America is Broken

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On the subject of guns, America is broken. Our national gun debate is in shambles.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific Parkland shooting, I tuned out. After gathering a sketch outline of the details, I logged off Twitter, turned off the TV news and skipped past any news articles during my daily scan of leading newspapers. There was no point to it, no evolution of national discussion would be forthcoming of which I might need to bear witness.

I tuned out because there is no national debate on the subject of guns; just two sides screaming at each other—one sharply angry and the other aggressively resolute.

By the end of the weekend, however, a new element entered the mix. The surviving victims—articulate and fierce, heartbroken and justifiably pissed off—began to speak. So I returned from my self-imposed exile to discover the possibility of a new dynamic in the stagnant debate: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors seeking to take an #enough movement national.

The success of this fledgling movement remains very much up in the air. But if they can keep from being turned into cartoons by the press and cable TV news, and can survive the disappointment from entrenched politicians and the attacks from right wing extremists already mobilizing, they have the first chance to change the conversation in years.

The emergence of a surviving victim movement begs the question: How did the gun debate become so calcified in the first place? Why did I reflexively tune out when the news of yet another shooting first broke?

To trigger my personal information blackout, it was enough for me to recognize the fact that the gun debate is utterly broken. No need to deconstruct the entirety of the gun debate itself, with all its myriad statistics and arguments, nuanced and blunt, and I’ll not do so here. It is worth considering, however, once we acknowledge the futility of the present debate, who benefits from the current state of affairs.

When it comes to passing policy into laws, we often assume two sides (Dems/GOP, Conservative/Liberal, Pro/Anti, etc.), each wanting more or less of a particular component included in the proposed law. The media relentlessly pushes that binary framing (a discussion for another time) on all manner of subjects, the gun debate included. Sometimes that framing is actually warranted and appropriate, as sometimes a particular issue is so polarizing there are but two sides. More often, however, there are multiple sides engaging in a dynamic push-me, pull-you of advocacy, spin and vote counting.

Public debates—national conversations, if you will—arise on a given topic typically when there’s some sort of problem to be solved. In the current gun (non-)debate, the problem is readily apparent: how can we stop the mass murder of children while yet respecting the right of gun ownership? The process we use as a society for solving such a public problem is the Discussion-into-Policy-into-Law process; society’s problem-resolving machine, if you will. Feed a public problem into the society’s problem-resolving machine and out pops a policy which can then be implemented into a law. Sometimes it’s trial and error, and we have to return to the machine, but that’s our basic societal mechanism for problem resolution.

In the initial discussion phase, interested parties weigh in with their perceptions of the problem and scope, the strengths of their proposals for resolution, and the perceived weaknesses of their opponents’ ideas, while their opponents do the same from their perspective. On the subject of guns, the national debate has become so calcified there’s no need here to articulate the well-known positions of gun control advocates versus the gun rights crowd.

It’s possible that, while the above-described public dialogue rages, one of the participants—even one of the parties seeming to be aggressively vested in the debate—might have a strong, if silent, interest, wholly apart from the topics batted about in the midst of scrum. By way of specific example, such a party might have a vested interest in seeing the debate not resolve itself. In fact, such a party might stand to gain the most from a broken lawmaking system.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the outset. In the gun debate, who stands to gain the most from a broken system?

It’s axiomatic but illustrative that the part(ies) who stands to gain the most in having NO new laws written, are those who are fine with (or want less of) existing laws. They don’t want the laws changed.

On the topic of guns, the answer thus phrased is nearly self-evident: A broken gun debate most benefits gun manufacturers and sales, aka the gun lobby. A dysfunctional gun debate benefits those who profit from the sale of guns. From the sale of more guns. The gun lobby would be happiest if no one was talking about changing gun laws to their disadvantage at all, but if discuss them people must, let it be contentious and unproductive. Rage on.

As a matter of the tactics employed to break the gun problem-resolving machine, the gun lobby alternately backs off the debate entirely (“Now is not the time to talk about…”, “Let’s not politicize…”) and wages a fierce partisan war on the topic (“2nd Amendment Über Alles! Their coming for our guns!”), fighting for every inch along the front lines of a permanent war.

This, the gun lobby’s primary two-fold tactic, is undertaken in bad faith. Engaging in a dialogue of ideas with the specific intent of NOT reaching a mutual understanding—one that might be transformed into public policy/law—is quintessential bad faith.

Good faith participants accept the fundamental structure and restrictions inherent in such conversations. Bad faith participants do not. One agrees to abide by the rules, the other does not. Thus, engaging in discussion with a bad faith party inherently disadvantages the party participating in good faith. There’s no upside for the good-faith participant.

In the public policy arena on guns, gun control advocates routinely present good faith reasoned arguments for their positions and repeatedly bang their heads against the brick wall of the gun rights lobby’s bad faith arguments. Twas ever thus, for a decade or more now.

A party engaged in bad faith in a discussion does not seek to persuade by the strength of their reasoning or superiority of concept, they’re seeking argument for arguments sake, such that no one is persuaded of anything (except their own intractable positions). The bad faith actor seeks no mutual understanding, no consensus as an end in-itself. This is the gun lobby in a nutshell.

It’s a nihilistic approach, one that rejects a foundational premise of such public debates: that a public airing of opinions and perspectives (in the halls of Congress, and in the national conversation across dinner tables, in the free press and social media) seeks to attain consensus—a shared agreement of how we should live as a group and govern ourselves. Also that this arrived-upon consensus may be enacted into laws codifying and preserving this agreement for reference (and enforcement).

Adamant in their assessment that they will not benefit—profit—from the enactment of new laws (or even not profit as much), the bad faith actor will consent to and participate in the debate with the specific intent of rendering the public apparatus dysfunctional. They seek to break it.

Take a sledgehammer to the law-making machine itself and, bam! No laws are coming out of that puppy for a while.

Note: For the bad faith actor, this tactic has the added benefit of being successful even if the ideas you would otherwise contribute to the debate would fail on their deficient merits.

For the gun lobby, if their best arguments can be debunked and dismantled by logic and reasoning and contrary evidence, such that a society would not adopt their views as consensus and not enact their ideas into further laws, it’s far better (for them) to simply gum up the law-making works or cause it to be inoperable. To face the issues head on is to lose.

So here we sit in the aftermath of yet another mass school shooting, bodies littered across the schoolyard, a broken nation. On the topic of guns, America is broken. The mechanisms of public debate on guns are mangled and inoperable.

One constituency—the gun lobby—couldn’t be happier.

Yet there’s a storm brewing in Florida. A movement stirs that aims to shatter the calcified machinery of public gun policy. If only incremental changes are the initial result, that will be the first change of any kind since the horrors of Sandy Hook, and a sign that the siege is lifting. Even before there is a “next time” we may be well-advised not to tune out in futility, but to keep our eyes open and witness the winds of change sweep across the entire debate. The Stoneman Douglas survivors might just be the spark that restarts the conversation and bring about the policy changes—whatever they might be—to vanquish the widespread sense of helpless despair upon which the gun lobby currently profits.

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