We Are Our Guns — The First Step To Meaningful Change In The Conversation

The Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Act

In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting we are, as a nation, again outraged by violence and, again, launched into a standoff in the debate about guns. We are bombarded by statistics, arguments, and articles. We share. We retweet. We rage. And we are doing it wrong.

I am writing, now, to anyone who wishes there were fewer guns or more gun control. It is you who are doing it wrong and must take responsibility. If what we want is change, we must realize that the issue is not guns: the issue is people and their identity with guns.

First, let’s address this notion that people change their minds at all. On average, we don’t. That’s because real thinking takes real effort, and we all have work to get through and bills to pay and kids asking for stuff and cats wanting to be let outside. So, instead of thinking, we feel: yay or boo. This is all of us, by the way, and not just “the other side.” And most feelings are guided by our identity, this loose amalgam of who we feel we are. “I’m a this, who comes from this, who does this and likes this.”

Also, thinking — and this is key — actual, critical thinking requires the ability to listen to, be open to, and really consider, evidence. I wrote out all those verbs (listen, be open, consider) because even when we say we are doing them, we probably aren’t. It’s that difficult. Instead, we have an idea, an instinct for what we feel is right, and we wait for something to confirm it and we shutdown things to the contrary. This is not intellectual confirmation, but deeply personal. The opposition does not disagree with us; it threatens us. We are, therefore, not arguing against facts, but against the base instincts of people.

This brings me to the thesis: For many people, guns are a part of their identities.

Identity is more or less who we are and how we see ourselves. It comprises our self-confidence, our sense of justice, and of how the world works. It is our relationships, our comfort, our humor, our friends, our history, our home. It is the songs we like, the jokes our friends tell, and those we choose to turn towards when we are afraid. We build and cultivate our identities, solidify some parts, reshape others, and, though our identities can change, they are a structure, and change can mean difficulty, and risk of collapse, and work, and time, and suffering.

Now think of guns and how they are weaved with people’s identities. Guns are not mere tools or toys, hobbies or even rights. Guns are in their homes. They offer a sense of safety and self-reliance. They represent strength and heritage. Guns were there when they hung out with their fathers, and they were there when their brothers died in battle. Guns are in their favorite movies, held by actors they admire, and in their favorite songs as they drive to work or head out on the town. Guns, as instruments of power, of design, and of association, are cool. People have spent time with guns, considering them, saving for them, caring for them. And, maybe even more than the gun itself, they have stood on the side of guns, and we cannot ever dismiss the sad irony of how much the actual defense of guns is a part of this identity. Each attack on guns, right or wrong, digs that defense deeper, tells them that there are sides and that their side is gun.

In a way, it reminds me of the alcoholic. The alcoholic, for all the damage the alcohol has done, remembers the great times, and rightly so. Alcohol was there for them, was the beginning of their best story with their best friend, was a part of that night where they met that lover. Alcohol made them feel good when they got home from that long day. Even the suffering, the pain alcohol caused, is a part of who they are. What friendship hasn’t made you sick sometimes and then made up for it in other ways? Through thick and thin, we build our identities. When you admonish the alcoholic for that relationship, for that identity, you are not arguing against a thing, you are arguing, in part, against who they are.

Asking someone to change their minds, therefore, is not asking them to weigh evidence and come to your same conclusion, because our “minds” are not composed of considered opinions but of this tapestry of experience and social groups that makes up our identity. So, to change one’s mind is really to change one’s identity.

Getting someone to change, therefore, is achieved through the compassion of knowing what such a change means to the person changing, what it asks the person to give up. Such change can only ever really be made by the person’s inward desire for a new life with a new identity and it will always involve the pain of transition. And abstinence alone rarely works. We are asking to take some part of their identity away but what do we offer to their identity in return?

And this is where we need to realize the magnitude of what we are asking and, from a very practical standpoint, how effective our efforts will actually be. If we are going to ask people to change their identity, we cannot be brash, impatient and uncaring. We may disagree with a part of their identity, but we must have compassion for their humanity and how dear a thing is is to ask someone to give a part of themselves up.

Gandhi knew this when he espoused passive resistance. He knew that if his cause attacked, he would be dividing people, creating defensiveness, creating sides, justifying counter-attacks. It would become about winning battles, and not about coming together.

