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Ask The Trace

How to Have a Productive Conversation About Guns with Someone Who Holds Different Views

Step one: start by talking about anything else…

Take a man. Former military and ex-police, neat goatee, certain of his beliefs, unstinting when sharing them. A resident of a tiny town in upstate New York, where in his home he keeps a dozen handguns and rifles. For hunting, and for fending off intruders (should it come to it), and also just because he likes them.  

Take another man. Retired from a life in office jobs — he worked in IT — to teach at local colleges. Horned-rim glasses, circumspect. Does not own firearms. Does not get why anyone needs an AR-15.

Take these two men, strangers, and pair them for a conversation about guns in America.

Watch as their friendship blooms.

“Understanding people. That’s really what it’s about,” says Jon Godfrey, the proud gun owner, of his comradeship with Peter Lotto, the gun control advocate. He makes it sound easy, but then, the two did have an advantage. Godfrey and Lotto met not in the sewer of social media comments, or across the police line at a political rally. Instead, they were two of the participants in a carefully structured experiment designed to foster more respectful discourse and repair civic life.

“Guns: An American Conversation” was a partnership of the Advance Local chain of newspapers and news sites, the “dialogue journalism” startup Spaceship Media, and the mediation firm Essential Partners. Commencing on the weekend of March for Our Lives, the project gathered an initial cohort of 21 people for two days of intensive workshops in Washington, D.C., then added 100 or so as it shifted to a Facebook group.

The goal was to defuse a topic that by some measures has been the most polarizing issue in an increasingly divided country. For the most part, the project succeeded. Guided by the organizers, the participants gradually left their bubbles, opened up, and learned from each other. Crucially, they did not start out seeking common ground on guns, but instead first got to know what they had in common as people. With those ties established, they were able to debate the contentious subject in good faith.

Earlier this year, as part of our Ask The Trace series, reader Karen Kanter wrote in with a question not unlike the one that had motivated Advance Local and its collaborators. Kanter happens to back tighter gun restrictions, and had been frustrated by the devolution of her conversations with those who don’t. “What are the most effective strategies” she asked, “for having a meaningful, productive talk with someone who is an ardent gun supporter?”

To answer her question, we asked Godfrey and Lotto what worked for them. Below appears a transcript of their responses, edited for length and clarity.

If you try their advice, let us know in the form below — we may publish your comments in an upcoming story.

Don’t go in expecting to convert the other person

Peter Lotto: If you, as a person who is not a pro-gun person, if you go in trying to convince a person who has guns for any number of reasons — from personal protection to hunting to collecting, whatever — that owning those guns is a bad thing, you’ll get nowhere. You will in fact just put their back up and make the whole conversation pointless.

If you go in, on the other hand, as a non-gun owner with the expectation that you can learn something about the why’s, the how’s, and what people who do own guns think about gun regulations at all levels, you might find that, you know what, they have an awful lot of stuff that’s pretty important and valid to say.

We can never find the place where we can all meet and agree unless we begin by respecting each other.

Jon Godfrey:  Peter’s absolutely right. I actually told my wife at the start, I said, “You know, I’m probably not going to change anyone’s mind probably, but my personal goal is to walk away from it and have them say, ‘You know, I may not agree with him, but he’s a heck of a nice guy.’”  I think that was a way for me to keep myself in check.

At first, talk about anything other than guns

JG: You have to find common interests, likes, even dislikes. Those things can help carry you over the conflicting opinions while helping you keep respect for each other.

During the mediated portion of the “American Conversation” project, the first half a day, we didn’t even talk about guns. We just talked about each other’s lives and some of our stories, what was important, what was not important. That helped us have the ability to relate to each other.

PL: You’re exactly right there, Jon. I mean, you don’t jump into any conversation with a neighbor who you don’t know yet on a controversial point. That’s just nuts, right? It’s guaranteed to lead to failure. If you know that the new guy next door is a gun owner — maybe you see him unloading his guns when he was moving in — well, go find out if he likes baseball before you find out if he’s going to be target shooting in his backyard.

