For more than twenty years, the argument about guns has been going and forth. But when all the intellectual saber-rattling dies down, we are left with one simple issue which needs to be explained: Do guns make us more or less safe? According to public health researchers like Hemenway, Cook and Kellerman the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ On the other side, academics (Kleck) and non-academics (Lott) respond with a fervent ‘yes.’ And what the research of both groups allegedly proves becomes the public stance of the anti-gun and pro-gun advocacy groups like Brady and the NRA.
I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the argument is really all about. Or to put it more precisely, can we ever resolve the argument over guns as long as we cast it in those terms? Because the one thing I have noticed in the more than 20,000 comments that I have received at Huffington Post and my own blog is not so much that people disagree with me, which is what I would expect, but the degree to which each side seems to be speaking a languages that the other side cannot understand. When pro-gun activists talk about their “God-given right” to own a gun, anti-gunners shake their rhetorical heads in disbelief. When people who want more gun control say that guns do more harm than good, they are accused of wanting to make America defenseless in the face of a criminal tide.
There’s no way that two sides this far apart will ever find a common ground to discuss the issue of gun violence, let alone figure out a way to make things change. And whether we want to admit it or not, 31,000 gun deaths and 50,000 gun injuries each year cannot simply be wished away. But it seems to me that there might be a way to find a common language and a common set of definitions that will work for both sides if we stop emphasizing the difference because I own a gun and you don’t, and instead look at things that are the same for both groups, gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
Because the truth is that whether we believe that guns will or won’t protect us from things we fear, we all have the same fears, whether we express those fears through gun ownership or not. Women, for example, are less inclined (by a wide margin) than men to own guns, but they are just as afraid, if not more afraid, of crime. Kids in poor neighborhoods are much more likely than suburban kids to carry guns, but every youngster is afraid of the neighborhood bully who comes sauntering down the street. So the real question is not whether the gun is an answer to our fears, the question we all have to answer is what to do about fear itself.
And the problem is that no amount of research or data or any other set of objective facts is going to compensate for our fears, because fears can’t be overcome by appealing to some well-researched facts. You can tell me from today to next year that I’ll be safer making that trip by plane than in my car, but the moment we have wheels up I get a little nervous feeling that has never appeared when I flip over the ignition of my Ford.
If we could only begin to understand that while gun ownership may divide us, the fears that make some (like me) own a gun are common to us all. At which point perhaps both sides in the gun debate might begin speaking a language that the other side would understand. And then it would become a true debate rather than yelling past each other the way we do today.