You probably remember how you felt when news of the Newtown, Conn., shootings arrived. For one moment, Americans were united in grief.
Then we became divided again on the issue of gun control.
And the slogans started flowing:
“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
“Reducing the number of guns would limit gun deaths.”
For many Americans, the debate goes no deeper than those simple appeals to emotions. Because the issue can stand between friends, many people never sit down to talk about the roots of the issues for fear of reproach.
But some people are willing to speak out. Using the gun debate as a forum to investigate how Americans sort out facts in search of truth, the Beacon Journal approached people who had written letters to the editor.
No attempt was made to settle the gun debate. The discussion was about how they made up their minds. Participants made two things clear: most of them believe their own opinions are based on fact and those on the other side of the issue are too influenced by emotion.
They also are skeptical of “experts,” whom they suspect of being as biased as anyone while hiding behind what they see as facts.
The interviews were conducted after the Newtown shootings.
Michael Anderson lives in a wood-frame house in a residential part of Barberton. He’s proud of his cat, who has been trained to sit on its haunches and beg for attention. He’s also a gun-rights advocate.
“I think the American public is basically ignorant,” said Anderson, a former parole officer who had to carry a gun for his job. “They are not well read. The political people — advisers — they understand all that. That’s why you have all the little 30-second ads.”
Anderson admits to being influenced by emotion, but says he always approaches an issue with a reasonable beginning.
“I think reason and emotion are intertwined and one’s not bad and one’s not good,” he said. “I mean, they go together, but I think emotion is the result of reason. Our emotional feeling comes from our thoughts and our thinking.”
Anderson insists his positions are firm, but also maintains he can be open-minded.
“If you could regulate guns and prevent something like Newtown from happening, I would be the first to say ‘Do it!’ But what they are discussing, I don’t think you are going to eliminate, tragically so, situations like that.”
Facing the truth
Tom Liston is a retired pilot who lives with his wife on a quiet residential street in Stow. A former duck hunter, he favors more stringent gun controls and has a strong reaction to the claims of gun-rights advocates. He gets particularly annoyed when they bring up statements that they consider facts but he labels opinion.
“It doesn’t so much anger me, but I get frustrated because I attribute much of what they base their positions on to ignorance.”
Liston still bears animosity from the time his daughter was mugged and has scorn for the way some people cherish their guns.
“Guns are modern idolatry,” he said.
Disdain for emotion
Bob Dessent sat at the kitchen table in his Tallmadge home to talk about guns and the laws that seek to regulate them. His wife was invited to join the conversation but declined.
Dessent said he is embarrassed by emotional appeals, even from people he agrees with.
“I don’t like to see the letters in the paper where people are pounding their fists and saying, ‘You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers,’ because that is an emotional type thing and I don’t think that gains anybody anything.”
But you can expect Dessent to have his doubts about an expert offering to challenge “facts.”
“I’m leery of a lot of studies,” he said. “I know a lot of polls and studies come out and it seems like quite often the study … reveals … what their position is. I would have to see very strong evidence that the group doing the studying did not have a preconceived position.”
He said any acceptable study would have to have some balance.
“I think there would be an agenda there to start with unless I could see where they had some people on my side taking part in the study,” he said.
For example, he would have doubts about a study that showed France had limited guns and produced a reduced homicide rate.
“I’m saying that France has a different culture than we do, and they have a different racial and ethnic mix than we do,” he said. “We are called the melting pot of the world or something like that; well, we haven’t exactly melted together. But we have a lot of different types of people in the mix and I think this creates a lot of friction sometimes.”
A similar skepticism of studies cropped up in the 1990s, when the Centers for Disease Control was studying gun violence as a matter of public health.
Congress, after lobbying by gun advocates including the NRA, cut off funding for the studies.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted Dr. David Satcher, director of the CDC at the time, as saying: “It is sad when you really think about it. We are in an environment when children are dying and we are playing political games.”
Opponents took a different view.
“It was mostly political junk science,” Dr. Miguel Faria Jr., a former professor of neurosurgery and editor of the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia told the Atlanta paper. The CDC, he said, started from the premise “that guns were bad, had no benefits, that guns and bullets were pathogens that needed to be eradicated or at least severely restricted from the civilian population.”
President Barack Obama has signed an executive order seeking to start similar studies.
Lack of control
Dessent has been a life member of the National Rifle Association since the 1960s and has participated in rifle and pistol target competition and trap shooting. He has a conceal carry permit but does not use it.
He summarized his feelings on gun control by saying: “The only thing the controls do is control the people who obey the law anyway.”
He believes that statement to be a truth.
He says logic is his tool whenever he debates the issue.
“I hope that I use logic!” he said. “I think there is enough logic there to sway the argument as long as the emotions of the other person don’t get in the way.”
It’s unusual for him to get emotional, he said.
“I don’t think I normally get to the point where I’m yelling at other people or anything like that or pounding on the table,” he said. “I think I have logic on my side and it’s frustrating when people ignore the logic and just rely on their feelings.”
Don’t expect him to change his mind.
