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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

To End the Violence, Ethics Requires We Must First Have Empathy for the Other

People protesting gun violence

People protesting gun violence

Hana Callaghan

AP Photo - John Minchillo

Hana Callaghan is the director of the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and is the author of, “Campaign Ethics, A Field Guide.” Views are her own.

After the blood was spilled in three devastating mass shootings in a week, the ink immediately started to flow on both sides of the gun control issue. The problem is we are shouting over each other but not talking to each other. In the aftermath of each mass killing spree we seem to become more emotionally entrenched in our positions. Those on the left believe we will all be safer if we have stronger restrictions on guns, those on the right believe safety is found in more gun ownership by individuals. Until we can find common ground, stop demonizing each other, and stop argument by meme, people, including children, are going to continue to die. And that is a result that no one on either side of the gun control issue wants.

In 2016, New York Magazine partnered with Narrative 4 to engage in an empathy project with individuals who had been impacted by gun violence but whose ideologies on guns were polar opposite. On the first day participants partnered up with people with whom they vehemently disagreed and shared their painful, personal stories with each other. On the second day each person got up before the entire group and repeated their partner’s story in the first person—as though the story were their own. A gun dealer, for example, told the story of a mother whose daughter had been killed in a mall shooting spree. Lisa Miller, the author of the New York Magazine piece described the presentation this way:

Todd put his forearms on his knees. He gathered himself, looked at his notes, and began. “My name is Carolyn. I am an artist. I was self-employed. I had my own company. What I was most proud of in my life was…” Here his composure dissolved. For almost a full minute, the room waited in silence as he endeavored to regain himself. Twice, Carolyn gave him little comforting pats. “What I was most proud of,” he resumed, “is that I was a mother. I love my kids. I had two boys and two girls. And it was a good mixture of me being a mother but also treating my kids as if they were my best friends. The home was just completely filled with love.” Todd described her youngest daughter, Kirsten: a social butterfly, a bright light.

And then, two days before Valentine’s Day, Kirsten wanted to get cards for some friends, so she and her mother went to the mall in Salt Lake. “We hear a loud bang,” said Todd, as Carolyn, through tears. “We didn’t know what it was. And we were standing by the window of the store inside the mall and I heard another bang and I started looking out the window to see what it was. And then I saw a flash in front of me and I was covered with glass. All over. And I didn’t know what was going on. It just shocked me. My daughter Kirsten looked at me and said, ‘Mom, come over here.’ And then the glass started falling down from the window. And then I saw the shooter standing in front of me. He shot me in my arm. And then I noticed he shot my daughter in the back. And I was on the ground, and he shot me again, in the back. And then I watched him put the shotgun against my daughter’s head and end her life.”

The words coming out of Todd’s mouth were ones he would never have said as himself: “I want to see common-sense gun reform. I want to make laws to prevent people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them, to stop them from ever being able to own them. I complained to my daughter about her messy room at times. I would give anything to be able to have that messy room again.” Here Todd gave his face one more big squeeze. “My name is Carolyn.” In the room, everything was anguish. Carolyn gave him a tiny smile and another pat…

Miller summed up the impact of the story exchanges this way:

In that moment, the commonality of experience, the universality of human vulnerability, had been so obvious — and so breathtaking. Everyone in the room was separated not by a deep canyon but by a thin line. The dividing factor wasn’t really beliefs about gun control; it was about fear and how you respond to it. There were those who held to their gun ownership as an instrument of power and security in a world that too often seemed unsafe and uncertain, and there were those who knew too well that nothing on earth can guarantee safety and certainty for the people you love. They had lived through what the others so desperately feared. As David Peters, the former Marine, put it, “Am I safe or am I not safe?” That is, at some very basic level, always the question. No one quite knew where to go from there, but it seemed promising, this collective realization that all of their beliefs were coming from essentially the same human place.

If we want to solve this devastating mass shooting crisis, we as a nation must have empathy for the other. Those on the left must learn and understand that those on the right are truly afraid for their own safety and the safety of their families in the crime-filled world in which we live. Those on the right must learn and understand that the left fears for their children every time they send them to school, a movie, a mall, or church.

In discussing our hopes and fears we have to take out of the conversation the concept that the Second Amendment is an absolute ban on gun regulation. Contrary to arguments by the NRA, it is well established in the law that the Second Amendment allows for reasonable regulation. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opined in District of Columbia v Heller, 554 U.S. 570, (2008), that "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited...the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." In Heller the Court held that the District of Columbia could not ban a handgun kept in one's home for self-defense because self-defense was one of the core concerns of the founders when they drafted the Second Amendment. Justice Scalia noted in dicta that "dangerous and unusual weapons" could be restricted. Even Republican icon Ronald Reagan, an NRA member, supported a ban on assault weapons and was in favor of background checks and waiting periods.

The question for legislators is what is “reasonable” regulation, and what restrictions will address the fears on both sides? Will ownership of a weapon with a high capacity magazine truly prevent mass shootings? Recent events have shown that they may reduce the carnage, but not prevent it.   

We also have to listen to the proposals on each side as to how to solve this mass shooting epidemic. There are those on the left who refuse to listen to arguments about mental illness, isolationism, dissolution of the family, violent video games, films, and lack of character education. There are those on the right who refuse to acknowledge that blocking access to weapons with high capacity magazines will result in fewer incidents of active shooter killing sprees. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It is time we took a holistic approach and look at all ways to stop the violence. Yes, both sides will have to give, but as a nation we have so much to gain. It takes courage to overcome fear, but together we can do it.

Aug 19, 2019

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