The debate, if that’s what it is, over gun control and gun massacres and gun rights and guns guns guns rages with little hope of anything like consensus. The Americans who support regulation paint those who oppose it as gun nuts. The Americans who oppose regulation paint those who support it as second-Amendment-rescinding liberal wackos.
In the midst of all this painting, I recall a conversation I had 10 or 11 years ago with a total stranger, a pilot heading home, who sat next to me on a flight to Houston. For some reason, maybe it was my Yankee accent and my squishy nimbus of liberalism, he sensed that I held political and social opinions markedly different from his own. For some other reason, he sensed that I’d be open to discussing these opinions with someone who held opposing views. And so, over the course of about three hours, he drew me out on a variety of subjects — most memorably, gun control.
He said he was a responsible gun owner — and that owning and using this gun responsibly made him safer. I asked him why, exactly. And he told a story of waking one night, alone in his home, to the sound of a break-in. He calmly took his gun. He calmly crept downstairs. He calmly pointed it at the would-be burglar. He calmly told him to leave and then, after the criminal booked into the darkness, he calmly called the police and told them where to apprehend him.
“And they did,” he said. “They arrested him and took him in. And that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have a gun. Law-abiding gun owners make our homes and streets safer. The more of us who own guns for the right reasons, the better off we are.”
I listened to this, grateful for the chance to grasp a point that had always eluded me. I had never understood this bedrock faith, so widely held by gun owners, that the weapon makes them safer — and that the more guns there are in the hands of good guys, the more protected we are from the bad guys. To me guns don’t mean safety; they represent violence, disorder, death. To this decent and well-spoken stranger beside me, guns represented order.
You must be a really rational person, I said.
“I am,” he said.
Really responsible and cool-headed.
“I am,” he said.
You never lose your head with anger. You never pop off impulsively in the moment.
“I don’t,” he said.
Good. You’re obviously the right person to own a gun.
But you don’t want me to own a gun. You don’t want me near one. Because I am not always a rational person. I am not always cool-headed in the moment. And I don’t want to kill anyone.
He looked a little startled. I went on:
I’m not saying I’m crazy or criminal; I’m a decent, law-abiding person who struggles at times with anger and impulses. Just the thought of having that power in my hands in an emotional moment terrifies me. I don’t want it. I shouldn’t have it. I support gun control because of people like me, not people like you.
“That had never occurred to me before,” he admitted, then looked at me squarely.
Again I went on:
If what happened to you happened to me? And there was a break-in, and let’s say my kids were in the house, and I’d had a gun? I wouldn’t have been rational about it. I wouldn’t have been able to calmly wave the guy away and then call the police. I might have lost it. I might have killed him.
I stopped and considered the man beside me: Just as I had never truly understood the perspective of gun owners who say ownership makes them safer, he had never before considered that some people, even upstanding and otherwise reasonable people like the nice lady sitting beside him, might be psychologically ill-equipped.
We had each given each other something in that chat at 30,000 feet: a glimpse of each other’s point of view. We had also given each other a reason, perhaps even a resolve, not to demonize the other. Amid the latest sturm und drang in the wake of the latest shootings, I keep thinking of that sensible, articulate man and the importance of conversation between people who disagree. He wasn’t a gun nut. I wasn’t a liberal wacko. We were just two Americans on a flight to Houston, doing our best to understand.
Why can’t we do that as a country? Why can’t we find some neutral place, all of us — politicians included — and talk about gun violence in a way that engenders listening? Why can’t we swap perspectives and find some middle ground, some shared beliefs that don’t backslide into mockery and cant?
We’re all in this together. For love of our country and our children, we all want the massacres to end: we can agree on that. But how can we end them if we don’t talk? How can we learn if we don’t listen?