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  • Writer's pictureZach Elwood

Polarization over gun violence and gun rights

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger about our polarized views on gun violence and gun rights. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Guns 

When it comes to guns, as with many other issues, we have more in common than we tend to think. 


For one thing, most people don’t want guns banned. In a 2022 Gallup poll, 73% of people surveyed did not want personal possession of guns banned. Also, in recent years, liberal-side gun ownership has increased substantially, due to concerns about Trump and potential political instability. If you’re someone concerned that there’s some Democrat plot to take everyone’s guns, you should feel assured that, considering public sentiment and considering our political reality, it’s almost unimaginable that a widespread ban on handguns, rifles, or shotguns would ever ever happen. 


And on the other side of things, most Americans do support more gun control. A 2022 poll by Morning Consult and Politico found that 68% of Americans wanted more gun restrictions. To quote from that survey: 


Record-high shares of Democrats (90%) and independents (67%) back stronger gun restrictions, compared with 44% of Republicans, which is 5 points shy of a record set after the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017. Half of Republican voters (51%) oppose tougher gun laws, including 34% who do so “strongly.” 


While we have more in common than we think, we also clearly have divides. Let’s examine the main us-versus-them narratives around the issue of guns: 

  • Many liberals think conservatives are unreasonable for wanting minimal restrictions on guns, despite America having a lot of gun-related murders and suicides. 

  • Many conservatives think liberals are unreasonable for wanting to curtail a right to bear arms that is specifically mentioned in the Constitution. 


For people on both sides, there can be a tendency to fit the other side’s perceived stance on guns alongside other us-vs-them narratives. We can become quite paranoid about what the other side’s political stances tell us about that group. To take one rather extreme example, I saw a liberal person on Twitter say they believed conservatives’ pro-gun positions were a conscious attempt to intimidate liberals with the threat of civil-war-type violence, as a method of achieving their political goals. 


It’s easy to see why guns, being a tool of violence, are especially likely to be pulled into big and scary us-versus-them narratives. But we should resist the urge to assign scary motivations to others where there is not good evidence for them and when other more understandable and less scary motivations will suffice.  


The constitutional argument over guns

It’s possible to see why it is that many conservatives believe in the right to own guns, due to it being specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Here’s what the Second Amendment reads, in its entirety: 


A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.


One of the sources of our divides over this issue is that this sentence is simply poorly written. It’s not even grammatically correct; it’s more like two sentence fragments. And, leaving aside any historical context of how that’s been interpreted, it’s possible to see how people can reach different interpretations of this statement.


For one thing, it does specifically say “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” which seems to be saying people have a right to have guns. But it’s preceded by a rather ambiguous clause: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”. Is that curtailing the “right of the people” in some way? If so, how exactly is that curtailing that right? 


What exactly is a “well regulated Militia” anyway? What makes it “well regulated”? Does that mean a citizen has to actually be in a state militia to have a gun or just that, if a threat arose, that citizen might possibly join up as part of that militia? 


For that matter, what are “Arms”? How big a gun might a regular citizen be allowed to have? Can a citizen own an anti-aircraft gun? Or a 50-caliber artillery gun? Or a laser gun? Were the Founding Fathers thinking much about the potential for there to be much bigger and more powerful guns in the future? 


A lot of our debates about what the Founding Fathers intended originate from ambiguous, unclear wording in the country’s founding documents. And this isn’t surprising: language is always ambiguous to some extent. The Founding Fathers could have spent several pages laying out exactly what they intended on the guns rights issue and we’d still be left with many questions. 


If our goal is reducing anger, it will help us to recognize that language is always ambiguous. Debates about the Constitution and the Amendments are debates about language, debates about meaning. Some people will speak as if they’re certain what the Founding Fathers meant, and that certainty can lead to anger. But clearly, our country’s founding documents are far from clear in many cases.


Because some of the language in those documents is so minimal, constitutional debates often require delving into what the context of that era was, and how similar practices in Britain and other countries tended to work. And some of those practices in other countries were simply based on tradition (a.k.a, “common law”) and were often undocumented. 


If we’re able to acknowledge that language is always ambiguous, we’ll realize it’s inevitable we’d be having debates about what our constitution and other founding documents mean. The exact meaning and intention of any written document can be debated. 


