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Is there anyone left to persuade on gun violence?

by Danny Franklin

I made a career of persuasion because of weeks like this. In 1999, I was a speechwriter for Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve of their schoolmates at Columbine High School. The speech we wrote is lost, but I remember our hope that for all the power of the N.R.A., the shooting might change the trajectory of the debate. Change felt possible because persuasion felt possible.

13 years and countless gun deaths later, on the day of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, I was a pollster working for President Obama, my dream job. The Obama team had all the tools one could to investigate the levers of persuasion, along with the most gifted communicator of his generation with the White House bully pulpit at his disposal. My daughter was then a first grader in Brooklyn, 80 miles west of the 20 first graders who died in Newtown. Changing the math on the guns debate never felt more possible or more urgent.

Yet nothing changed. Worse than that, Sandy Hook kicked off 10 years of loosening gun restrictions. Some states made meaningful gains, but on balance, there’s no denying that we’ve slipped backwards. President Obama has said that the failure to enact stiffer gun controls after Sandy Hook stood as his greatest disappointment as president. For me, the failure is deeper, nearly existential. What possible influence can my words have that the deaths of 20 children could not? Each new shooting — Buffalo, Santa Ana, and Uvalde just these past two horrible weeks alone — deepens the feeling of failure. Today, I have another daughter, coincidentally also in first grade, and I threw out the front page of Wednesday’s paper to protect her from the news.

For progressives, our failure to answer the political challenge of gun violence feeds fear of a possible backlash on other issues, such as equality for gay and transgender people, reproductive rights, and climate change. Each challenges our confidence in the possibility of persuasion and the stakes are nothing less than the survival of democracy. We can exist as a nation only insofar as we continue to believe in our ability to change the minds of others who disagree with us, and in our ability to change our own minds when we are wrong.

I woke up on Wednesday feeling the weight of failure and was able to get out of bed by reminding myself of a litany of positive change. Support for gay marriage, abortion rights(from 41% support in 2009 to 65% today), marijuana legalization, labor unions (65%, from 49%) and immigration (68% now believe it should be maintained or increased, up from 46%), as well as perception of racial discrimination as a major problem (76%, up from 51%), have all steadily shifted as people changed their minds.

These successes were built on a deeper understanding of the mechanics of persuasion, specifically the power of identity. Beneath the facts we believe and the values we hold lies an idea of ourselves: who we are and how we want the world to think of us. Brand marketers have refined this approach for years and the power of a brand like Nike or Apple lays in the role it plays in our hopes for how we want the world to see us.

Americans’ views on social issues changed because they came to think that a person like them, the person they wanted to be, had to believe certain things. Those beliefs expressed themselves through political choices, such as on gay rights, immigration, or criminal justice reform. More deeply, those shifting attitudes reflected a change in belief in how we are connected to others. Through personal interaction and media, many Americans’ identity shifted to no longer see gay people, immigrants, and racial minorities as “the other” to fear, but parts of ourselves.

Most, but not all. The debate on guns that will unfold over the next months will inevitably be shaped by a starkly different sense of identity shared by a significant portion of Americans that holds unregulated gun ownership as an expression of liberty, independence, and personal responsibility. A mass shooting only deepens some people’s sense of vulnerability; access to guns is how they feel safer and better able to protect their families. And the gun lobby and pro-gun groups exploit that fear. Support for gun restrictions has never overcome the fact that a majority believes that their home is safer with a gun than without it. It is a sense of identity held tightly by many decent people who, I am sure, love their first graders as much as I love my own. We’ll never persuade them of anything if we don’t give them that.

And persuade them we must. This is a dark week in what has felt like a year of dark weeks. For too many families, the darkest week imaginable. Beneath political division and fear, there is a common instinct to right wrong and protect the vulnerable. We must refuse to let go of that. The country is divided and the human ramifications of those divisions can be horrible. So we have to dig deeper to find ways to shape a common identity, on guns and so many more issues. The world can change, too slowly, perhaps, because persuasion is still possible.

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