Why the Political Process is Not Enough

image copyright: www.governor.pa.gov

On October 12, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a requirement that persons subject to Protection from Abuse orders are to relinquish their guns within 24 hours of being served with the order. This is a departure from the previous practice of a 60-day turnover. In addition, subjects are to relinquish their guns to either the police, gun dealer, or attorney, as opposed to family member or friend, which was the prior requirement. This law represents a significant victory for gun violence victims, their families, and the gun violence prevention community (“GVP”). The dedicated determination of GVP activists was key to the law’s passage. The success, however, was also due to the long-fought efforts of the domestic abuse prevention lobby, particularly the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and it was, according to Wolf, “years in the making.” It is the product of a decades-long evolution in thinking about the position and rights of women and increased public awareness of the serious problem of domestic abuse.

Although there is reason to celebrate the Pennsylvania law, the passage of gun violence prevention legislation is vastly out-paced by the escalation of gun violence nationwide. For every gun restriction, there are efforts to remove restrictions. For example, in the months following the December 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, the phrase “Newtown Effect” was coined. Parents formed a coalition to push for tighter gun restrictions, and it seemed almost inevitable that they would be successful. In February 2013, however, both the proposed federal ban on assault weapons and the magazine limitation legislation failed in Congress, followed by the failure of the Toomey-Manchin proposal for universal background checks. As for statewide efforts, although 5 states passed stricter gun legislation in the 6 months after Sandy Hook, 15 states in fact loosened them. [1] And until recently, gun sales have in fact escalated after every mass shooting. [2] For every step forward, there are discouraging developments backward.

There has been much written recently about polarization in politics and in society in general.[3] One example of the polarization and intolerance played out on Twitter in the spring of this year, starting with Laura Ingraham’s comment that student GVP activist David Hogg was rejected by four colleges, “whining about it.” What followed, aside from blue chip advertisers stepping away from ad spots on Ingraham’s show (a positive development), was a passionate Twitter exchange about everything from whether David Hogg is a tool of the Democratic party to whether young activists should be held to the same standards as their adult counterparts, to whether college tuition should be free for all, and to whether Planned Parenthood sponsored the March for Our Lives. Amid the vitriol, the question of how we should be thinking about the fact that yet another school was terrorized by gun violence was lost in the fire of ideology and anger, the flames fanned by a media energized by drama.

There were, however, voices of reason which surfaced in the Ingraham/Hogg battle:

“unpopular opinion: it is possible to be both pro-gun and pro-gun control. as a gun owner with a clean background & sound mind, why would be agai

nst legislation that has no effect on me whatsoever but has the potential to keep guns out of the hands of those who pose a threat?”[4]

The entire Twitter exchange, as with so many of the sub-categories of debate on the Second Amendment, demonstrates how extreme hyper-allergic ideology can de-rail the conversation and cause it to lose focus. The conversation quickly migrated from the question of how we protect our children in school, to whether David Hogg should accept Laura Ingraham’s apology, whether Laura Ingraham was acting like a mature adult, and whether we like either one of them. The discourse has clearly lost its way.

Intolerance is alive and well in the conversation about gun reform, perhaps to a greater degree than on almost any other topic. I am a gun reform advocate and a Catholic. I attend mass on Sunday with people who are staunch Second Amendment supporters. I know they are good people. They go to work, raise their families, go to their children’s sporting events, organize fundraisers for needy families, and support the cub scouts, all the things which typically combine into the recipe for being good, upstanding people. And yet I wonder how it is possible for people who share so many of my values to have such diametrically opposed views on the role of guns in society. It is uncomfortable to face this and even more uncomfortable to discuss directly. It is easier to opine from behind the buffer of a computer screen than it is to face the possibility that a friend or colleague sees the gun issue from a vastly different perspective than I do. At the heart of the discomfort is fear – fear of ridicule, fear of appearing unintelligent or uninformed, fear of being inarticulate, fear of having my assumptions challenged, fear perhaps of jeopardizing the relationship in some way. And yet, it is precisely these conversations which are essential to toning down the volume of hatred and intolerance characteristic of the current political climate.

Most of us try to be decent; most of us, although sometimes drawn to the drama of a good fight on the television news, do not relish the destruction and anger which goes hand in hand with polarization. We are uncomfortable with the animosity and would prefer not to participate. But even when we refrain from heated attack on sensitive and politically charged topics, there is the tendency to shut down when we are exposed to opposing views. Perhaps this is a feature of media fatigue, that society has developed an intermittent deafness which switches on at the mere hint of an idea from “the other side.”

