This past Tuesday, as I wrote in a previous column, I attended a gun violence forum at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The program included appearances by various religious leaders representing different faiths, several elected officials from Congress, representatives of anti-violence, community-based organizations and, unfortunately, several parents of children who lives ended terribly and tragically when a gun went off at the wrong time and in the wrong place.  Following the program, I sat at a table, spoke with many who had been in the audience and watched as hundreds of people concerned about gun violence walked by.

Today I am sitting at a gun show in Bloomsburg, PA, also watching hundreds of people walk by.  I have a dealer friend who has closed his retail shop this year and is doing the gun show circuit with a line of cleaning products that he believes are the next best thing to gluten-free food except that, as he admits, he may need to ‘tweak’ his marketing plan a bit in order to move ahead.  A few people walking past his table at the show actually say ‘hello’ or pick up and then just as quickly put down his little cleaning kit complete with a set of ‘indispensable’ tools.  But most of the folks walk right past his table because the guy at the next table has a really nice display of guns.

gun show1                So this week I am spending some time with the two populations whose views on guns and gun-related issues will ultimately make or break the way Americans own and use small arms.  One side, the folks I met at the National Cathedral, truly believe that we would be a safer and less violent country if we didn’t have such easy access to guns; the other side just as truly believes that they don’t need any laws at all to tell them how to behave safely with their guns. These different viewpoints would each find unanimous support amongst the two audiences that were present at the National Cathedral or the gun show in Bloomsburg, PA. But that’s hardly the only contrast between the two crowds.

The folks who walked past my table at the National Cathedral were, first of all, a completely racially and gender-wise diverse lot.  They were also mostly professionals and well-educated, the ‘uniforms’ being a mixture of LL Bean, corporate casual and an occasional outfit featured on Pinterest.  Want to know what passes for designer clothes at the gun show?  Dickie’s Clothing is all over the place, Woolrich is a step up, go for some real style with Pendleton, or since it’s a gun show, pull out the 5.11 gear and whiskey-tango-foxtrot, you’re good to go.  As for race and gender, there are plenty of snot-nosed kids tugging at Mom’s shoulder to ‘hurry up and let’s go to the mall,’ and plenty of Moms who are just as equally tugging on Dad’s shoulder to hurry up and let’s go to the mall.  Gun shows are a man’s world and the man is almost always white.

The point is that the two sides in the gun debate are more different than any two populations that we could identify as having different viewpoints on any public policy issue at all.  When it comes to gun violence, incidentally, what’s funny is that we all seem able to discuss in reasonable tones whether as a country we need to have a ready supply of really big weapons – planes, tanks, nukes – to make the world a safer place.  It’s when we get down to safety on our own street corners with the little weapons that rhetorical ugliness and angry epithets tend to shape the debate.

Somehow over the last twenty years the reaction to people getting killed or injured with guns has turned ugly, raucous and mean.  But hasn’t the discussion of all policy issues become more nasty and abrasive since a certain Kenyan signed a lease at for an apartment in the People’s House?