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Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. Headshot

One Year After Sandy Hook, What Can Move Us Forward in the Gun Debate

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You had me at Columbine. I was ready then, ready to make big changes in young people's access to guns -- even if that meant changes to the rules imposed on their parents, as well. I did not need Virginia Tech, Red Lake, or any other senseless shootings that happen all across the United States with alarming frequency. I certainly did not need Sandy Hook and the lesson that there still are frontiers of horror out there.

As a clinical psychologist and violence researcher, gun control does not sound bad or scary or unconstitutional. Instead, "well-regulated" means that there is room for the type of safety regulations the government mandates in many other areas. We regulate how much shampoo a person can bring on an airplane but not how many bullets people can arm themselves with. I'm often dumbfounded that the lives of children are deemed less important than the right to carry a weapon with a high-capacity magazine.

And yet, I live in rural Tennessee, where the majority of my neighbors do not view these issues the same way I do. They are not bad people. They are not stupid people. I do not think most of them have tried very hard to understand the position of those who would like to see more gun control. However, if I am honest, I cannot say that I have tried very hard to understand their position either. And therein lies the problem.

But, where do we start? There exist countless commentaries bemoaning the divisiveness and polarization about the gun debate, and many authors seem to think the solution is for people to start thinking more like them. Similarly, a search of the "scholarly" literature on gun violence produces mostly the writings and research of people whose personal views on the topic are not hard to guess.

A few things seem obvious. The dearth of research on guns means that people on both sides of the debate lack data to make their case. For example, there are numerous recommended safety measures -- gun safes, trigger locks, storing ammunition separately from weapons -- but we have very little data on the percentage of the population that follows these safety guidelines. We know little of the obstacles to gun safety, or whether children in the home affect gun safety practices. We also know little about how people on both sides think about these issues, beyond "for" or "against" gun control. It is my general impression that my neighbors think of guns as tools. Lots of tools, from chainsaws to power drills, can prove lethal in the wrong or careless hands. For my part, it is easier to perceive a hunting rifle as a tool than an AK-47, but I can respect concerns about that perception being a slippery slope.

Guns are different from a lot of hot-button issues because many people have direct experiences with guns. Many people who favor lightly regulated gun rights seem not only to know the major tragedies, but also have personal stories about frightening or dangerous incidents involving guns. Nonetheless, those experiences do not lead to changes in attitudes about gun control. Why not? "People kill people" is a powerful slogan to many, but we understand very little of the attitudes and beliefs of gun rights advocates. Or gun control advocates, for that matter. A more systematic investigation could yield important insights about how to find common ground.

As we recognize the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, let's pledge to judge less those people whose views differ from our own and, instead, work harder to understand the reasons for our differences. Perhaps then we might make true progress.