On Guns: From Debate to Conversation in Boston

The Challenge 

Guns: one of our deepest civic divides in the United States. Vocal activists on either side talk past one another about gun control, law enforcement, and second amendment rights, typically in the wake of a tragedy that re-inflames a conversation that inevitably ends in partisan stalemate. There’s little space for a more nuanced conversation about how people with different views can create a safe community together. The Christian Science Monitor covered the deepening polarization around this contentious issue with alarm, and in 2013, decided to create a space for that conversation itself. Emotions were high: a push for legislation for universal background checks had recently been defeated in the Senate, and the death of 19 people in New Orleans at a Mother’s Day parade.

   

The Action

Partnering with storytelling organization The Mantle Project and Public Conversations Project, the Monitor hosted an open structured dialogue process that sought to address two main questions: is there a way to move this conversation ahead? Is there a better way to talk about guns? Rather than debating policy specifics, the event began with personal stories from three individuals with different experiences with guns: a gun advocate and owner, a suicide prevention activist, and the father of a young man who died by gun violence. After hearing their stories, the 60 participants broke into smaller dialogues and continued listening to one another’s experiences. Questions that invited personal stories, areas of ambivalence, and shared concerns opened up new pathways of conversation and mutual understanding for people with profoundly different perspectives.

The Shift

A Monitor editor wrote, “As an event participant, by the end of a night spent talking with and listening to strangers, I had drawn a pretty clear conclusion: For most Americans, policy debates are personal. And logjams in dialogue often come from our inability to recognize the personal stories and experiences that inform our views.” By creating a space for participants to interact with one another on a human level, rather than debating the issue at large, the conversation about guns and community safety gained new complexity, deeper understanding, and a sense of hope. Instead of changing minds, the design of the conversation allowed participants to examine their own views – whatever they might be – more reflectively and with greater clarity.

   

Practitioner perspective

The three people who opened the evening with nuanced stories of their relationship to guns set the stage for others in the audience to see beyond the labels of “pro-gun” or “pro-gun control” and explore the complexity of their conversational partners’ perspectives and experiences.

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This wasn’t a policy debate. Instead, two people whose backgrounds and views diverged in almost every way possible shared a moment of honesty that struck at the heart of the matter.

Cricket Fuller, The Christian Science Monitor

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