Our country has always had emotionally charged, hot-button political issues. Every country does. Independence, war, slavery, civil rights, and abortion are a few examples from the last two and a half centuries. In each case, and in many others, two or more factions stared in disbelief at each other across a wide political chasm. Each has thought the other to be terribly misinformed, even dangerous. Once, the country was literally torn in two. Through most of our history, as colonies and as a nation, our success as a people has been rooted in willingness and ability to compromise. We have seen each other as fellow-citizens and as neighbors rather than as members of political groups. I am old enough to remember when governance could win out over ideology. I remember Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
That was before the internet, before social media, before Citizens United and dark money in American politics. Each of these makes the spreading of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda not only easy, but slick- and professional-looking enough to fool even an experienced political observer. We owe it to ourselves and to the republic to become better at separating these devils of the digital age from facts and objective truth.
The gun debate may be the single most divisive one in these hyper-partisan times. Nearly all of us either hate or love guns. I hope to be a voice from the middle, if such a place can be said to exist. I like guns. I use guns. I own guns. But my sense of personal or political safety does not depend on being allowed to possess the weapons of modern warfare. I hunt. I kill livestock for meat. I sometimes have to rid my farm of a varmint. These pursuits do not demand that I own a firearm designed to mow down human beings in battle. I was a competitive shooter in my college years. The enjoyment of being on a rifle range does not equate to wanting to use weapons capable of large-scale carnage.
I perceive that there are three reasons that Americans can’t speak the same language when it comes to guns. First, we don’t want to. Our political “dialogue” has become so toxic that compromise is seen as selling out, and my opponent has become my enemy. We must override the corrosive influence of ideological inflexibility and choose solutions over strife. Second, I fear that the inability to understand one another is because of fundamentally divergent views of government. Some on the left believe there can be little legitimate use for guns in the hands of private citizens. There are those on the right who arm themselves against the abuses of a government they distrust. I believe the fears of each extreme to be unrealistic.
Third, there’s the gun lobby. I am a former member of the National Rifle Association. I left when I figured out that it is not really a gun rights organization, but a tax-exempt marketing service for the firearms industry. It and other so-called protectors of gun rights wrap themselves in the rhetoric of liberty while using the politics of fear and distrust to sell guns and related accessories. Think about it: every solution to gun-related crime endorsed by the gun lobby would result in more gun sales. There is little evidence that they would result in fewer gun-related deaths. Talk of approaching gun violence through better mental health care is a convenient distraction for those in the vest pocket of the gun lobby; the same political forces that will tolerate no gun control are the ones that routinely cut funding and resources for mental health services.
The Second Amendment became part of the US Constitution in 1791. A single-shot rifle that took many seconds to reload was the most advanced firearm available. The idea that one deranged person could shoot tens, even hundreds of people in seconds would have been beyond the thinking of the time. The idea of needing to fire 20 or 30 rounds in rapid succession to protect one’s family or home would have seemed unrealistic to a less politically fraught era. It still should. We do not honor the legacy of our nation’s founders when we act as though nothing has changed.
If we fall prey to political untruths and propaganda while choosing to fear and distrust those who disagree with us, we deprive ourselves of liberty more effectively than any government or political reality ever can.