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A Failure to Communicate: Why Gun Control Is Destined to Fail

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As Washington turns to scandal rather than policy, gun control seems to be slipping from the public conversation, and the already slim chance of legislation passing is fading to black.

This is no surprise. Even President Obama famously only called for a gun control vote, rather than for any legislation actually getting enacted.

I would argue that the roots of American gun violence go far deeper than guns. This doesn't mean I'm pro-gun rights or a NRA supporter. In fact, I think the NRA and related groups embody the nasty divides in our society that ultimately make the U.S. such a violent place.

From a recent essay I wrote on gun violence in the The Morning News:

Perhaps, like a true original sin, groups in power in the U.S. have systematically destroyed social capital in vulnerable communities and between groups of all kinds in order to gain wealth and power and deny it to others. And perhaps they have done this in more ruthless fashion than in other comparable cultures. This could explain why the murder rate in New York has been more than five times higher than London's for 200 years, though the American propensity for violence reaches even farther back than that, going all the way back to frantic religious refugees with visions of the Apocalypse both at their back and before their eyes.

In a roundtable discussion at the Harvard School of Public Health in January, David King, of the Harvard Kennedy School, made a prescient point related to the near impossibility of passing significant gun control legislation.

Politics is often the art of taking a condition and redefining it as a problem.

So why do guns remain a condition, not a problem, for a huge percentage of Americans? Why does debate on this topic get so toxic that it stalls, letting the darkest, shrillest voices take over?
It's a failure of communication. Americans on either side of this issue simply speak different languages -- of gun rights versus public health, as one example -- and as much as you may agree or disagree with the other side, we're not going to get anywhere until we find a common vocabulary on guns... and everything else.

Many doctors and gun control supporters have tried to position gun violence as a public health crisis since the massacre in Newtown last year. Part of this is due to a controversial ban on CDC research into guns, which President Obama just lifted. But it goes deeper. The language of public health equates guns with car crashes and second hand smoke, and it seems like a less threatening way to approach the issue, with advocates acknowledging the challenges and trying to make their solution acceptable to as wide a base as possible.

Like this from an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Gun violence arises from sociocultural, educational, behavioral, and product safety issues that transcend gun ownership alone. Addressing this crisis will require a comprehensive, multidimensional strategy. Toward that end, much can be learned from prior public health successes in changing the prevalence, social norms, and cultures of harmful behaviors. These major achievements -- in the realms of tobacco, unintentional poisoning, and motor vehicle safety -- provide a set of evidence-based, successful tactics for immediate application to gun violence.

On first read, it sounds great. Yet I would argue that, with guns, this still not does get at the deeper causes of the disease -- like inequality or a lack of social capital -- and treats only the symptoms -- gun safety, background checks, social attitudes towards gun ownership.

A campaign against gun violence along the lines of campaigns against drunk driving would, of course, be helpful. It might knock down shootings by a couple of percentage points, which, in a country the size of the U.S., would save thousands of lives. But treating symptoms -- even deep-seated and complex ones -- only takes us so far, and it also carries larger systemic risks. This has created an expensive and often ineffective health care system that focuses not on larger health issues but on the immediate disease at hand. It leads to overprescribed antibiotics, a massive increase in depression despite new treatments and a diabetes pandemic.

And guns are not cars or tobacco. They are more intimately tied to a darkness or chaos in our national character. By calling gun violence a public health crisis, even with the best intentions, it makes gun violence something to be solved with decisive action. This approach can be useful for simple targets -- I would heartily support a war on lead paint, for instance -- but using this kind of language on guns could harden the gun guys the way a bacteria resists antibiotics. They will be immune to the medicine and less and less likely to listen to larger messages.

It doesn't help that the research and statistics on guns and their impact on violence is contradictory at best. And increasingly, guns are a partisan issue, making it ever more infected. Just since President Obama took office, the percentage of Republicans who supported gun rights leaped from half in 2007 to 72 percent as of last July. Democratic support for gun rights also rose but the change was "very modest," said Carroll Dougherty, associate director of research at Pew Research Center to CBC News in Canada. The numbers have gone up and down in recent months but the larger trend remains clear.

So what would a common language on guns look like? It almost certainly doesn't exist today. I would argue that we need to bridge our political and social gaps on local and state levels first, that our society needs to evolve, before we can get to topics this polarizing.

But if I had to come up with something now, I might point to what Ross Douthat in the New York Times calls "our general sympathy for rights-based arguments, heightened by the post-1960s trend toward what Robert Bellah has termed "expressive individualism" -- that has advanced many left-wing causes as well, gay marriage chief among them."

Maybe this is the way out -- to talk about how gun rights and gay marriage partially spring from the same individualistic American spring. This seems ridiculous in the current climate, but it's at least a little true, and it might take feeling ridiculous for both sides to find common words and start to address the open wounds in our society.

From my essay "Bad Land" in The Morning News:

In the U.S., we need to make a conscious decision to be one country, and we must hope that the better angels of all our faiths and creeds will win the day. We must fulfill the promise of de Tocqueville and find liberty not in isolated selves or clans but in the exercising of our local democratic rights, in the dignity of the individual within the caring community. Only by bridging our divides will we preserve freedom and possibly atone for our national sins.