Having Brave and Empathetic Conversations About Guns

Just as I was returning home from the promising Deseret Elevate gathering I recently described, I received an interesting invitation from some leaders of the Lutheran Ethicists’ Network (LEN).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA – the liberal Lutheran denomination in the US) is planning to issue considering [correction 2-26-23] a statement on gun violence and the LEN wants to inform that work. So I was invited to join them at their 31st annual gathering at the famous Palmer House in Chicago to discuss “Guns, Violence, and Security in the U.S.: What Might the ELCA Say Now?”

Palmer House lobby, Chicago. Photo by David Yamane

In response to the invitation, I made clear that “I do take a somewhat different approach to the issue of guns in America than most scholars, which is not to focus exclusively on the negative aspects.” My main line of research is on the normal use of guns by normal gun owners, and this also influences my approach to gun violence.

They welcomed my approach and I give them a lot of credit for that. It would have been very easy for them to invite a gun violence prevention (GVP) scholar or a criminologist to speak with them about everything wrong with guns or have a representative of one of the many GVP advocacy organizations present them a pre-packaged suite of “commonsense gun laws” designed to “protect children not guns.”

It turns out that one of the members of the program committee was familiar with my written work and the videos on my “Light Over Heat” YouTube channel. He wanted me to speak to them precisely because of my approach to understanding American gun culture.

As I picked up my suitcase at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I noticed I had a bag tag on it that I picked up during my one and (so far) only trip to the SHOT Show in Las Vegas in 2019. It read: “HAVE A BRAVE CONVERSATION.”

The bag tag was part of a joint campaign by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the American Federation for Suicide Prevention, but it occurred to me that this meeting with Lutheran ethicists would also be an opportunity to have a brave conversation about guns across lines of experiential/political/ethical/ideological difference.

Having such conversations are much easier face-to-face than in mediated settings (especially social media) because face-to-face conversations benefit from and promote empathy. This is a central point of a book I was reading on my way to Chicago, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

For my 90-minute session, we settled on the title “Understanding and Misunderstanding American Gun Culture and Violence.” I will post the details of my talk separately. Here I will just note that I began my talk by asking how many of the 20ish attendees were gun owners? Three. How many owned guns for defensive purposes? One. How many oppose gun violence? All.

The benefits of beginning a conversation about guns and gun violence by highlighting this commonality between gun owners and non-owners is something I had just experienced the previous fall at a panel on gun violence organized by Deseret News at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Although I was only asked to attend my own session, I gratefully accepted the LEN’s invitation to attend any and all of the sessions. Doing so reinforced the benefit of having difficult but empathetic conversations across lines of difference.

I spoke across lines of difference between gun owners and non-owners, which are also related to political differences. In the session following mine on “Gun Violence Prevention, Locally & Beyond,” a representative of the Industrial Areas Foundation talked about the importance of making connections with neighbors, especially those who might differ from us racially or economically. A representative from a local Moms Demand Action chapter encouraged difficult conversations with other parents about children’s possible access to firearms in the home. And a representative of OneAIM Illinois spoke about their work reducing gun violence by facilitating restorative conversations between offenders and victims.

The differences I have with some of the political activities of these organizations notwithstanding, empathically listening to them describe their work and aspirations helped me see the considerable common ground we share.

More on my talk about “Understanding and Misunderstanding American Gun Culture and Violence” forthcoming. Stay tuned!

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  1. I don’t go to every blog post (and comment on fewer), but I do read every email that comes out. As someone that always tries to stay on the “high road” in civil discourse, I really appreciate this much more thoughtful approach to the debate and politics. Thank you for sharing your work.

    Liked by 1 person

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