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Can We Talk? Dividing Lines & Limiting Gun Violence

A major challenge in the effort to address gun violence is cultivating the ability to listen and discuss issues across a cultural divide.  Each week, there are events that remind us of gun violence issues that require the collaborative development of harm-reducing measures by Americans from across the political spectrum.  In the past few days alone, we have seen in the news:

A tragic murder-suicide that took the life of a promising public servant in Detroit. Indeed, At the midpoint of 2020, nearly 60 percent of the 21,000 gun deaths so far this year in the United States were from suicides. Gun suicides are a particular problem in rural areas that often feel unaffected by policy issues that impact urban areas. The scope of these tragedies should make us able to consider what we might do in response More widely-available counseling and mental health services? Measures to permit the temporary removal of firearms from people who show signs of being in a moment of crisis?

A 4-year-old Michigan boy found an unsecured, loaded handgun inside his home and shot his 5-year-old sister in the head. The bullet grazed her and caused a significant injury, including bleeding on the brain. Fortunately, the girl is expected to recover—physically, but many gun shot victims experience long term psychological harms from such a traumatic, near-death experience. In the first half of 2020, 1,035 people in the United States have died as a result of unintentional shootings. Shouldn’t we be able to agree that safe storage measures can save lives and can do so without impacting the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of the Second Amendment right to keep a handgun in the home?

Dozens of civilian militia members converged on Gettysburg in response to false social media posts indicating that leftist or anarchist activists planned to burn American flags in protest at the National Park site. News media investigations revealed that the posts were by an unknown person or entity with a disguised identity who used false names and appears to be intent on drumming up conflict. Militia members arrived in Gettysburg armed with military-style rifles. For what purpose? To threaten or shoot people who burn an American flag?—which is an act of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment, according to Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson (1989). For what purposes do people need to carry weapons of war in public? Do these weapons contribute to or detract from the difficult task of policy making through democratic processes in a diverse society?

The latter episode reminds us of the international attention directed at Michigan when similarly- armed protesters entered the state capitol building and, while holding their weapons, looked down upon elected representatives from the visitors’ gallery.  The Daily Mail newspaper in Great Britain trumpeted a breathless headline that included “Incredible Scenes at Michigan Capitol…Protesters Armed with Rifles Storm Senate Gallery….”  That’s quite a jarring image of policy making processes in our state’s democratic system of government.

One of the most unsettling aspects of that scene in our state capitol building was the fact that the protest had nothing to do with gun policy or the Second Amendment.  The protest concerned something completely unrelated:  policy choices about limiting business activity while trying to dampen the spread of coronavirus.  Have we reached a point at which policy debates about any issue that raises strong emotions will lead some Americans to reflexively bring to the debate a firearm with the capability to kill many people within a few seconds?  Let’s not forget that the mass shooter in the nightlife district of Dayton, Ohio, shot 26 people in a mere 32 seconds with a such a weapon of war in August 2019.  The capability of these weapons is frightening.  And perhaps that’s the point of bringing them into contexts of policy debates.

I can only speculate about why protesters carried these weapons to the Lansing protest and subsequently into the Capitol.  Were they afraid?  It is difficult to understand how that could be true when protesting at a location well-guarded by the Michigan State Police and building security personnel.  Were they carrying the weapons merely because of their claim that they have a Second Amendment right to do so?  But they have a right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, yet they did not choose to bring Bibles or other religious objects to a protest that, as with the Second Amendment, was unrelated to the constitutional right.  They chose to bring firearms to an event focused on debates about public health.  

Why bring high-powered weapons to a protest about public health policy?  To instill fear?  To attempt to intimidate elected officials?  To implicitly threaten violent insurrection?  Or merely to attract attention from the news media?  Whatever the reason, such actions do not encourage the listening and discussion that are essential to productive political discourse in a democracy.  Indeed, such actions heighten the risk of gun violence and harm—whether by a protester with malevolent intent or by a law enforcement officer who misperceives the movements and actions of an armed protester.

It is an uphill battle to foster dialogue, especially when specific businesses, interest groups, and politicians see the encouragement of fear and Second Amendment symbolism as advantageous to their own self-interest.  Yet, any hope of addressing the problems of gun violence require us to keep seeking ways to talk and to listen.  We must persuade others to step away from the misguided belief that all gun regulations are a pretext to end private ownership of firearms.  We ought to be able to agree that gun suicides and injurious shootings by children who find firearms pose risks to Americans everywhere in every demographic group and in ever region of our nation and state.  Moreover, we ought to be able to agree that carrying weapons of war detracts from our ability to discuss and solve problems through the collaborative compromises of policy making in a democracy.

Can we talk?  This is an essential task as each of us think about how—person-to-person AND person-by-person—we can reach across dividing lines to listen, inform, discuss, and identify our universal common interest in limiting the harms of gun violence.

Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President

Sources:  S. Boburg and D. Bennett, “Militias Flock to Gettysburg to Foil a Supposed Antifa Flag Burning, An Apparent Hoax Created on Social Media,” Washington Post, July 4, 2020 (; V. Edwards, “Incredible Scenes at Michigan Capitol,” The Daily Mail, April 30, 2020 (; J. Guillen and C. Stitt, “Detroit Policy Staffer with ‘Bright Future’ Killed in Apparent Murder-Suicide,” Detroit Free Press, July 6, 2020 (; Gun Violence Archive (; A. Hassan, “Dayton Gunman Shot 26 People in 32 Seconds, Police Timeline Reveals,” New York Times, August 13, 2019 (; N. Monacelli and D. Bartkowiak, “Redford Police:  4-Year-Old Accidently Shoots 5-Year-Old Girl in the Head,” Click on Detroit, July 6, 2020 (