When it comes to the Second Amendment specifically, I’d argue that its brevity shows the Founding Fathers weren’t thinking much about the issue and weren’t foreseeing what a big issue it might become in future. For people who have strong feelings about the gun issue, on either side, I’d argue the people to be most upset with are the Founding Fathers. But of course they were only human; if we took the smartest people around today and asked them to create a constitution meant to cover every possible important issue that might arise in the future, they’d create something that, in 50 years, would seem hopelessly outdated and ambiguous. That’s just the nature of language, and of humanity, and of how we can’t predict the future. It’s no surprise we’re left with a lot of questions. 


On the gun issue, it should be possible for people on each side of this debate to see what it is about the Second Amendment that makes it hard for us to reach certain conclusions. It doesn’t require people on either side being unreasonable or stupid. 


In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the second amendment protected an individual’s right to own guns, and that the amendment was not intended to mean that someone had to be in a state militia. The finding said “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”


I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but suffice it to say that the arguments for and against this finding are quite complex, and an honest and curious researcher can find good arguments on both sides. A couple of the arguments in favor of the finding: 


  • Some previous arms-bearing rights mentioned in some state constitutions intended that meaning. 

  • Previous drafts of the amendment referred to an individual’s right to bear arms. 


The Court even got down into the details of the grammatical strangeness of the Amendment, saying, “The Amendment's prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause's text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.”


On the other side, there were arguments that the Amendment was meant to apply to militias. Justice John Paul Stephens argued that the Founders would have made the individual-right aspect more obvious if that’s what they intended, and that the “well formed militia” preface seems to imply it was about state militia service only. His dissenting argument read in part, “The Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons.... I could not possibly conclude that the Framers made such a choice.”

 

There is a lot more to these arguments, but hopefully these few help show that there are legitimate reasons for why people believe what they do on either side. And recognizing that can help us reduce our anger. 


Embracing some uncertainty about America’s relationship with guns

I’m someone who owns guns and who would also like a lot more restrictions on gun ownership. I’d also like to see more laws aimed at forcing people to be more responsible in their gun ownership (for example, laws that would punish someone if their gun was used in a crime by someone else). I’m also someone who’s considered leaving America due to its unhealthy relationship with guns, and because I think our country’s huge number of guns is amplifying our polarization problem. 


But alongside my confident belief that more gun control would be a good thing, I still have some uncertainty about whether there might be various benefits to our country having lax gun laws. To name a few possible advantages: 


  • It’s possible that in the future we may see more terrorism and mass violence in the United States. In such a future, we may be glad that there are a good number of our fellow citizens with guns. 

  • It’s possible that a future world war may involve a foreign power attacking us. In such a scenario, we may be glad we have a good number of citizen-owned guns. 

  • It’s possible that us having a large number of guns would prevent some of the worst case forms of fascism from becoming a reality. Anyone attempting to dramatically curtail the rights of American citizens would have to contend with the fact that many of us have guns (though admittedly, that can be perceived as both a potentially good thing or a potentially destabilizing thing).


It’s possible to be someone who strongly believes we should have more strict gun control while also seeing reasons why people have different views. Let’s walk through some points for and against gun control and see if we can find some nuance that might help us reduce some common sources of gun-related anger. 


“People would kill people anyway.”

An argument often heard from pro-guns-rights advocates goes something like: even with strict gun control, people would kill people anyway if they really wanted to, so restricting guns wouldn’t solve the problem. 

 

And clearly there’s some logic there. Even if we restricted AR-15s and other semi-automatic guns, there’d still be all sorts of other guns. One can do a lot of damage with semi-automatic handguns and a bunch of clips. And even if we restricted all sorts of guns, a committed person would get their hands on a gun somehow. And even if there were no guns, there are other ways for people to kill people: pipe bombs and other explosives, home-made weapons of various sorts. 


But this argument seems to avoid a few obvious counterpoints. 


For one thing, it avoids the fact that the United States is a huge outlier when it comes to gun violence. Other comparable countries have strict gun laws and have very few gun deaths. In 2019, the United Kingdom had only about .04 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s compared to 3.96 for the U.S. in the same year. Put another way: America had 100 times the rate of gun deaths. 


Another way to put this in perspective: America has 4% of the world’s population but we make up 35% of firearm suicides in the world (from Giffords.org). In 2020 in America, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries, according to the CDC. 


