Our Opinion: Calling our better angels

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You can learn a lot by listening. But when it comes to guns, can we listen to each other?

On Monday, at a community forum sponsored by this newspaper and its sister publication, the Bennington Banner, area educators, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, mental health professionals and students joined a trio of Gov. Phil Scott's cabinet members to discuss school safety, gun violence and potential solutions. We thank all of our panelists for their time and effort, and we thank everyone who came to listen and ask questions.

The 100 or so audience members at Southern Vermont College's Laumeister Art Center learned a lot about what police, educators and mental health professionals are already doing in partnership to keep schools safe. And they heard from students who have lived with the anxiety of school shootings their entire lives, from lockdown drills in school to upsetting video images of students running for their lives and parents mourning their children.

But when it came to questions and answers at the end of the session, the listening seemed to stop and a few people on opposite sides of the gun issue started talking over and past each other.

Perhaps that should have been expected. The conversation between those who believe strongly in a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment and those who see a rational case for more stringent regulation of firearms — including what sort can be legally purchased and sold — is a difficult one. It's full of emotional attachment.

People who have seen mass shootings never want to see another, and rightly want to keep guns out of the wrong hands. We are very familiar with what people in Connecticut went through after the Sandy Hook shooting, and we know how much it still hurts.

But some who own guns feel they're being scapegoated for a deeper and more complicated set of problems that they did not cause, and they're concerned that Montpelier is going to get it wrong in its efforts to assure public safety.

Put those strong emotions in the same room and there's bound to be disagreement.

What we all need — those who've never even fired a .22 and those who own more guns than cars — is a way to find common ground, understand each other and reach an understanding on the facts and solutions that we can live with.

Shouting each other down? That's not going to work. It never has. It never will.

But how do we get past that, and to that place where we can have a conversation and make rules we can all live with?

In this increasingly polarized society, we increasingly encounter extreme positions and a lack of middle ground. We hear "ban assault-style weapons" or "arm teachers," as if those were the only two options, and the voices in between get drowned out.

Common sense tells us that a choice between extreme positions is a false choice. We have to do better.

We hope that this forum, in addition to informing area residents about the issues and what your leaders are doing to prevent violence of all sorts and keep school a safe place, can somehow be a starting point for honest conversation that gets us past shouting past each other and talking with each other. Maybe it won't happen right away. But as a fire starts with a single spark, all it takes is one conversation to get us heading in a more productive direction.

Perhaps that's naive. But Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address should inspire us all in this task, because now, as then, lives are in the balance. Lincoln said this: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

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