Can Gun Victims and Gun Advocates Change Each Other’s Minds?
On his recent trip to New York, Todd Underwood did not pack a gun. This was unusual, the first time in five years that he went anywhere, even to church, without one. Underwood, who is 37 years old and from Kansas City, won’t say how many guns he owns, but “a fucking arsenal” is a fair description.
Underwood wasn’t always a gun guy, he told me, though his father, a factory worker, kept a revolver or two under the bed. His interest really took hold in February 2014, when he was laid up, recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery, with an infant daughter at home. Underwood started browsing the gun-trading sites on Facebook. He already owned some guns, including a Glock model 19, a beginner’s weapon, molded plastic, but soon he “started liking the midrange guns, and then I started to like a particular brand of gun — SIG Sauer — the best gun ever made.” Underwood ultimately developed a taste for bespoke 1911s, which cost as much as $7,000 apiece. When Facebook shut down its gun-trading pages in January 2015, Underwood saw a business opportunity. That’s when he launched United Gun Group: “a social marketplace for the firearms community.”
In May, Underwood drew all kinds of flak for agreeing to let George Zimmerman sell the Kel-Tec PF9 that killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on his site. Underwood defends the decision still. Zimmerman was a “dipshit,” he concedes, but he was acquitted at trial, his gun was legally purchased, and he was licensed. Underwood was able to resell it for $250,000 (all of which, he says, went to Zimmerman). “What would you do?”
Underwood was coming to New York to meet Carolyn Tuft, though neither one of them knew it yet. Tuft, who lives in Salt Lake City, is a survivor of the 2007 Trolley Square shooting, the massacre that seriously injured four people and left five dead — including Tuft’s 15-year-old daughter, Kirsten, the youngest of her four children. Tuft herself was shot three times, in the arm and point blank in the lower back. The 54-year-old has so much buckshot in her body that she suffers from lead poisoning, and she wakes up each day nauseated and in pain. Her manner is both assured and halting — the result, she explains, of constant painkiller use.
Underwood, Tuft, and more than a dozen others on both sides of the gun debate — a hunter; two Baltimore cops; a criminal-court judge from New Orleans; a couple of high-schoolers who grew up in the ganglands of Chicago’s South Side — had agreed to meet face-to-face, tell each other their stories, and try to understand one another’s points of view, in an experiment in radical empathy organized by New York Magazine in partnership with a nonprofit group called Narrative 4. Each traveler carried a personal story about guns: Lauren Green, a divorced mother from Connecticut, was raped at gunpoint as a child; Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a former Florida state legislator and proponent of campus-carry laws, had fended off an assailant, a former boyfriend, with a gun. There was David Peters, a Marine from Texas who became disenchanted with the weapon he’d been trained to love; Genara Lattimore, who became a police officer in part because of the gun violence she saw on the Baltimore streets; Terri Ricks, whose life was changed after being shot in a bar brawl; and Shawn Duncan, Underwood’s cousin, who had recently purchased a 20-acre wooded parcel so he could hunt deer and pheasant on his own land.
Samaria Rice was en route, too, from Cleveland, to tell the story of how Tamir, her 12-year-old son, was shot and killed by police in a playground in 2014 for holding a toy that looked like a gun. Losing her son to a police officer’s bullet did not make her wholly anti-gun — she believes current gun laws should have protected him. In Ohio, she points out, it’s legal to carry a weapon in plain sight — never mind that Tamir was a child with a toy. “I think the NRA should have come out in support of my son,” she told me on the phone before the summit.
Americans may never have been so ideologically and politically divided, and guns sit at the symbolic center of that divide. According to a preelection survey by Pew, 79 percent of Hillary Clinton voters believed that enacting stronger gun laws should be a higher priority than protecting gun rights. Among Trump voters, only 9 percent agreed. Mass shootings, weirdly, seem to only deepen the rift, with liberals seeing the tragedies as proof of the need for further restrictions and conservatives seeing them as proof of the necessity of arming themselves. Statistics and argument make no dent in fixed opinions: Each side, incredulous, regards the other as sectarians who’ve somehow got their values mixed up.
The project of trying to force people from opposing sides to empathize with one another was quixotic, almost risible in its earnestness. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, recently published a book titled Against Empathy in which he argues that the current cultural impulse to regard empathy as a panacea for society’s problems is misguided. Bloom makes the case that empathic decisions, such as donating to the organization that makes you “feel” the most for its cause, can be both ill-conceived and inefficient. Empathy privileges the one over the many and personal experience over data. “It’s because of empathy that the whole world cares more about a baby stuck in a well than about global warming,” he told me.
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