Ways to talk to each other about a tough issue

In my last post, I expressed my appreciation to Nicholas Kristof for his efforts to remind us that we can work together and find solutions, even to the hardest of issues.

I thought that today I’d share a couple of examples of how that is done. Just a couple, because I haven’t been saving them up or anything — these moved in the last few days. And they deal with the same issue as Kristof was writing and talking about — guns.

Gail Collins

I’ve praised in the past the regular exchanges between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens that the NYT posts under the heading of “The Conversation.” They’re not only instructive, but fun to read. What we have here is a pretty orthodox liberal — but with a sense of humor — and a never-Trump conservative who obviously enjoy interacting over issues upon which they disagree.

Their latest installment moved Saturday and is headlined, “One Nation, Under Guns.” This one is not a classic left-right discussion, because Stephens isn’t wedded to the extremes of the right. For instance, he says such things as:

The United States seems to have a not-so-secret death cult that believes that the angry god known as the Second Amendment must be periodically propitiated through ritual child sacrifice….


You know, it used to be that Republicans weren’t all bonkers on this subject. I remember George H.W. Bush quitting the National Rifle Association over some outrageous comments it made back in the 1990s — and the N.R.A. actually apologizing to him. I also remember when people could support the general principle of a right to bear arms without thinking it was a limitless principle, just as conservatives used to claim to appreciate the idea that rights had to carry corresponding responsibilities in a sane and civilized society….

Between her usual wisecracks (which make her fun to read), Gail seizes the opportunity to try to move her colleague a bit further in the direction of agreement:

Once again, we are in accord. But let me push a bit. If the real problem is mental health, isn’t it time to produce a big, bipartisan, Senate-ready bill appropriating a serious amount of money for mental-health treatment? Something that would let teachers, counselors, sports coaches and other caring authority figures easily summon up services for troubled kids?..

And it works, because Bret responds, “Sign me up for that. It should be a national priority, especially postpandemic.”

Bret Stephens

No, this isn’t a classic pro-gun-vs.-anti-gun debate. But that’s because they are intelligent, thinking people, not flat cut-outs who think it helps somehow to yell at each other. I bring it to your attention as much as anything to invite you to read these “Conversatons” regularly, if you can get past the paywall. (I subscribe, so I don’t have that problem. I assure you I have found the subscription worthwhile, although it’s not cheap.)

For a more stark contrast, check out “We Clerked for Justices Scalia and Stevens. America Is Getting Heller Wrong.” It’s written by Kate Shaw (who clerked for Stevens) and

Their subject is District of Columbia v. Heller, “in which the court held for the first time that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to gun ownership.”

They both revere their former bosses, and they disagree to this day on their interpretations of the 2nd Amendment:

We continue to hold very different views about both gun regulation and how the Constitution should be interpreted. Kate believes in a robust set of gun safety measures to reduce the unconscionable number of shootings in this country. John is skeptical of laws that would make criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens who believe that firearm ownership is essential to protecting their families, and he is not convinced that new measures like bans on widely owned firearms would stop people who are willing to commit murder from obtaining guns.

Kate Shaw

Kate believes that Justice Stevens’s dissent in Heller provided a better account of both the text and history of the Second Amendment and that in any event, the method of historical inquiry the majority prescribes should lead to the court upholding most gun safety measures, including the New York law pending before the Supreme Court. John believes that Heller correctly construed the original meaning of the Second Amendment and is one of the most important decisions in U.S. history. We disagree about whether Heller should be extended to protect citizens who wish to carry firearms outside the home for self-defense and, if so, how states may regulate that activity — issues that the Supreme Court is set to decide in the New York case in the next month or so….

But they agree on one important thing: That Americans, from lawmakers to the rest of us, have misunderstood Heller, and seen it as a barrier to effective gun control, which it should not be.

Heller does not totally disable government from passing laws that seek to prevent the kind of atrocities we saw in Uvalde, Texas. And we believe that politicians on both sides of the aisle have (intentionally or not) misconstrued Heller. Some progressives, for example, have blamed the Second Amendment, Heller or the Supreme Court for atrocities like Uvalde. And some conservatives have justified contested policy positions merely by pointing to Heller, as if the opinion resolved the issues.