After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia enacted stricter gun control and did a gun-buyback program called the National Firearms Agreement (NFA). This resulted in a huge reduction in gun violence. To quote from a 2022 Vox article:   


In 2011, Harvard's David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis reviewed the research on Australia's suicide and homicide rate after the NFA. Their conclusion was clear: "The NFA seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved."


What they found is a decline in both suicide and homicide rates after the NFA. The average firearm suicide rate in Australia in the seven years after the bill declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate went down by about 42 percent.


So to act as if “there’s nothing we can do” seems a rather strange and avoidant argument. It’s possible to apply this to other problems to see how dumb the argument can sound to people. If you’re conservative, imagine being worried about drug use posing a risk to your community and wanting more restrictions on drugs, only to be told, “People are going to get high anyway, there’s no point in trying to cut down on the drugs.” Or, “People are going to get into the airplane cockpits if they really want to; there’s no point in making it hard to get into the cockpit.” This isn’t to say these are exact analogies, but it can help us understand how dumb those types of arguments can sound to some people. 


Some forms of the “there’s not much we can do” argument imply that, if guns were difficult to get, many of these mass killers would find other means, that they’d do it anyway with other tools. 

One iteration of a common conservative-side argument that our guns aren’t the main problem. 


But this seems to lack an understanding of how disorganized and dysfunctional many mass shooters really are. Many of the people who commit some of the more horrific mass shootings are going through a lot of psychological turmoil and are barely functional. The main reason they’re able to pull off such a plan at all is simply because guns are easy to acquire and use. 


Put another way: your average mass shooter is not someone who’s capable of making complex plans—and, even if they were, the more hoops they had to jump through to plan a mass murder, the greater likelihood they’d be caught at some step along the way. 


And the low rate of mass killings of any sort in comparable countries helps make this case. Being a mass murderer pre-selects for being highly likely to have psychological dysfunction. It’s easy to imagine that placing even a couple more obstacles in someone’s way would dramatically cut down on violent episodes. 


It’s worth considering the fact that the ease of acquiring and using guns is in itself a big contributor to some people’s obsession with mass murder. It’s worth considering that some of our deranged mass shooters might have never gone down such a path if these things weren’t so easy to do. If it were harder to get guns, perhaps some of our mass shooters might have never hit “rock bottom,” so to speak. Maybe the unique power of the gun, coupled with it being in easy reach, is, for some people, a factor in the formation of their destructive fantasies.


Let’s say that small bombs were within easy reach of most Americans; that they were easy to acquire and very easy to make. We’d likely see many more American citizens be mass killers, because the ease of getting and using a weapon can be seen to be a factor in making someone interested in using that weapon. When a weapon is easily available, it becomes a more realistic component in someone’s obsessions and fantasies. 


Looked at from that angle, guns can be seen as somewhat similar to drugs or alcohol; the ease of acquiring them might comprise part of their appeal. And, when dangerous weapons are made a little harder to acquire, some people’s antisocial ideations might be expressed in other, less deadly ways. 


The argument that a focus on AR-15s and similar guns is misplaced 

Because AR-15s have been the weapon of choice in many of the more horrific mass shootings of late, there has been a liberal-side focus on banning AR-15-style guns. 


One conservative-side argument is that this is the wrong focus because, even if we banned those guns, it’d be very easy to kill many people with other guns (like semi-automatic handguns). It’s even possible to make the argument that handguns might be more effective, considering that they can be concealed more easily by someone trying to enter a building or other premises, and are harder to wrestle away from a shooter in close quarters. 


And we should be willing to acknowledge that this argument holds some water. We won’t resolve our mass shooting problem by simply getting rid of AR-15-type guns: people are easily capable of committing mass murder with handguns. And it seems likely that there is some social contagion and “fad” aspect to why the AR-15 is so often chosen these days. In other words: it’s arguable whether it’s chosen because it is the best tool for a murderer’s plans, or because it’s now just so top-of-mind in society as a symbol of destruction and intimidation.  (A May 2022 episode of Sam Harris’s podcast examined some of these ideas.)


When looked at from this angle, we can better understand conservative concerns about the focus on banning AR-15 guns. A conservative might think something like, “Banning AR-15s won’t actually do much, and when mass shootings continue to happen with other guns, as they certainly will, liberals will come for other, smaller guns next.” And it’s possible to see how someone could see that as a likely outcome. 


