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Talking about Guns and Violence: Strategies for Facilitating Constructive Dialogues

This 11-page essay by Greg Keidan, a public engagement specialist and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, was written for the University of AZ’s National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD).  After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, NICD called for essays to address the challenges of conducting constructive conversations about gun violence in the U.S. As part of their mission, NICD seeks to promote civil discourse on issues of public interest and does not take a policy position on gun violence or gun control but is committed to encouraging a civil discussion.

NICD_logoArticulation of the Question

Guns are viewed by many people as a sacred emblem of American independence. We own enough nonmilitary guns to arm every man, woman, and child, plus a few million of our pets. Gun related violence accounts for 30,000-40,000 deaths each year in the U.S., approximately 60% by suicide.

Recent tragedies in Newtown and other communities involving horrific mass shootings have brought widespread calls for new efforts to address and reduce gun related violence. Unfortunately, the highly partisan, adversarial nature of our two-party system and this issue has proven to be a giant obstacle to finding common ground and common sense solutions. In the spring of 2013, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a compromise piece of legislation in response to public and Presidential demands for tighter background checks for people purchasing firearms online and at gun shows. Despite polls showing that 90% of American adults supported this compromise deal, influential advocates were able to sink the bill in the Senate.

A new approach to addressing and reducing gun related violence is desperately needed. It has been almost 20 years since Congress has passed any legislation to address the issue. A growing number of local and national organizations are interested in engaging diverse Americans in civil dialogue and deliberation to find consensus on common-sense solutions and to hold our leaders accountable for implementing them.

However, traditional public meetings where a few advocates each take their two minutes at the microphone often result in acrimonious shouting matches, rather than identifying areas of consensus where collaborative efforts could improve safety. I spoke with seasoned facilitators and thought leaders from the dialogue and deliberation movement to answer the following question: what are the emerging best practices and strategies for facilitating civil and constructive dialogues aimed at reducing the number of Americans killed and injured by guns?

From the Conclusion:

It is our hope that using these strategies may help engage a greater number of Americans in more productive discussions about guns and violence so that this issue does not become a permanent dividing line in American society. People who have an opportunity to listen deeply to a variety of perspectives will be less apt to vilify those they disagree with and more able to work together to find better solutions and areas of agreement that could serve as a basis for effective public policy.

The more Americans experience taking part in constructive, civil dialogues that lead to tangible positive outcomes, the more you work against the notion that what happens in public life is decided only by policy makers. Empowered, active and networked citizens can effectively address very difficult societal problems, as evidenced by the environmental and civil rights movements.

Communities, states and nations that learn how to effectively engage residents in dialogue on the issue of guns and violence will be better positioned to take collective action. They will be able to consider and implement policies in more informed, thoughtful, and effective ways that keep residents safer. If we can promote conversations about how to prioritize safety rather than conversations driven by fear, we have a better shot at creating policies that will effectively protect our children. Previous experiences have demonstrated that Americans who were locked in adversarial relationships can collaborate and achieve common goals when they take part in well facilitated, intelligently framed, sustained dialogues.

In the past, we have mostly heard the voices of people who express deeply held views representing the far ends of the spectrum of the gun rights vs. gun control debate. These vocal advocates don’t represent where most of us stand on the issue of guns and violence. If we can engage the majority of people who are not on one side or the other of the existing gun debate, make their voices heard and empower them to work with their neighbors to create change and communicate with decision-makers, we have a chance to make real progress towards preventing tragedies and making our country safer.

Resource Link: https://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/Keiden-TalkingAbtGunsAndViolence.pdf

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Add a Comment

  1. Chris Santos-Lang Says:

    Gun violence would top my list of topics that might be inappropriate for dialog.

    Though a minority of people see gun violence as a way to resolve a conflict, gun violence probably wouldn’t exist if no one saw it that way. Thus, gun violence and civil discourse are competitors. They are alternative approaches to conflict-resolution.

    There is something ironic about having a dialog about a competitor to dialog. If the dialog has depth, it quickly becomes a meta-discussion: We find ourselves asking why civil discourse is so inadequate that one would resort to violence (or something else). Attempting to improve dialog is worthwhile, but expecting to perfect dialog–and thus to eliminate the value of competitors–rings of arrogance.

    On the other hand, if the dialog lacks depth and simply aims to eliminate the competitor, then it looks like oppression. It looks like a group of people, for whom dialog is the preferred method of conflict-resolution, shaping the social environment to constrain anyone with opposing preferences.

    Gun violence may decrease if civil discourse resolves conflicts which would otherwise lead to gun violence. There is nothing wrong with dialog relating to gun violence in that way–it is healthy competition. The competition gets unhealthy when gun violence becomes the explicit target of the dialog (or vice-versa). Just like one cannot expect dialog facilitators to walk into war-zones to protect free speech, one cannot expect people who would use guns violently to be well-represented in a dialog about gun violence. Change the topic of the dialog to the thing that inspires the violence, and the dialog has a chance of escaping hypocrisy.

  2. Greg Keidan Says:


    Thanks for your comment. The focus of the article is strategies for convening dialogues about policy changes that could lead to reductions in gun violence. Bernie Sanders recently highlighted the need in the United States for people from both sides of this divisive issue to find common sense solutions to make our communities safer. The challenge is to frame the dialogue in a way that does not make one side or the other feel dismissed or railroaded. I hope you will take the time to read it, I was fortunate to learn from wise practitioners in researching this piece.

    Agreed that dialogue is also needed to address the roots of violence!