A colleague asked me if I might be interested in participating in the April 2018 national Week of Conversation and might I also be interested in organizing a “gun discussion”? It seemed natural enough to respond affirmatively to the first question, but I had a number of reservations about the second question.
Over the last ten years or so I found myself facilitating discussions concerning gun issues after mass shooting incidents— a process that took on the wearying feel of ritual. Perhaps the biggest challenge to conducting those discussions was bridging the divide between those ready to ban most (or all) guns and those unwilling to discuss any constraints on private gun ownership. That type of political polarity rarely makes for a productive discussion and facilitators might count themselves lucky just to get participants to a point of saying “I now understand where you’re coming from, but I still don’t agree with you”.
Two or three mass slayings ago I took another tack: inviting gun owners to discussions to explore what they thought could be done about these tragedies. My thinking on this was informed by the considerable time in most prior discussions spent on sorting out the misperceptions on both sides of the divide. In a number of those other discussions there was a tendency to over-focus on nomenclature and mechanical operating systems of firearms. Creating a space for gun owners to discuss gun regulation without the pressures of the gun lobby did indeed convince me that there was considerable room for improvements in gun regulation without significant restrictions on private ownership.
My supportive colleague asked me if it might be useful to approach a Week of Conversation discussion event in a non-tragedy context and draw upon the “exploratory” features of the Interactivity Foundation’s (IF) process? Might something more useful emerge from a sharing of concerns, asking of questions, and looking at possible answers? Well, heck, it might, but how to cram the 4 or 5 meetings of exploration envisioned by the IF process into one action-packed evening?
My neighbors have often served as my IF “guinea pigs”, filling out the ranks of discussion projects and public conversation experiments. They had a basic understanding about what I was up to and had past positive experiences eating my food and drinking my beer. So the invitation went out for an evening of “guns, gun ownership, and protecting our families” discussion. I gave them fair warning that this would be an “accelerated” discussion using “lightning rounds” to explore concerns, questions, and answers.
They lost no time and were already sharing concerns as they heaped up plates of food at my island counter and moved to the twelve-seat dining room table. They generated nearly 50 distinct concerns in the first hour (pretty darn good!), with expected concerns (people with guns who shouldn’t have guns) and unexpected concerns (police use of deadly force). The exploration of questions arising from the concerns was also very seamless and rapid. They had a bit more hesitation when it came to exploring answers to their questions. They had a sense that some questions are not easily answered and others may have multiple answers.
The challenge from the facilitator perspective was to maintain a flexible attitude about how these answers might be grouped in a potentially useful way. This process of grouping was aided by lively and corrective engagement by participants, so that insights I brought to creation of policy categories were sharpened and any cul-de-sacs I was tempted to enter were avoided.
The policy categories looked something like this (allowing for post-meeting fine-tuning):
- Gun ownership issues: who can own, what can be owned, extensive background checks, licensing and periodic renewal, and circumstances justifying temporary or permanent revocation of ownership rights.
- Gun responsibility issues: who is liable for misuse, how risks are managed, insurance role, secure storage requirements, and requirements of manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and private sellers.
- Gun safety issues: training standards and periodic refreshers, guns in households with children, response to active shooter incidents, and safety devices to accompany all gun sales.
- Guns and law enforcement issues: revise use of force procedures to discourage shootings and require more training on how police can deal with mentally ill and substance abusers.
- Guns and society issues: encourage research on gun violence, keep guns out of contentious and hazardous environments (political demonstrations, workplaces, places serving alcohol, etc), and zero tolerance for domestic terrorism.
Participants did not see these as perfect categories. They saw some inevitable overlap and some blurriness that might be overcome by additional exploration. But they did feel that the categories were suggestive of policy areas where action could be taken without trampling individual rights. They also felt that their many-pronged approach to the topic moved the policy conversation beyond particular types of weapons and narrow types of incidents.
When I reported in to the Week of Conversation coordinators they asked me for some participant impressions. Here are two that stood out in my notes:
“What struck me was how many hopeful and positive approaches seem doable to those who really want to get something done”
“The fact that people of goodwill can come up with this type of blueprint in one evening shows how dysfunctional our politics are at present and just how much our elected officials have left us down”
Oh, and by the way, all the participants were white rural residents in southwest Wisconsin, mostly Republican-leaning in their politics, with all but one being gun owners.