And it’s possible to see this concern fitting into a general conservative-side concern that liberals are always winning all the cultural fights, and that all conservatives can do is just slow the slide of liberals winning such fights. (And, as previously mentioned, this frustration, this feeling that liberals are always chipping away at various conservative-side philosophies and always winning, helps somewhat explain why some conservatives are okay with someone who acts like Trump.)


The view that we’re overreacting to relatively rare events

One conservative-side argument is that we’re overreacting to relatively rare events. To take school shootings, for example: school shootings are of course horrifying, but all the mass shootings we’ve had at schools represent dozens of children’s deaths out of 100s of millions of school-attending children over several decades. 


And gun-related deaths at schools have actually gone down over the last few decades. Here’s an excerpt from a 2018 Northeastern University article:


[...] while certain policies may help decrease gun violence in general, it’s unlikely that any of them will prevent mass school shootings, according to James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern. [...]


Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox said. “There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents. There are around 55 million school children in the United States, and on average over the past 25 years, about 10 students per year were killed by gunfire at school, according to Fox and Fridel’s research.


And mass shootings in general, while they get a lot of our attention due to their uniquely horrifying nature, are a small part of our overall gun deaths. To quote from a 2022 Time article


“In general, mass shootings account for less than 1% of all firearms deaths in the United States, that’s for all ages,” Dr. Los Lee, an associate professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School says. “When you look at it for children, it’s also less than 1%. So they account for a very small number.”


This is not to downplay the horror of mass shootings, especially mass shootings at schools, but to help explain the views of Second Amendment supporters. It’s possible to view our nation’s gun deaths as being somewhat similar to the nature of automobile deaths in this country (which are actually quite close in number): as unfortunate and tragic, but also as something that may be one of the many costs of living in a free society—especially a society with a tradition of respecting gun rights. 


To make an analogy: Conservatives are very concerned about Islamic terrorism, and some liberals would criticize their fears as being illogical and exaggerated, considering how relatively rare such terroristic events are. Some conservatives see liberals’ concerns about guns in a similar light. 


In a country as big as ours, there’s almost always a way to view any problem as either very serious, or as relatively small in context. How we perceive the seriousness of a problem will be influenced by our preferred narratives and our preferred outcomes. This is not to argue the rightness or wrongness of these various perceptions, but just to examine how it is that people are able to see a problem as either very serious or as not that serious. 


From the other side, though: if you’re someone who thinks that liberals have exaggerated concerns about gun violence, is it possible to see the point of view that gun deaths are much too common in the U.S.? Roughly 40,000 people die from firearms in the United States every year. Our rate of deaths by gun is 100 times that of the U.K. Hopefully it’s possible to see why that concerns people. 


The argument that we need to just accept our high rate of murder and suicide can seem callous and even barbaric, considering many other comparable countries don’t have to deal with this level of violence and anxiety. 


Many types of people own guns

As with all issues we’re polarized on, there can be insulting and unhelpful rhetoric on both sides. One common viewpoint heard on the left is that gun owners are ignorant, or cowardly. 

The rhetoric can be very rude, such as saying that people’s interest in guns can be due to having a small penis: 

But hopefully it’s possible to see how inaccurate and unhelpful that kind of language is. For one thing, a 2021 Statista survey showed that 21% of Democrats surveyed owned a gun, and the number of politically liberal people who own guns has recently risen substantially. A stance that gun ownership is mostly due to stupidity or cowardice isn’t going to prove persuasive to most people, and will only amplify polarization and anger. 


Even as someone who wants a lot more gun control, I’m a gun owner for a couple reasons I think are rational. For one thing, in the event of a big disaster and the global supply chain being disrupted (as it might if a serious pandemic struck us, or for other scenarios it’s possible to imagine), I would want to have a gun for self-defense purposes and maybe, if things were really bad, for hunting purposes. 


For another, because so many Americans own guns and because gun-related incidents are so common, I wouldn’t want to be put in a situation where there was something violent happening in my neighborhood (like a mass shooting) and not have a way to defend myself or defend other people. One conservative-leaning person I talked to echoed my own thoughts and said that, in an ideal world, he wouldn’t own any guns, but that he feels a pressure to because so many people have guns. So we can see that one reason for owning a gun is being scared by Americans owning too many guns. There is a feedback loop at work, like there often is: we’re scared of guns so we get more guns, which makes us more scared of guns, and so on. 


