This is the first in a (hopefully) series of posts called “Talking Past Each Other” – where I attempt to distill both sides of a political argument to make it easier to empathise with people you disagree with. For more background, see this introduction.
Yet another mass shooting happened in Las Vegas recently. And as the (sadly) predictable cycle of news + talking points + vehement disagreement played out on social media, the discourse disturbed me more than usual. We’ve been through this dozens of times and have been talking about gun legislation in the U.S. for literally decades now with no real change in policy. It’s almost as if the two sides of the debate have become ever more entrenched with each major shooting occurrence… What is going on?!
Here’s my take on the dialogue that’s happening, with translations to uncover some of the real intentions/emotions behind what people are saying.
Liberal (left): How many more people have to die in this country before we finally pass some gun control?
Translation: I am saddened by all the death that keeps happening. I may have friends/relatives who were affected this time. I’m frustrated that my government – which I thought was supposed to protect us – has done nothing to change this situation over the years.
Conservative (right): Not this again – don’t use the dead to push your political agenda!
Translation: Every time one of these shootings happen, politicians are always compelled to raise the issue of gun control. I wish we could just mourn the fallen and not use them to score political points. That would be more respectful to the families affected.
L: When is the time to talk about guns then? We should have done something years ago to prevent these events from happening in the first place!
Translation: If we continue to do nothing, we are being irresponsible to our future selves and families. Something should be done about guns – or at least studied so we have some clue about what would work here. I believe in empirical evidence and want to see some data around this.
C: We would have never prevented this. Bad guys will always get their hands on weapons and do harm. Besides, guns don’t kill people – people kill people!
Translation: I feel that guns are always being targeted unfairly. I am a responsible gun owner and I know they are just tools for self-preservation, and we have a God-given right to that. A tool can be used in immoral ways, but that doesn’t mean we should ban the tool – we should look into the person who commits the crime and figure out ways to prevent similar people from getting to this point.
L: Guns don’t kill people? They enable people to kill much more efficiently and are the reason mass shootings are even possible! Why not at least ban the semi-automatics?
Translation: I don’t see any reason for an average American to have the power to mow down that many people that fast. I can accept the handguns – we have the Second Amendment right to bear arms after all. But all I see semi-automatics used for is mass shootings – so I don’t see any reason why we can’t just outright ban those.
C: This is a slippery slope. The Second Amendment doesn’t say what type of arms we should or should not have. Stop trying to take away our rights!
Translation: I see all anti-gun legislation as steps towards the eradication of the Second Amendment. I view the right to bear arms as an essential one – for self-preservation of myself and my family as well as the right to fight against a tyrannical government. That’s what this country was founded on, after all. I don’t want loss of any of my freedoms.
L: What about my right to live without fear of being shot all the time? We’re the only developed country with this much gun violence – it’s shameful!
Translation: The studies are clear – more guns means more gun violence. I don’t want to live in a society with gun violence – period. If that means taking away a bit of my freedom to own dangerous weapons, I’m totally fine with that. I’ve traveled to countries like Canada and Australia and life seems so much better there. (Side note: life is indeed better in Canada, but maybe not for this reason :P)
C: We’re also the freest country – and this is the price of freedom. There is a lot of evil out there – if everyone was prepared by being armed, it would deter criminals much more effectively.
Translation: I’m proud of my country, and our unique freedoms here – including the ability to bear arms against our government. It’s what makes us special! I don’t want us to become like other countries where citizens are stripped of rights in exchange for protection. I feel that I have personal responsibility to protect myself and my family – and I do that with my guns. Everyone should feel that personal responsibility and learn how to handle a gun properly.
L: You want everyone to carry guns all the time? So we’ll just be at risk for more gun deaths, mostly accidental?!
Translation: There are so many stories of dumb, irresponsible gun owners whose children shoot them accidentally or who bring them out at inappropriate times. It would genuinely scare me to be in a society where I’m surrounded by guns. And I don’t want to own my own gun. I don’t believe it’s reasonable to expect everyone to own and learn to use a gun responsibly – that’s time/money we’d rather be spending elsewhere.
C: Oh please. Without guns, how are you going to protect your family? How will we maintain a militia?
Translation: I genuinely fear our government one day becoming too powerful – and when that time comes, I want to be prepared to fight it. I also have seen lots of evil in this world (I may have been in the military and fought in wars) so I think everyone should have a gun for the ability to protect themselves. Banning any types of guns would only weaken us as a society.
L: You’re so paranoid! You really think someone’s going to break into your house and you’re going to save the day with a gun?
Translation: I don’t think the world is as full of evil as some people think. I’ve traveled extensively and met people from many diverse backgrounds – I generally think people are good and we don’t need to fear our neighbors to the point where we need to store lethal weapons in all our homes.
C: Yes, you dumbass libtard!
Translation: It’s like liberals always see the world as a happy-go-lucky, kumbaya type of place. I know there’s bad people everywhere and I’m going to be responsible for my family by owning a gun for protection, dammit.
L: Fucking redneck!
Translation: Conservatives seem to live in a dystopia of sorts. I wish they would meet more diverse people and be more trusting of others, and the government for that matter.
This could go on and on, but hopefully I’ve been able to address the majority of the talking points that we use whenever we debate about guns in America. (Feel free to ping me if you feel your side was misrepresented in any way, of course.) Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate this debate in dramatic fashion:
As you can see, there is a disagreement on values between liberals and conservatives here. Liberals value the peace of mind / security that comes when no one is allowed to own a gun around them, more than the freedom that guns represent. Conservatives simply have the opposite prioritization. At the same time, beliefs about what is really dangerous in the world also differ – liberals fearing the misuse of guns and conservatives fearing the criminals (who will get guns if they really wanted to) and the government (which is kept in check by a regulated militia).
Neither side is 100% right or wrong here. We should recognize that the values and fears are totally valid on both sides – so we shouldn’t ever consider anyone on the opposite side being any less than human. Instead, we have to find the right balance of security vs. freedom, and the right level of protection against criminals and government. That is ultimately the policy challenge here – lawmakers in Congress would do well to approach their deliberations with this in mind.
P.S. For those who were disappointed with a lack of statistics in this post, I’m including the following two videos that I haven’t had the time to fact-check myself – I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader 😉