“I don’t feel so open minded that I think there is any chance that you are going to change my position on this,” he said. “A long time ago I thought ‘Well, gee, maybe the NRA is wrong in opposing these laws and everything,’ but then when I thought about it I thought, well, the laws only affect those that obey the law. A law can only define a crime and call for a punishment, it doesn’t prevent anything. The only thing that can prevent a crime is the threat of a punishment.”
Sandy Batson lives in an older Rittman neighborhood. Her husband was temporarily in a nursing home when a reporter came by for the interview.
She considers what the Bible says to be fact and prays for wisdom “to make the right decision at the right time and that you know in your heart and your mind that it is the right decision.”
She listens to both her emotions and her view of the facts.
“It depends on what it is or it depends on what the story is or what the subject is whether or not I would get more emotional,” she said.
But she sees problems when letting emotions take control.
“It’s not always the best way to do things,” she said. “It’s not always the best way to think about something emotionally, because you heart takes over and you think about this group of that group.”
She summarizes her feeling about guns by saying: “I do think that there needs to be laws, but guns don’t kill ... it’s the people who do it.”
Les Johnson lives in a tough part of Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. He’s heard gunshots, seen drug deals go down and knows prostitutes ply their trade there. There was a homicide two doors down the street.
He would put limits on military-style “assault” weapons.
“I believe in bearing arms but I don’t see a lot of need for a lot of other weapons,” he said.
“I say people who want an assault weapon, they are not sportsmen at all, because a sportsman doesn’t need a magazine clip full of bullets,” he said.
He has Catholic shrines in his backyard and takes his cues for personal conduct from the Bible and his hero, Pope John Paul II.
He tries not to get upset with people who disagree with him. Sometimes he falls short.
“It can get my blood boiling a little bit, especially if they are dead wrong,” he said.
And he is willing to change his mind.
“If I am presented with a truth or something that actually proves that I was wrong, I’m not afraid to say I was wrong,” he said.
Then he added: “Humility is the foundation of peace.”
Gunshots in the night
Phyllis M. DeHart remembers the night police raided the house next to her West Akron home. A big bang when they went through the door got her attention. She couldn’t resist walking outside to look, even though she later realized how dangerous that was.
Retired and not in the best health, she didn’t realize how much crime was in the neighborhood until she moved there last year.
She has always been in favor of gun rights but favors background checks and a better tracking of illegal street guns, a problem in her area.
“People do kill people, guns is just the means, but when it’s almost become normal, wake up, smell the coffee, something has to be done!” she said.
A profoundly religious woman, she said emotion does affect her decisions, the emotions that come after neighborhood shootings.
“I get emotional, I’m a very emotional person, but I ask the help of the Holy Spirit: Sit Phyllis down, give me wisdom God. What is that you want me to say? How do you want me to see this situation?”
Then she looks at the facts and reviews her feelings on an issue.
“If there’s enough fact and it makes enough sense and I go back and do some research, then yeah, I don’t know it all,” she said.
Mixing emotion and reason
Michael P. Lynch, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut and author of In Praise of Reason, has written essays for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and other publications.
He said there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being emotional.
“The important thing is to realize that while emotions can bring attention to things, they also can be assessed rationally,” he said.
For example, a feeling of unease or mistrust can lead to important additional scrutiny, so emotion and reason can work together.
“A lot of psychological literature has come out in the last 20 years to indicate that a lot of the ways we form opinions are often quick and dirty and using heuristics and making leaps,” he said. “Sometimes those quick and dirty ways of making decisions can be really helpful.”
The key is being open minded about your biases, acknowledge them and support them with reasons.
Even if complete objectivity can’t be achieved, he said it’s still worth pursuing.
“In reality objectivity is a matter of degree,” he said.
He said the key is having your reasons.
“To the extent to which I try to assert my opinions on you or to manipulate you into believing my opinions without offering you reasons, I am not respecting you as a fellow individual, as a fellow judger, and I am violating intellectual obligations I have,” he said.
He decried what he calls “sound bites” like those that led off this story.
“It’s a mistake to think that sound bites are arguments. They are not,” he said. “Sound bites aren’t reasons all in themselves.”
The tenor of debates is important to preserving democracy.
“Democracies have to be civil societies and civil societies require the citizens … to treat each other with respect,” he said. “And in order to treat my fellow citizens with respect, I must have reasons to for my views reasons that aren’t manipulation or gun pointing.”
It doesn’t mean giving up what you believe in.
“There’s nothing wrong with having principles, having principles is a good thing,” he said. “It’s problematic when you allow your principles to cloud your view of the facts. That is, it’s problematic when you dogmatically hold on to your principles in the fact of all contrary evidence.”
Bob Dessent, the gun-rights advocate, sees that trend developing in the current debate.
“I have no doubt but what there is going to be some political outcome from this school shooting,” he said. “I think it’s a foregone conclusion that it is going to be some kind of gun control.”
So if he has little hope of changing minds, why did he write a letter to the editor?
“Probably emotion!” he said with a laugh.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.