You may disagree with these points and find them bad reasons, but hopefully you can see how it is that people can have reasons to own guns that are at least rationally defensible. 


For liberals who view pro-guns-rights arguments with disdain, it might help to understand why some liberals own guns. Seeing those motivations may help make conservative gun stances more understandable. And liberals and racial minorities have been buying more guns in recent years, partly due to concerns about political destabilization and violence. A 2021 Washington Post article was titled ‘Fear on top of fear’: Why anti-gun Americans joined the wave of new gun owners. Here’s an excerpt from that piece: 


All his life, Jabril Battle was anti-gun. Then came the pandemic, the lockdown, the shortages and a feeling that at any moment, things could blow. Battle bought a Beretta.


Drawn to last summer’s protests against police violence, Savannah Grace found herself face-to-face with a camo-clad officer’s long gun. She’d always hated guns, but went out and got a Glock 45.


In blue cities and red suburbs alike, firearms purchases soared last year — to the highest level in half a century, based on federal background checks. A striking portion of those sales went to first-time gun buyers—40 percent, according to the firearms industry’s trade association.


A 2020 New York Times article was titled A Divided Nation Agrees on One Thing: Many People Want a Gun. Here’s an excerpt from that article:  


Many gun buyers now are saying they are motivated by a new destabilizing sense that is pushing even people who had considered themselves anti-gun to buy weapons for the first time. [...] When it comes to gun ownership there’s something uniquely American that cuts across party affiliation and social boundaries—leaving liberals and conservatives jostling for ammunition because they want to brace for whatever comes next.


Some new liberal gun owners are motivated by fears that they or people they care about will be targeted for violence. The Seattle area NPR station KUOW had a piece titled Four Seattle liberals on why they own guns and who they're voting for in the primary. Here are a few excerpts from that piece: 


Aaron said his views on gun control are complicated.


“There are lots of reasons a person shouldn't have access to firearms, but I'm not sure that those reasons outweigh the ability of the U.S. government to impose its will on people,” he said.


He reasoned that, one, guns are already here (a Small Arms survey in 2018 found there were more than 393 million civilian firearms in the U.S.); and two, the Pacific Northwest is a mecca of organized white supremacy; and three: “I think we’re a crumbling empire. I don’t think the U.S. government is mature enough to tell humans what to do at this point in civilization.” [...]


Alex, who is transgender and asked that their last name not be used, was rabidly anti-gun until about a year ago, they said.


They grew up in a liberal California family and weren’t really exposed to guns. They were raised with the concept that gun enthusiasts were all right wing.


In 2019, after their friends attended the Trans Pride Parade in Seattle, they began to question that belief and where they stood on guns. At the parade, attendees came across an alt-right presence, but were provided protection by the gun-wielding John Brown Gun Club.


At the time, Alex said the idea of a “left militia” protecting queer folks was unthinkable to them, and forced them to reevaluate their perspective.


“I had this sort of come-to-Jesus moment,” they said. “I realized the rest of my politics weren’t really compatible with my anti-gun views.” [...]


“You can’t expect social justice to bloom from the fruits of the poison tree of our criminal justice system,” they said, nodding to the racial and ethnic disparities within the country's more than 2 million prisoner population. [...]


To help teach others, Alex participates in queer range days. Alex, being a fairly experienced shooter, educates newbies on firearm safety and how to properly shoot a handgun at the range.


Alex repeated that owning a gun wasn’t about them individually, “it was more about my whole community.”


Some other new gun owners were motivated by fears of the George Floyd-related protests and riots. In an October 2020 episode of New York Times’ podcast The Daily, titled The Specter of Political Violence, a person who is mostly politically progressive was interviewed about their fears of the Seattle-area riots and how that led to them purchasing an AR-15: 


Gun owner: [...] Then George Floyd died.


Archived recording: The protests over the death of George Floyd started peacefully but has turned very destructive tonight.


Gun owner: Then there were riots in Seattle. My wife and I got a notification. The city sent out a mass text that was like, there’s a curfew in effect. And we’re like, what’s this about? [...] Then, my wife starts checking her phone. And she’s like, there are riots downtown.


Archived recording: Here in Seattle, demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails at cars and buildings, causing multiple fires. Some threw fireworks into peaceful crowds and at police.


