Reflections on Online Dialogue about Guns

As the national debate on gun policy continues, we wanted to highlight this insightful blog post from NCDD Board member John Backman, who shares a story of how deep, meaningful dialogues can take place when we simply ask questions and share personal stories about issues that matter to us. You can find the original post here on the Public Conversations Project blog, or read it below.

Twenty-four hours after the horrific shootings in Aurora, the questions started forming in my mind. They arose not from the tragedy itself, but from the predictable parade of clichés and catchphrases that followed—gun ownership vs. gun control—as if proclaiming them one more time would settle the debate.

There had to be more to the issue, and that simple conviction sparked the questions. Why are guns important to the people who own them? Why is gun control important to the people who favor it? Would “pro-gun” people favor any restrictions if they could be shown to save lives? How do “anti-gun” people deal with the fact that no restriction will prevent horrors like that in Aurora?

So I put the questions on my lightly traveled blog. I never expected what came next.

From this one post, three separate Facebook conversations broke out. (To read them, visit my Facebook timeline and search the page itself for gun.) The contributors were not leaders of “special interest groups,” but rather a collection of professional associates, old school chums, in-laws, even colleagues in a hobby that has nothing to do with firearms. All of them had robust opinions.

Did actual dialogue break out? Not quite. Most contributors used the opportunity to reassert their opinions, with one critical difference from the usual debate: they took the time to explain their positions in depth. More often than not, they shared a personal story from which their convictions sprang—the death of a loved one from gun violence, or a childhood spent in a rural area where responsible gun use was a necessity. They responded to one another’s comments civilly; by the end, they had started to address one another by name.

In the process, we discovered some truths that perhaps should have been obvious to all, but weren’t. Some gun owners had no problem with requiring a waiting period and background check to purchase firearms. Few in favor of gun control wanted to ban ownership entirely.

What can we learn from these exchanges? The lessons will break no new ground, but they are worth remembering:

  • Tone matters. In my initial blog post, I took great care to frame the questions in a spirit of honest wonder, curiosity, appreciation, and gentleness. Commenters responded in kind.
  • In the quest for truth and understanding, we need personal stories every bit as much as abstract argument—perhaps more. Those of us raised in a rationalist tradition (i.e., most of us) find it easy to discount the truth value of “subjective” personal stories. Still, as the stories in this conversation show, experience holds wisdom all its own. Those who have lived a truth often know it in greater depth.
  • Opening the door to authentic dialogue happens a few millimeters at a time. Initially, the tone and framing of the questions nudged us into restatement of positions. Then, the civility and depth of those restatements allowed others to ask more questions and probe gently. Had the conversation continued, I suspect that probing would have nudged the door open a bit more.
  • Conversation can happen online. Dismissing the online world in favor of face-to-face meetings is popular in some quarters, but to assert that position ignores the countless examples of serious discussion—even relationship building—in cyberspace.

Beneath all these lessons, however, lay an insight even more extraordinary. The conversations had given me a glimpse of the hunger—perhaps widespread?—to express, explain, understand, and listen. This hunger lives in the hearts of everyday citizens. It is regularly overlooked in the media and political arenas. Most important for us, it is a hunger for what we, as people of dialogue, have to offer.

Cross-posted from a Public Conversations blog post found here: www.publicconversations.org/blog/one-list-questions-three-conversations%E2%80%94all-about-guns.

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