Ask the right kind of questions

PL:  I’m not going to get the exact wording right, but one of the things they taught us was to pose questions seeking understanding, in a manner that will allow the respondent to provide you with the understanding that you seek.

Now, one of the guys in our group was a gun owner who never leaves home without his concealed weapon. I don’t understand that, right? I don’t understand why anybody feels the need to do that unless they’re law enforcement or something like that.

But I didn’t say, “Dan, are you out of your freaking mind that you carry your gun with you everywhere you go?” I said, “Dan, I’m kind of a suburban guy, and I don’t feel the need to do that. Why is this important to you?” I got a lengthy explanation of why living where he does, having seen some of the things he’s seen, having known some of the things that are going on around him, he feels that this is important. Okay, I still wouldn’t do it. I’m still not entirely sure that I agree that he should do it. But I understand why he does.

JG: The big key is to avoid questions that belittle others’ beliefs.

In the microcosm of your question you have to break it down and say, “Are they going to take this the wrong way? I want to understand them. How can I ask the question so I can convey that? Explain to me why you feel this way?”

I think that’s where we found our successes, wouldn’t you agree, Peter?

PL: Absolutely.

This part will be hard: Your facts may not matter

JG:  One of the things that we found in the group is that people like to bombard the other side with statistics. Unfortunately, if you find yourself compelled to do that to make your point, you’ve lost before you even begin.

PL: Yeah, I’m reminded of the old phrase: The contract is the last refuge in a broken relationship. If you are resorting to arguing statistics, it’s over. You’ve stopped listening. You’re trying to overwhelm the person you’re supposedly having a discussion with, using information that supports your position.

JG:  If you’re talking to a person, and you know that their data is incorrect, an approach I’d probably use is to ask, you know, “You’re basing your feelings on that data — if it was not correct would you still feel the same way?” Again, talk about why they feel that way, what makes them feel that way: Is it solely the data, or are there other reasons?

To repeat: This part will be hard

PL: If a person keeps citing stats on guns that you know are wrong, you have a couple of choices.

You could tell them that they’re full of it and that what they’ve said is nonsense. That may not make for ongoing conversation, but you can do that.

Another is something I have to do with my students in the college classes I teach now:

“So, I hear what you’re saying. Where did that come from? What was your source? Oh, okay. What else can you tell me that you’ve learned from that source? And are you aware that what you’ve said might not be 100% correct in all cases?” You can try that tactic.

Other times, you know what you got to do? You gotta just let it drop. You just got to go, “Oh, okay,” but keep it to yourself. You just move on, because if it’s something that’s empirically wrong in the heat of the moment, there may be no way to make it better.

Know when to press pause

JG: If it’s not going well, you’re better to step away. Maybe reflect on some of the common things you do have. Then, come back to it when you can. Because that’s really the only way to continue forward on a positive track.

Do not attempt any of the above on Facebook

PL:  Social media’s a killer.

JG:  I think everybody had to take a timeout at some point or another when the project moved to social media. We all agreed that the larger group of 130 who just had that part of the experience did not have the advantage of getting to know each other first.

I had a hard time with some of the posts from people from my own belief group. I was like, “Wait a minute, some of these people I know from Washington, and you can’t treat them that way!”

In fairness, and to not just to go after my own side, I was called everything [by pro-gun control participants] within the first 15 minutes when the group was let on the board.

Seek accord in safety

JG:  What we found, and I think Peter will agree, was that we all agree on safety. Responsible people want people to be safe no matter which side of the argument you’re on.

PL:  When we say, “Well, there’s the gun safety side and then there’s the gun rights side,” we immediately turn off the conversation. We’re charging gun owners with something that they absolutely, positively don’t agree with. We’re painting them with the wrong brush.

Strike a blow for reasonableness

JG: Unfortunately, both sides of this argument are represented by the fringe — those that yell the loudest. A lot of times, they don’t tell the story for that side properly. I think we can’t let the fringe talk for us. We have to take the time, no matter how difficult it is to speak our truth.