In the wake of 40 mass shootings so far this January, I am struck by – and stuck on, some paradoxical statements that have echoes in different parts of the country. The first, from Shannon Watts, who is the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention network, has said (as reported in the New York Times), “If more guns make people safer, and there are over 400 million guns in America, we then should be the safest country in the world…And we are not.”
And the other statement, first attributed to Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, has often said (especially after mass shootings), “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
My initial temptation is to dissect these two statements, and – especially with the latter, which has become a mantra in the gun rights arena, to discredit it with evidence and data.
Instead, I am trying to simply sit with both. To treat them, when taken together, as Koans. Koan (Koh- ahn) is a Japanese Zen term referring to a seemingly unsolvable problem. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping” is perhaps the most well-known koan). There is agreement – across the gun divide, that we have an escalating problem in the United States: gun violence keeps rising. Four years ago, an average of 90 people a day were killed by guns; today it is just over a hundred. Where the gun divide gets wider and more treacherous, is when solutions to the problem are presented. The gun violence prevention people suggest that there should be restrictions on the manufacture of certain guns, who can use them (or not), and how to reduce the number of weapons in the community. The gun rights people say that reducing the number of guns, the type of guns and who can own guns threatens the second amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, not to mention public safety.
And we end up with an unsolvable problem, because neither side is willing to adjust.
As one who has been working for awhile in the gun violence prevention space, I want to acknowledge that there are many incidents when a good guy with a gun has thwarted a bad guy with a gun. But not enough instances to warrant holding on to the status quo. For one thing, there have been many occasions when people were quick to pull the trigger on someone who was assumed to be a bad guy. Often, the alleged bad guy was not armed, or turned out to be a good guy. Only a different color.
The LaPierre mantra is not going to go away. Even though it is flawed, it has been absorbed, if not embraced, by millions of gun owners.
So I sit with the paradoxical statements which, taken together, form a koan. In the Zen tradition, the accumulated wisdom over the centuries indicates that if you sit with the koan long enough – and let go of the impulse to rationally solve the problem, a resolution will eventually emerge. A new and unexpected insight will present itself.
Most days, I don’t want to sit with the paradox. Especially after another unspeakable tragedy. My impulse is to join with the growing throng who say, “enough!” And prepare to go to battle armed with data and convictions – and not a little bit of self-righteousness, with people who are armed with guns.
And the stalemate continues. And the scourge of gun violence grows.
So I sit in the middle of the divide. And struggle with the tension. And try to listen and understand – both my reactions and those who disagree with me. All the while trying to do what I can to lower the incidence of gun violence and the aggressive rhetoric that does nothing but raise the temperature. And trust that a way forward will emerge. And that a level of trust can develop – that enough people on both sides share a desire to reduce the level of gun violence — in order to make a difference.