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A better way to talk about guns in America

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(Read caption) The deep civic divide over guns was the focus of a recent civil dialogue hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in partnership with the Public Conversations Project and the Mantle Project.
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The Senate gun legislation dealing with background checks may have met a resounding defeat a few weeks ago, but the political debate on both sides of the gun issue is far from over. And the debate over dinner tables continues. On Sunday, police say that 19 people – including two children – were shot at a Mother's Day parade in New Orleans.

Is there a way to move this conversation ahead? Is there a better way to talk about guns?

Those are questions this news organization, in partnership with The Public Conversations Project and The Mantle Project, set out to explore a couple of weeks ago. The April 11 event was set up as an evening of storytelling by three individuals with different experiences with guns, followed by small-group dialogue among roughly 60 participants who had signed up to attend.

As an event participant, by the end of a night spent talking with and listening to strangers, I had drawn a pretty clear conclusion: For most Americans, policy debates are personal. And logjams in dialogue often come from our inability to recognize the personal stories and experiences that inform our views.

What if Americans shelved the policy debate and began their individual – and national – conversations by telling those personal experiences, focusing not on who is right, but on where people are coming from? It may not necessarily change minds or translate to political compromise, but it’s a good place to start – a foundation of understanding.

Admittedly, I come to this proposition with some skepticism. I’m an editor in the Monitor’s commentary section; I follow, commission, and edit opinions on controversial issues like gun control. The divisions on most heated subjects are stark – even among seasoned, pragmatic pundits. 

On this Thursday evening in Boston’s Back Bay, I found myself sitting next to strangers on all sides of the gun-control issue. The event started with three stories – one from a gun enthusiast, one from a suicide prevention activist, and one from a father whose son was shot and killed.

These ordinary citizens were coached to tell the stories of how they came to their stances on guns by Nabil Laoudji. Mr. Laoudji founded The Mantle Projectto to showcase such stories and was recently profiled in the Monitor’s “People Making A Difference” feature.

Mark Timney spoke first. He’s a gun owner and gun lover. But little else about him fits neatly into a category. He’s a white, middle-aged college professor and former journalist. He owned his first gun at the age of five and became an avid trap shooter (competitive target shooting at clay pigeons).

Adult life took him on a series of twists and turns – divorce, career changes, depression – that ultimately led him away from shooting. It wasn’t until he hit “rock bottom” that he took it up again with an almost religious “born again” zeal, stoked by the book “Zen in the Art of Archery.” Rolling up his sleeve, he showed the audience a mantra tattooed in black ink across his forearm: “One arrow, one life.”

Elaine Frank then took the stage, adding dry wit and maternal candor. Hers was the only Jewish family in their cookie-cutter suburb of New York in the late 1960s. There she developed a “severe and chronic case of Christmas envy.” Moving later to Brookline, Mass., she graduated from what she called an “85 percent Jewish” high school.

That grounding in diverse worlds bred a bridge-building temperament – uniquely useful for what was to come in her relationship to guns. She spoke of a former Washington, D.C., neighbor who was killed in a drive-by shooting, a cousin who killed herself with a gun, and in her current hometown in New Hampshire, the accidental gun deaths of teenagers. Now she works with gun stores and dealers to promote firearm safety, particularly around suicide prevention.

The final speaker, Larry “Brother Lo” Banks, is a black father and grandfather from a Boston neighborhood plagued with violence, high unemployment, and all the statistics that go along with urban poverty. His story began the Sunday morning he received the deafening news that a mugger shot and killed his son.

But perhaps more wrenching for the audience was the emotional wrestling he underwent “between wanting to get back at who killed my son… and finding some sympathy” for the young man who did it. He described a moment – pinned on the floor of the morgue by his brothers after he’d begun clawing at the walls – when he said he felt touched by God.

In the days after his son’s death, he couldn’t stop thinking of the perpetrator – and the environment that led him to mug and kill his son. He pleaded with his son’s friends not to retaliate. And his mission continues today: With other community leaders, he works with youth, steering them away from crime. “When we have victories in the streets, I say to my son, ‘That was for you, man.’”

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