Since the Newtown tragedy, the nation’s focus over what to do has increasingly narrowed to be about a small handful of so-called gun-related reforms, sparking a debate that has descended into yet another shouting match among opposing special interest groups and politicians, while Americans are relegated to standing on the sidelines. The country desperately needs a different discussion. Just try this little experiment to see what I mean. Think about the conversations you’ve had post-Newtown (and post Aurora, Virginia Tech and other tragedies) about what we as a society should do. Based on my travels across the country, I bet most of us ended up talking about a host of concerns. Sure, the topic of “guns” was right up there, maybe even the first thing that got talked about. But when we give the conversation more than five minutes, other concerns arise, too – including school safety, the culture of violence we seem to live in, gangs, the lack of opportunities and hope for some among us, mental health, and neighborhood safety.
The point is that people believe this discussion is about more than guns. They long to talk about larger societal issues that affect their lives and go directly to what kind of society we wish to create.
The current debate needlessly forces people to take up sides – to adopt an either/or position on gun related issues while shunting aside the broader concerns they believe we must address. While this tactic may serve to rev up the donations and membership rolls of various special interest and political groups, it further squeezes out any room for a real discussion about how to move ahead. It short-circuits our ability to develop the public will necessary to take action and for people to step forward to act.
The first step we must take is to better understand how people want to talk about “the problem” – how do they define it, what concerns are in the mix, what’s really at issue for them? And what words and phrases enable people to engage in a discussion rather than to further ignite hot button issues? Without greater clarity about how to frame this discussion – without a more productive way to talk about it – we will surely continue to talk past one another, and in the process, the discussion will be hijacked by a small few.
In The Work of Hope, people told me that in our nation we have become obsessed with “instant gratification,” not only in our personal lives, but in how we talk about and address common concerns. There’s an ever-present urge for the quick fix, the easy way out. The current debate about “guns” suggests that if only we take certain actions, we can push this “problem” out of our lives; and yet, isn’t this “problem” part and parcel of our lives?
The opportunity before us is to demonstrate that we won’t again side-step the discussion we need to have; that we will face up to what we need to address; and that we will come together – in small and big ways – to act. Our response has everything to do with how we will deal with post-Newtown. But it is also more than that: it is about taking concrete steps to restore our belief that we can get things done, together.