My first job out of college was in Bakersfield, Calif., far from the Northeast where I was
born and raised.
There were a multitude of differences that required not only an adjustment but also a
complete recalibration of what I expected from the world. Bakersfield was far from a
culture of Sunday brunches, The New York Times and Woody Allen-loving moviegoers.
In those early 1980s, New Yorkers were still unabashed Allen fans.
By far the biggest difference was the everyday role that guns played in the lives of many
friends and colleagues.
Growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, before gentrification took hold, I heard about a
neighbor who got a gun for protection but almost shot her husband when he came home
earlier than expected.
Guns, many of the adults agreed at the time, exacerbated the threat of violence they were
acquired to prevent.
Later, when I attended college in Vermont, a fellow student who grew up nearby told me
that her brother had died after being shot with one of the family's guns. All these years
later, I can't recall whether it was suicide or an accident. I just remember that the story
cemented my disdain for guns.
Then I moved to Bakersfield and suddenly was surrounded by people for whom guns
were as integral a part of their lives as public transportation had been for mine.
It wasn't just hunting, though many did. The shooting range and target practice was for
them as relaxing as a day poking through boutiques was for me.
After people overcame their incredulity that I had never fired a gun, they invited me to
the range and offered to teach me how to shoot.
I always demurred. While I no longer recoiled at the thought of a gun, having good
friends who owned them was enough for me. I didn't need to participate.
Then I came home after traveling and discovered that my house had been broken into.
Suddenly, I was ready to learn.
The only problem was that no one was willing to teach me just then.
"You don't fire a gun in anger" was the constant refrain I heard whenever I broached the
Not long after, a sense of isolation and homesickness prompted me to move back East.
I took with me a greater understanding that guns can play a constructive role in people's
lives, a knowledge that loving a gun is not the same as flirting with death, that gun
owners are not fundamentally different than my eastern friends who had abhorred them.
I had been in Boston only a few weeks when I overheard two young men leaving the T,
the city's transit system. They were discussing a gun one of them had just purchased. It
didn't sound as if he planned to use it at a shooting range.
That moment was so visceral. I didn't just understand the divide over gun control. I felt it
and for the first time understood why it's such a divide.
I also wished that my friends in Bakersfield could have heard the conversation, not to
judge but simply to be aware of this reality in much the way I learned to absorb their
That conversation also helped me understand that the gulf between the two realities was
so wide, the people on each side such strangers to each other and the solutions so varied
that rational conversation seemed impossible.
Over the years, I have watched the two sides talk at each other while politicians largely
try to duck the issue.
Then Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children, his mother, six teachers and himself.
For the first time, I see ordinary people hungering to confront this issue. They're realizing
that although we may live miles apart and in different realities, those differences are real
and we're in this nation together.
Since then, I've had various conversations on social media with people who believe that
now is the time to talk and with others who predict that weak-willed politicians will
stymie the conversation.
To that, I say let's ignore the politicians and anyone with a financial stake in the issue.
This is not their conversation. We must initiate and participate in it. It's time for them to
follow our lead.
This conversation, I learned in Bakersfield many years ago, starts with putting aside
distaste, recognizing the other person's humanity and learning to listen.
Deanna Zandt, a social media expert and writer, has this to say:
"I would like to have thoughtful, nuanced conversations about humane gun laws and our
very ill culture but haven't yet found a place to do that. Ever, in my life. There is a way
through this, but all participants seem most intent on beating each other senseless and
recreating violence of morals.
"We all want an end to meaningless carnage (and I do view most carnage as meaningless,
but that's part of the nuances to be addressed). But we can't let go of what we need to in
order to move forward."
This piece originally appeared on MIJE.org.