Mass shootings occur nine out of 10 days in the United States, and seven American children or teenagers are shot dead daily. Though the death toll was so high in last week’s Florida high school shooting, and the horror felt so deeply, there seems to be more surprise at the outpouring of anger and action from young people than at the massacre itself. On one estimate, 150,000 school pupils have experienced a shooting on campus since Columbine in 1999. In these circumstances, such atrocities can come to be seen as almost inevitable – appalling, but the way things are.
Teenagers are insisting that cannot be. First came the boldness, courage and urgency of survivors, vowing “we are going to be the last shooting”; confronting Marco Rubio over NRA cash; chastening politicians: “We’re children. You guys are the adults.” Then the engagement of their peers: walking out of classes and marching on the Florida state capitol and to the White House.
Recent history gives little reason to be optimistic about their campaign. The gun lobby has succeeded in presenting mass gun ownership as a foundational element of American life, long sanctified and protected by the second amendment. The NRA’s own past gives the lie to this. In the 1930s, its president criticised “the general promiscuous toting of guns”, saying it should be “sharply restricted”. The interpretation of the right to bear arms as a matter of individual and not collective defence gained ground only after years of lobbying, and came as firms found new custom by promoting firearms as essential for personal protection.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA’s head repeated in an aggressive speech on Thursday. Donald Trump’s proposal to arm some teachers is the logical outcome of this argument. It is also absurd. The Florida high school had an armed guard. Self-defence arguments have led to the US having more guns than any other country, and gun laws being loosened – yet it has more gun deaths than any other developed nation.
The momentum of students and supporters may ebb. The national anguish that followed the murder of children at Sandy Hook in 2012 produced minimal material change. Yet Democrats have begun to shift in rhetoric at least, however cautious they have been in taking action. Public support for gun control appears to be rising. Mr Trump tweeted that he would be “strongly pushing” to end the sale of bump stocks, which allow faster firing, and raise the purchase age to 21 – though no one is holding their breath and his next tweet lauded the NRA, which opposes both.
These deaths take place amid the broader sense, with Mr Trump’s rise, that something is very wrong in America and that real resistance, not tinkering and timidity, is needed to address it. That means a demand for more fundamental changes to gun laws, but could also help to create a more compelling narrative for a shift, offsetting the NRA’s battle cry of freedom with an emotional appeal to security and community. Gun culture was built over decades. Dismantling it will be a process, not a moment – if it happens at all. Outrage does not guarantee change, or even make it likely. But change won’t happen unless there is outrage.
One of the most successful parts of the structured conversations is built around stereotypes. Doherty, the head moderator, asks the people at each gathering to name five major stereotypes that the other side throws at them. The Republicans invariably list “racist” first, followed by, say, “uncaring,” “uneducated,” “misogynistic” and “science deniers.”
In a session Lawson attended, a Trump supporter acknowledged that the G.O.P. has had a spotty record on racial matters, but it’s important to him that Blues know that’s not why he holds his opinions.
Doherty says that the Reds feel shamed by the Blues to a much greater degree than the Blues realize. Reds are very reluctant to enter into a conversation with Blues, for fear of further shaming, but they often come to the table when they are told that this will be a chance to “de-monsterize” themselves.
At that session one Blue said she was really grateful to hear a Red acknowledge the Republican history on race. When Blues are asked about the stereotypes thrown at them, they tend to list “against religion and morality,” “unpatriotic” and “against personal responsibility” among their responses. They, too, relish the chance to clear the air.
After the stereotypes are discussed, the room feels different. As one Red in Ohio told Lawson, “I think we are all pretty clear on one thing: Don’t tell us who we are and what we think.” Another Red was moved almost to tears by the damage categories do. “We’re not just cookie-cutter people; we’re individuals. Just because you don’t like something, you don’t have to ridicule it — you probably don’t understand it,” she said. “When someone’s heart is full up with something, and then you demean it without even listening to them — I hate that.”
The discussions reveal other sensitivities. Some Blues didn’t want to enter a venue that had a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on the wall. To Reds that was a neutral flag from American history, but to Blues it carried all sorts of nasty associations. Reds were offended by the lawn signs that said, “Hate Has No Home Here.” The implication: Hate has no home in my house, but it does in yours.
In another exercise, Reds and Blues ask each other honest, nonleading questions. Blues may ask Reds, “Name a safety-net program you can support.” Reds may ask Blues, “How do you balance having a heart with keeping health care costs under control?”
By the end of the conversations, the atmosphere has changed. Nearly always somebody will say that the discussion was easy because only moderates were in the room, not the people who post crazy stuff on Facebook. The staff tries not to smile, knowing that some of the people were selected precisely because of the intense stuff they posted on Facebook.
“This is not a civility organization,” Blankenhorn told Lawson. Better Angels is aiming to build a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage in the political system.
We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.Continue reading the main story