation gun owners’ motivations for owning and carrying firearms. As I noted, without having read Buttrick’s article in detail, he does cite sources (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997)) from some of the central promoters of TMT.

        Indeed, Pyszczynski et al. (2007) specifically noted that “Although some robberies occur when no one is home to protect one’s goods, it suggests one is not safe in one’s own home, and we suspect that thoughts of robbery often evoke images of men with guns, knives, or other weapons, and it seems highly likely that such thoughts include the realization that one might be killed protecting one’s property.” From that, one can come to Buttrick’s notion fairly easily.


  2. That symposium sounds like it was very congenial and pragmatic. We need more of this.

    To solve any problem, it must first be accurately described, then quantified, then its cause(s) correctly identified. ‘Gun violence’ is not an accurate description.

    “Taking a measured approach and examining each subset of gun violence allows advocates and legislators to pass targeted policy, rather than trying to enact blanket laws that risk alienating law-abiding gun owners and could be ultimately ineffective, the panelists said.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was once a commentator on a panel at a criminology conference and the title of my talk was “There’s No Such Thing as Gun Violence” to highlight the diversity of things that fall under that broad category. I don’t object to the term in general, as some people do (and I can’t blame them for that), but it is certainly used in confusing ways many times. Maybe even more often than not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Its use is intentional petitio principii — the answer to ‘what causes *gun* violence?’ can only be ‘guns.’ Thus avoiding a discussion of the disparate etiologies of suicide, crime, family annihilation, and at least three different types of accidents.


  3. I envisioned myself sitting at a table with a mix of people I didn’t know, trying to articulate what I still cannot. That must have been a great exercise for those able to have takeaways from the event.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. About 2/3 of fatal “gun violence” is in fact suicide. And this is routinely decried by people who want to replace that with “doctor violence” At the same time, most opponents of gun control (NSSF excluded) seem unwilling to deal with the suicide issue. While there are many ways to commit suicide, the hugely differential success rates between males and females would suggest a topic for investigation. Working on this disconnect would be a place to begin to discuss common interests.

    Some acknowledgement of the tiny and declining proportion of “gun violence” that is accidental/negligent would be helpful too. Many gun control proposals are aimed at this small segment of the problem.

    When it comes to criminal violence, it we be helpful to agree that mass shootings and rifles in general are also a small part of the problem. And that most of the problem is caused by a tiny proportion of population that are career criminals. There have been study after study that confirms this but most gun control proposals ignore this and focus on the law abiding.

    I don’t really expect much to come of these proposals because, in spite of your good work, gun control proponents aren’t negotiating in good faith. They don’t really care about crime but are interested in disarming the general public. Contrary to many people on both sides, the point of this is not to prevent armed opposition to government but to prevent people from protecting themselves against criminals. The reasons for this are two fold. The first is to be found in the work of Solzhenitsyn who observed that criminals are the natural allies of leftists. The second is the naïve belief that police and other organs of government are and should be responsible for the protection citizens. Sir Robert Peel, the inventor of modern policing, pretty much demolishes this in his principles but the belief persists.


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