[Reporter] Andy Mills: From his perspective, these protests in Seattle were terrifying.


Gun owner: We looked up where it was. A half mile from where we used to live, swarms of people [...] A cop car was totally trashed. And there were police. But they were taking defensive positions. They were afraid to engage this crowd.


Archived recording: Police are not 30 feet away, maybe 60, keeping the line of protesters back. As firefighters work on these burning cruisers, nobody is intervening as these people enter this business here.


Gun owner: I mean, the word that comes to mind is anarchy, just a total loss of order. [...] So I realized if a riot happens, you are essentially on your own. [...] That night, that Saturday night after my wife and I were watching this unfold, totally sleepless night. I lay in bed. And I thought about what would happen if someone just blew up the front of our house, like they’d blown up the front of those storefronts and just stormed in. I just thought about how bad I would feel if that happened and my wife were hurt or killed, and I hadn’t done anything to prepare for it. And I was like, well, I need a gun that can handle a riot.

 

If our goal is lowering anger, it will help us to see the many reasons people can have for owning guns, and how there can be some similarities across the political spectrum. And also, in highly polarized and chaotic times, fear will cause many people, regardless of politics, to feel pressured to own a gun. We can argue how logical such ideas are—we may even find some reasons utterly stupid—but hopefully we can see that these fears can be human and understandable. 


Guns may be adding to our polarization 

I’m someone who’s considered leaving the United States due to its huge number of guns and high levels of gun violence. Some people, on hearing that, will scoff. They’ll think something like: “But you’re so unlikely to encounter gun violence; it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of that.”


But my anxiety about America’s relationship with guns is only partly about concerns that me or people I know might be shot. My much bigger concern is that I think America’s unique and inflexible relationship with guns is a significant factor in our us-versus-them polarization. 


For one thing, violent deaths are capable of arousing a lot of emotion. And that emotion can be drawn into our us-versus-them narratives. 


Killings by police is one example. No matter what your stance is on that topic, you can likely see how those violent deaths, with the emotion they’ve provoked, have added to our divides.  


Shootings associated with political and cultural conflicts are another example. When a mentally unwell far left person goes out and shoots several Republican congresspeople in Washington D.C., as happened in 2017, that’s capable of sparking a lot of conservative-side emotion and anger: that emotion will then be used to build conservative side us-versus-them narratives about the nature of liberals. 


In short, violence is capable of creating a lot of emotion, and that emotion can be funneled into our us-versus-them divides, which can in turn create more violence. Without our huge number of guns and gun deaths, I believe our us-versus-them feelings would be significantly lower. 


Also, it’s possible our anxiety about our fellow citizens having guns, and anxiety about civil-war-type scenarios, may be amplifying our us-versus-them feelings. In a 2022 Washington Post article, political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff (who I interviewed for my podcast) talked about the potential dangers of speaking in too-certain ways about future civil-war-type scenarios: 


One [criticism of his] was that elevating concerns about “civil war” could be self-fulfilling. He used the example of two feuding neighbors who observe each other buying weapons and ammunition. The instinct would be to be similarly prepared—raising the risk of a confrontation. 


And we can see how our huge number of guns can contribute to such fears, and how those fears may in turn amplify our us-versus-them divides. 


All this is to say: there can be other reasons to see America’s relationship with guns as toxic and worrisome, apart from fears of gun violence directly affecting one’s self or the people one knows. 


Understanding gun violence concerns

If you’re someone who thinks people are too afraid of guns and that the problem is exaggerated, is it possible to imagine how you might be in different situations that would make you have more sympathy for such views? 


For example, if you were a person living in a high-crime area of Chicago, you’d likely have a lot of anxiety about gun violence. Gun violence wouldn’t be a distant thing, then; it’d be very real. Stray bullets are real. 


For another example: if you had a child who was killed in a mass shooting, can you imagine your stance on guns changing? 


For another example: is it possible to imagine a future where radical Islamic terrorist attacks have become much more common in the U.S. and some of those attacks take the form of mass shootings with guns the terrorists purchased in the U.S.? Can you imagine being upset that people who want to harm us are able to so easily buy guns? 


This is all to say: if you’re someone who believes strongly in protecting access to guns, hopefully you’re able to see the very real anxieties and emotions that drive people to want more gun restrictions. 


This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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