Lee Carter: Gun control is what most Americans want – Here’s the only way for both sides to get there

According to the Gallup poll, 9 in 10 Americans want stronger background checks to buy a gun, while 6 in 10 want stronger gun control. And yet, only 1 in 10 believe that Congress is going to do anything to make those changes.

Which makes you wonder, what planet do they live on? 

Like clockwork, Democrats are blaming President Trump’s rhetoric and his Republican supporters for inspiring deadly gun violence.


Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted Sunday: “We must come together and reject this dangerous and growing culture of bigotry espoused by Trump and his allies. Instead of wasting money putting children in cages, we must seriously address the scourge of violent bigotry and domestic terrorism.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are offering their perfunctory thoughts and prayers, blaming video games, and calling for a renewed focus on mental health to reduce gun violence.

More from Opinion

President Trump said Monday: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.” 

Does any of this sound familiar? Sadly, it should.

I’m not an expert on gun control or mass shootings, but I am an expert on communication and persuasion. And I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that if you want to change America’s gun laws, calling President Trump and his supporters racists – and blaming them for the horrible shooting deaths over the weekend – will get you nowhere.

In fact, the more you smear Trump’s followers, the more they will dig in.


While calling Trump supporters names may make some people feel good, it will do nothing to make the Trump backers reconsider their positions. And in a democracy where the support of voters is needed to make changes, persuasion still matters.

As a persuasion expert from a red district, I have some advice for Democrats trying to get commonsense gun legislation passed, for Republicans who want to see real change happen, and for independents who don’t want to see one more senseless shooting occur.

If you don’t start to understand those on the other side, even if you think they’re flat-out wrong, you will create the wrong argument and go nowhere.

My advice is that the time to call out the president and his supporters is not now.

By lumping a large group of diverse people under one offensive moniker, you will not persuade conservatives to distance themselves from Trump or rethink their positions on gun control. In fact, research shows this will cause the president’s supporters to dig in deeper.

Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, found that when our ideologies are criticized, we process those challenges as personal insults and cling to our beliefs even more stubbornly.

Moreover, to be heard and create meaningful change, we must spend some time understanding and empathizing with the other side of the argument. You may not want to. You may think you shouldn’t have to. But remember: you’re the one asking people to change their deeply held points of view, so the burden is on you to actually persuade them if you want to get anywhere.

First, ask what emotion people are feeling and why.

Right now, Second Amendment supporters feel threatened that the government is going to take away a freedom they care deeply about. And they are being shamed by many in the media and on the left. Shaming people does not drive action.

As Hillary Jacobs teaches us in her book “It’s Not Always Depression,” shame is an inhibitory emotion that causes us to be defensive, angry, or do nothing at all.

And so, the likely response of conservatives to the current rhetoric would go something like this:  “Don’t you (CNN, MSNBC, Democrats, etc.) dare call me racist and blame this on Trump (and by extension Republicans). I’d be willing to listen and consider new laws if you weren’t so strident in blaming us for everything and insist your way is the only right and moral way. I’m a good person, too.”

The current approach is likely to result in gridlock.

By contrast, an empathetic response lowers barriers and keeps minds and ears open. An empathetic response would show conservatives you understand where they’re coming from, even if you want them to change their minds.

Here’s one way of approaching the conversation with a Second Amendment supporter: “Trump is a racist, his anti-immigrant rhetoric caused this tragedy, and you are partly responsible because you support him and enable this. No more of your thoughts and prayers. Do something!”

Here’s another: “I understand that the Second Amendment and gun ownership are important to you, and you don’t want to lose that. I also know you are as concerned about these tragic shootings as I am. How can we work together to keep Americans safe without losing our liberty?”

It doesn’t take a persuasion expert to realize which one will be more effective.

Second, what values are at stake that people with different views can connect on? 

In his book “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt’s research suggests that six universal moral "foundations" make up our world view. If you want to change someone’s mind, you must know what value is at stake for that person and present your argument in that person’s world view, not yours.

The six foundations are: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, sanctity versus degradation, and liberty versus oppression.

For Second Amendment advocates, liberty versus oppression is the most important moral foundation. They want their constitutional right to keep a gun and to protect themselves preserved.

For gun control advocates, it is care versus harm, meaning that public safety is paramount. They believe that their primary value is being violated because they can’t go to a place like Walmart or out for a night with friends without fear since lawmakers aren’t willing to ban a weapon of war (which they have done before).

If you don’t start to understand those on the other side, even if you think they’re flat-out wrong, you will create the wrong argument and go nowhere.

To persuade Second Amendment supporters that the time to act is now, they need to know that the freedoms most important to them will be protected. Only once you’ve established that baseline can the conversation continue.


Imagine if, instead of posting tweets that cause us to retreat to our partisan corners, we had leaders talking about the importance of freedom and safety at the same time. Leaders telling us we can come together to make sure that no one is at risk when going to a store, to school, or to a bar. That when it comes to stronger gun laws, there is more that we agree on than disagree on. Imagine a world with no weapon of war in the wrong hands.

It can happen. And it starts with empathy.