by Jacob Bruggeman
The gun debate is the American public’s enemy number one on the list of “dinner table topics to avoid in 2018.” Over the past few months, my colleagues Terry Tait and Jordan Poyner have braved public opinion and published their thoughts on the gun debate in The New Herald. Rather than responding directly to either of their pieces—effectively avoiding the gun debate at The New Herald’s dinner table—here I aim only to offer an odd way in which I’ve thought about the gun debate: by listening to Billy Joel.
Before we get to Billy Joel, I’ll outline my general thoughts on the state of the debate. As I see it, each side asserts some existential, moral prerogative to make public policy. Some fear that Americans’ rights will be infringed upon; others argue that lives are literally at stake. Both these claims are backed by arguments, individuals, and interest groups of varied complexity. Arguments on both sides, for example, range from simple, solipsistic statements such as “it is my right” or “lives are on the line,” to series of seriously complex ethical and legal arguments in favor of gun ownership, banning guns altogether, and about every reasonable position in between. In other words, the issues of gun rights and gun control share a complexity that can’t simply be conveyed in NRA commercials or on protestors’ cardboard signs.
Watching TV clips of pundits discussing the politics of gun legislation and its inevitable infringement on Americans’ rights or listening to NPR’s on-air guests talk about “what really matters” in the gun debate, I can’t help but feel frustrated. As with other issues of public concern today, polarization and mass media seem to make public policy into a zero-sum game. And this view makes sense–after all, rights and lives, we are told, are on the line.
Alas, the world is not so black-and-white, and, living in a democratic society such as we do, policy decisions are never insured against the public will. Change, in fact, is all that is certain. Were we to allow for unfettered access to guns, calls for a reduction in gun ownership would not abate. And were we to ban or restrict gun ownership, demands for freer gun laws would mount. Thus we see that neither “win” is a win, for public policy is not a zero-sum game–by which I mean a game wherein each side’s gains are exactly proportional to the other’s losses. Each side in the gun debate ought not treat the debate as such. Politics, instead, is a see-saw of public opinion, tilting to and fro with changes in the American minds. If productive resolutions to the gun debate are to be had, they will not be produced by each side acting as if politics is a zero-sum game and spearing the other with supposedly superior moral claims, but by the two sides meeting in the middle and coming to a reasonable solution.
Yet, both sides seem to avoid the middle ground as if it were no man’s land. Enter Billy Joel and “Vienna,” a song released on his 1977 album The Stranger. Thinking of the activists dedicating their youth to reducing gun violence, as well as gun owners and rights activists acting as if they need to prepare personal arsenals for the zombie apocalypse, Joel’s lyrics often drift in and out of my mind: “Slow down, you crazy child / You’re so ambitious for a juvenile / […] Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out / You’ve got so much to do / And only so many hours in a day.” This is not to downplay the urgent need for some form of resolution in the gun debate, but to refocus on the reality that politics is not a zero-sum game, but a vast, fairly unpredictable arena in which an array of actors vie for both broad and specific policy outcomes.
Coming to terms with the reality of our politics leads us to realize that a panacea to gun violence is a fool’s errand in a country as large and complex as the United States. It would be far truer to our causes and country if we recognized this, stopped listening to the rhetoricians who frame the debate as a zero-sum game, and sat down with the other side in a good-faith effort to find the middle ground. Giving such an effort an honest go would certainly require individuals and politicians to transcend the short-sighted norms of our political climate, but coming to the table with the goal of finding good, workable solutions–not save-all, zero-sum wins–would mark progress in the debate. Such an honest effort sounds swell, but, as Billy Joel reminds us, “Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true.”
Jacob Bruggeman is a junior at Miami University studying history, political science, and English literature.