We will argue that guns are stupid, or useless or archaic. We will argue that life is more important. “Fuck them,” we cry, in so many words. But to really change anything, we must start, very quietly, by first putting down our arguments and simply asking, “what do guns mean to you, how are they important in your life?” If we ask them to change who they are, we cannot dismiss the pain of this change. We cannot cast them as evil, as amoral, as stupid, as wrong, because it is not about us feeling right. The ONLY justice for the dead is change, and change will only come through the recognition that if we wish to invite someone to our way of feeling we must appreciate who and what they are leaving behind and how so much of what they are giving up is themselves.

So what’s the answer, then? If argument by facts is not the right context and we must first compassionately accept that asking for a change in gun ownership is asking for a change in people’s identity, how do we accomplish that? Well, this is where the real work begins and where my thinking needs help. Here’s what I have so far:

Identity wants to be whole. The reason we all stick with an identity is because of how painful it is to be missing part of ourselves. When I gave up smoking, it meant hanging out with certain friends less, going to bars less, and feeling really shitty. It meant giving up a morning routine that I loved. Conversations were different, and how I used my hands. The way I finished meals changed. I identified with the smokey writer, the philosopher, the smooth guy at the bar, the dark figure in the movies. All that aspiration, imitation, identity, I had to give up. Even my voice, literally the anatomy, the sound of it, changed, and I had to get speech therapy to learn a new normal.

I quit smoking, in large part, by taking on a new identity. I became, very consciously, an athlete. Exercise became a way to not only help stem the immediate physical withdrawal and lack of direction but also as a measure of becoming a new person. I began to swim. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t go from one end of the pool to the other without losing my breath. A trainer said if I wanted to do better I had to come every day. I became a person who went to the gym every day. When I could swim a lap without stopping, I went for ten, then twenty, then forty. I would tell my wife, “I’m a guy who can swim forty laps,” and she’d be proud. When I thought about smoking, I thought about how it would affect my swimming. I liked being a swimmer and I didn’t want to lose what I had gained. My body had changed. I liked how my shoulders looked. The folks at the front desk of the gym knew my name and we’d chat about work stuff and how cold it was getting. I could keep up with other friends who I had always thought of as more fit. We hung out more.

Many have, I believe, incorrectly argued that smoking is all bad. Of course it isn’t. It gave me a lot of pleasure and joy. I had fun with it, it was a part of my life and a part of my identity. Denying this is naive. Of course it was hurting me, but it was a joy too. The only way for me to change was to acknowledge that duality, that ‘yes, it is doing harm, but it is providing good too and that must be respected. It is weaved with my identity, and that it cannot simply be torn away, but must be replaced by something of equal value.’

Identity wants to be whole. If we ask people to give up their guns and part of their identity, we must be prepared to do it with compassion and to offer them something in return. You do not tell the gang member to leave the gang, you ask them to join you in your home, in your church, in your community. You do not tell the atheist they are a fool, you ask them to join you in a prayer, you hang out and have lunch, you ask them about their family and their goals and their values. You let them in.

To try things from a policy perspective — and I claim no expertise here — I am reminded of the Blue Eagle. In the 1930’s, when FDR was trying to get the nation to adopt more employment and fair wages with the National Recovery Act, there was a lot of backlash, and a lot of it was argued to be un-American. So his administration created the Blue Eagle, a symbol, literally a big sign, that business could display in their windows demonstrating their patriotic efforts to get the country back on track. It became a point of pride and the public was encouraged to only shop with businesses which displayed the Blue Eagle. In some ways, this is quite an arm twist, but it is also an example of offering identity. The blue eagle became a way of a business giving up some of its practices and saying, “I’m a part of something new and we’re in this together.” That’s an identity proposition.

And this is where I need your help. I don’t know what to offer in return for guns. It’s not a mere transaction. It involves invitation and welcome and patience, inviting people into our lives. We cannot ask someone to lessen themselves if we, ourselves are not willing to sacrifice along with them and come together.

A message’s only value is if it is received. If your message creates sides where lines are drawn and defences are raised, then it is not a message, but an attack. It will not work, and to continue it is an indulgence, the revelry of righteousness. It is for you.

Instead, ask them about their guns, their fear, their love, their favorite memories, their values. Ask until you know everything about them. And you’ll be so tempted to then tell them about you, and your views. Don’t. It would again, only be for you. Change will come when we have listened and respected what they have and what they may be giving up and, in that respect, when they then, finally, ask us to talk about our values. Then they will be listening. Then thinking. Then changing.

“We can only win over the opponent by love, never by hate. Hate is the subtlest form of violence. We cannot be really nonviolent and yet have hate in us.” — Gandhi