It happens so often that we’ve all become numb to the phenomenon: Every time scores of Americans are killed and wounded in a mass shooting, gun owners’ feelings get hurt. It’s easy to overlook the pain that these gun owners experience, given the preventable slaughter of actual human beings, but David Brooks forces us to reckon with the ugly truth in his most recent op-ed for The New York Times.
“We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage,” Brooks writes. “The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.”
Brooks explains why this anger is misplaced.
Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.
So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.
You might ask, who is Brooks referring to when he writes “people who defend gun rights,” these delicate heel-diggers? The NRA? Hunters who support mandatory background checks nationwide? Skeet shooters who want an assault weapons ban? People who stash rocket launchers in their closets?
The term is left undefined. But this kind of specific thinking that could maybe lead readers to action has no place in the Opinion section. Besides, it ruins Brooks’ point, which is that in order to tackle the issue of gun violence in the United States, we must first sit down and divide ourselves into “Red and Blue Tribes” and have long, intense, deeply contrived, Frank Lunz-style discussions with people who post angry updates on Facebook.
Of course, David Brooks didn’t sit through these illuminating and vital conversations himself—he sent his editorial assistant, April Lawson, to do it for him.
One of the most successful parts of the structured conversations is built around stereotypes. Doherty, the head moderator, asks the people at each gathering to name five major stereotypes that the other side throws at them. The Republicans invariably list “racist” first, followed by, say, “uncaring,” “uneducated,” “misogynistic” and “science deniers.”
In a session Lawson attended, a Trump supporter acknowledged that the G.O.P. has had a spotty record on racial matters, but it’s important to him that Blues know that’s not why he holds his opinions.
Did you know that some Trump supporters refer to explicitly racist comments about Mexicans being “rapists” or African countries being “shitholes” as “a spotty record on racial matters”? This kind of understanding leads to healing, probably, which is why Brooks spends another 400 words describing the reporting his editorial assistant did for him. There are anecdotes about the Gadsden Flag, and the “safety net,” but none about...wait, what was his column about again? Oh right, gun control.
We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.
These conversations might take awhile, and a lot of people will probably be killed in the meantime. But there’s no other way to keep our children safe—just ask the survivors of last week’s mass shooting.