[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
The tragic massacre in Arizona has pushed the issue of gun regulation, which had seemingly disappeared off the national radar, back into the spotlight.
There have been essentially two types of responses to the shooting. Many, like Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have seized on the shock and outrage of this instance of gun violence to call for stronger gun-control legislation. Others, like Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), viewed the shooting as a reaffirmation of the need for guns to be readily available, with Franks arguing that things would have gone better if "there had been one more gun there that day in the hands of a responsible person," and Gohmert readying legislation to allow members of congress to carry weapons in the Capitol.
Will this horrific tragedy move lawmakers to adopt new statutes to prevent such a shooting spree from happening again? It's unlikely, says a front-page article in Friday's New York Times. The piece quotes Paul Helmke, executive director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, as saying: "I really do believe that this time it could be different." But the article goes on to note that politicians on both side of the aisle don't see it happening, as "lawmakers are less receptive than ever to new gun restrictions."
Why the disconnect? At first glance, gun control seems like any other issue in American politics: highly polarized, with little common ground to come to a mutually acceptable solution. But lawmakers sometimes manage to compromise (e.g. the recent deal to extend both the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits for the long-term unemployed), so why not on trying to keep guns (or at least certain kinds of weapons) out of the hands of madmen like Jared Loughner?
The simple answer is that the gun issue is unique. You can see it in the differing cast of characters, with party membership not playing the defining role in determining who is on which side of the issue. In the examples I gave above, all the figures cited were current or former Republicans. The difference was regional: The two New Yorkers are in favor of gun control, while the representatives from the Southwest oppose new limits.
That's the key. Guns mean completely different things to different people, depending on how (often dictated by where) they were raised. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Not only did my family not own a firearm, to the best of my knowledge most of my friends' parents were also unarmed. To me (and many of the people around me), guns were limited to three groups of people: the military, law enforcement, and criminals. I'm quite sure that when I graduated from college, I had never seen a handgun in person (except holstered ones on police officers' belts). And when, days after Hurricane Andrew, I had to show my lease to an armed soldier to get below Kendall Drive to get to my Miami apartment (and check out the damage; I was in an evacuation zone), I felt shaken after being scrutinized by a man with a loaded rifle inches from my head. It was a first-time experience for me.
In short, guns played no role in my life, and the only time I was aware of firearms, they were mentioned in news stories as being part of the commission of violent crimes.
At the same time, millions of Americans were raised under very different circumstances relative to guns. For these people, guns were part of the family structure. Parents taught their children to shoot, families went skeet shooting and/or hunting, and guns were passed down from generation to generation. Self-defense also played a role, with the long-held belief that individuals have a right to defend their property and loved ones from intruders. Such an approach makes more sense in less densely populated areas, where police and potential witnesses are not always a short distance away.
In this culture, the first associations with guns are family, rights and tradition, not criminals.
So it only makes sense that King and Bloomberg would have such different reactions to the Arizona tragedy than Franks and Gohmert.
I may find it a problem that someone like Loughner was able to obtain a semi-automatic handgun (with large-volume ammunition clips), but I think the New York Times is correct that it is unlikely that the massacre in Arizona will prompt any new regulation of firearms or ammunition.
The question, for me, is how we can get there. And the answer, I think, begins with acknowledging and respecting the differing roles that guns play in different communities of the country. While I admire and agree with the urgent messages offered by King, the Brady Campaign and others like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (whose husband was murdered and son was severely injured by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad), their tactics will not succeed, because, almost literally, they are not speaking the language of the people they have to convince. And polls prove this point. A Gallup survey taken after the Arizona shootings found that only 20 percent of respondents thought stricter gun regulation would have prevented the rampage.
Put another way, to use an admittedly simplistic and more symbolic than all-encompassing example, a father of a seven-year-old starting school in Philadelphia has to understand that guns don't pose the same threat to the son of a farmer in rural Iowa that they do in his community, while the farmer needs to understand that guns threaten the Philadelphia man's son's life on a daily basis, in ways the Iowa man has never experienced. Few laws or policies would adequately address both of their daily experiences.
When you say "gun control," someone like McCarthy may picture disarming a killer like Loughner or her husband's assailant, but that's not what people like Franks and Gohmert think of. They see a threat to their values. And the sooner proponents of gun control account for this fact, the better.
The Times may be right that the Arizona tragedy will not lead to new gun control legislation, but I would urge those on both sides of the debate to seize the moment of mutual grieving to make an effort to better understand the other side's point of view. More than battles over taxes, health care, government spending, etc., there is real room for mutual understanding and respect on this issue. Those who oppose gun control can see that in certain communities--namely America's cities--gun violence is a real threat to citizens (with studies consistently showing that keeping a gun in the home, rather than decreasing the chances of being a victim of a firearm-related homicide, actually increases the risk).
At the same time, those in favor of gun control need to understand the emotional and philosophical importance guns play in many homes, not just to develop better strategies, but to understand how certain policy proposals would play out in these communities, where the threats and societal structure can be quite different.
In the end, I think that if an understanding and respect can be established regarding the differing experiences of individuals with different gun cultures, solutions can be arrived at that take into account both groups' concerns. I don't suggest this process would be easy, but it seems to me to be the only way forward. Talking across each other, with each side almost literally not understanding the other, will not accomplish anything.
(For purposes of this piece, I'm putting aside a third [thankfully smaller] group, those who arm themselves to defend against perceived future government aggression. With their paranoia and tentative relationship with reality, it is unlikely these individuals would be willing or able to understand other cultures' approach to guns, nor would they have much interest in reaching any accommodation. In fact, I would hope that every American, regardless of his or her view of gun control, would be in favor of keeping this lunatic fringe in check.)
I accept that the tragedy in Arizona will not directly result in new laws to make guns harder to come by in the United States. But I hope those on both sides of the gun control issue will take this opportunity to better understand the complicated and varied role guns play in American communities. If they do, we can make every community safer.