Anyone who has been involved in GVP circles knows that the Democratic party has a strong influence over the messaging, outreach, resources, and vision of its activism. In some places, the gun violence prevention organizations and the Democratic party are one and the same. With good intention, many GVP organizations self-describe as “non-partisan,” but in reality, and in practice, their membership lacks representation of gun owners, and they are generally incapable of maintaining consistent support, financial or otherwise, from individuals who describe themselves as “moderate’ or “conservative.” The result of this isolation is often an echo chamber of self-reinforced judgments. Some GVP organizations are mystified at their inability to attract political diversity, while others, perhaps more honestly, simply do not care, being content to “preach to their own choir.” In short, there is an inability to acknowledge and integrate views which fall outside of the dominant party line, and this narrow approach contributes to an appearance of extremism which discourages participation by moderates or conservatives who might otherwise become involved.

Gun culture is deeply embedded in the fabric of American life. [5] Whether one believes this is desirable, it is a reality. If the Democrats sweep the legislature this November, there will be efforts to enact gun regulation laws, and if gun control legislation is passed, this will likely be reflected in a reduction of gun violence. There will, however, be seething resentment from Second Amendment advocates, ready to boil over to the next election cycle. And so, the cycle continues, and we continue to miss the point entirely.

An understanding of the American gun culture and a willingness to work through the differences of those on either side of the debate are important. Staunch Second Amendment advocates say, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I happen to believe that it is the guns which kill people, and if we had fewer guns, we would have fewer deaths. However, we can recognize that there is a small seed of truth to the “people kill people” slogan. We can and should acknowledge, simply, that we are killing each other and ourselves. And we can acknowledge that most people who like their guns are not diabolical; they do not wish to see children murdered in our schools any more than those who want stronger gun legislation would like to see it. The problem is that no one takes the conversation to the next level – if all of us want fewer gun deaths, what do we do about it? It is possible that if the question is framed this way more frequently, there will be less fear and suspicion on both sides. This approach is difficult, and it requires courage, patience, and open mindedness, qualities which must compete with the sensationally short attention span of the media news cycle.

The data clearly demonstrates that commonsense gun laws reduce the number of injuries and deaths from guns, and therefore the effort is worthwhile, even if it saves just one life. Any parent who has lost a child would give anything, I am sure, for that one chance. But changing the law is only part of the equation, the other piece of which is change of heart. Scholars of philosophy, law, sociology, and human behavior have long pondered whether changing the law changes behavior and social mores, or whether social mores and norms lead to change in the law. Most end up with an answer which is some combination of the two – law influences thinking and behavior, and, conversely, thinking and behavior influence the law. The law, however, will be less stable and enforceable if there is not the necessary intention and will supporting it. [6] “Progress is not possible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” [7]

Catholics are familiar with the idea that intention and spirit are as important as the letter of the law. Jesus admonishes the tithing Pharisee who uses the tithe as justification for failing to care for his parents, and He also reminds them of the intended purpose of the Sabbath when the Pharisees argue that it is wrong to harvest wheat on that day.[8] If there is one principle which is abundantly clear throughout the Gospels, it is this idea that the purpose of all laws goes back to the two Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Those who love the Second Amendment are known to say, “don’t pass more gun laws; enforce the laws already on the books.” It would be better if they said something closer to, “don’t pass more laws if we don’t really intend to stop the killing; but let’s truly intend to stop the killing.” If we truly intend it, and we accept the notion that the problem belongs to all of us, it will matter less how we get there than the fact that we get there at all.

The upcoming mid-term elections are a critical step toward stronger gun laws. But serious progress is going to require more comprehensive effort beyond the legislature, a long-term commitment to understanding, humility, patience and compromise. We may not advance quickly or sensationally by taking this approach, but we are guaranteed to fail if we don’t.

  1. Newtown: An American Tragedy, Matthew Lysiak, Ch 19. The 15 states were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
  2. “Why Gun Sales Spike Up After (Some) Shootings,” CNN Opinion, Phillip Levine and Robert McKnight, December 13, 2017. (gun sales appear to spike after mass shootings in periods when there is legitimate risk that gun legislation may be implemented, such as, during a Democratic presidency. Gun sales did not spike after the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, which took place during the present Trump administration)
  3. Two persuasive essays on the danger of polarization, particularly as it relates to faith issues, are “Who is the Cause of Polarization,” Matt Malone, S.J., America Magazine, April 2, 2018 and “Hidden Tribes,” Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2018
  4. Twitter, ken@kweenkengrie, February 21, 2018
  5. America and Its Guns, A Theological Expose, James E. Atwood (2012)
  6. “Laws may be ineffective if they don’t reflect social norms, Stanford scholar says,” Stanford News, Stanford Report, 11/24/14, Clifton B. Parker
  7. George Bernard Shaw
  8. Luke 11:42; Matthew 12:1