Neither is fair. Rather, we think it’s clear that every member of the court on which we clerked joined an opinion — either majority or dissent — that agreed that the Constitution leaves elected officials an array of policy options when it comes to gun regulation….

They go on to quote Scalia himself in mentioning measures are not at all prevented by Heller, and that could be quite effective in preventing horrific shootings.

John Bash

Anyway, I urge you to read it if you can. I think it’s a very helpful piece, and particularly hope lawmakers on both sides of the issue will read it and learn from it.

This is the way grownups talk about difficult issues — not yelling to try to shut each other up — but looking for the ways forward to solutions.

I’m going to try to be more alert than ever to such examples, and share them with you, to the extent that I can…

21 thoughts on “Ways to talk to each other about a tough issue

  1. bud

    I’m glad Gail and Bret can have a cordial conversation. But seriously Brad this just comes across as an elitist rambling session. There’s just no substance to any of this. Passing some legislation to fund mental health is sure to get huge push back from conservatives about spending. Liberals won’t block this. Let’s be clear, liberals are NOT the problem. They just aren’t. This is exclusively a problem from the right. Hey I’ll try kicking the football again in order to show good faith. But I’m not naive. That’s because given the numbers that’s all we have right now. But in the longer term we must find a way to elect more Democrats. Any approach that involves appeasement is doomed to failure. Just ask Neville Chamberlain.

    1. Doug Ross

      You realize Democrats are going to lose the house and Senate in six months, right? Generic ballot has Republicans winning by 6 points. Dozens of Democrat representatives are quitting or in tossup races. Biden has six months to turn around the wipeout while at the same time having the lowest approval rating in 70 years.

  2. bud

    Just for the record. I find it grotesque that you imply that liberals are as culpable in gun violence as the fight.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Rather than just delete that — my standard way of dealing with statements that say I said something I didn’t say (to keep readers from getting confused) — I’m going to ask Bud to give me some quotes that show where I said these “grotesque” things…

      1. bud

        I don’t want to dwell on this, and I’m sure you don’t either but the inference is pretty clear that you regard liberals culpable by failing to respectfully engage with conservatives. You champion this point of view by posting this comment from Kristof:

        This will be painful for many of my fellow liberals, but I suggest that we work harder to engage centrists, talk about “gun safety” rather than “gun control,” and jump into the weeds. Social scientists suggest “complexifying” an issue to reduce polarization, and, sure enough, I find that I can (sometimes) have productive conversations with gun enthusiasts if we focus on technocratic details….

        We need to use language like gun safety rather than gun control? That is the big sin liberals are committing? Come on Brad that’s pretty thin, yet somehow that makes liberals an important part of the problem?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I didn’t know I said liberals were committing a “big sin.”

          I do think that ever since the early 90s — when Joe managed to push through the assault weapons ban — they’ve been pretty ineffective at accomplishing anything on guns.

          Don’t you agree that maybe it would be a good idea for them to try something different? Assuming that they do want to accomplish something…

          1. bud

            I was just thinking about the 90s assault weapons ban. Didn’t that pass in a bipartisan vote? Maybe I’m wrong and if so my point is moot. So according to your theory, since both parties saw this as a good idea then the ban should have stood the test of time and remained in effect. But it only lasted until Bush jr and a Republican majority shot it down. Not a good example to support the theory of bipartisanship as the answer. But I’m willing to give hope over experience another shot. Maybe something will get done this time. If not don’t blame us liberals. We’re at least trying.

  3. bud

    I tell you what Brad. The next time you talk about Donald Trump why don’t you use nuanced language, restraint and engage with his supporters like a grown up. Of course you won’t because you don’t actually believe Trump supporters are actually capable of such a respectable conversation. I feel that way too but I find the Republican Party as a whole completely unreasonable. I am forever amazed at how difficult it is to see that.

  4. Barry

    I am not sure this is possible. It seems to me the Right and Left are on different planets. Here is an example.

    Today, Republican Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito wrote an opinion saying he would stay a decision from the most Conservative Court of Appeals in existence (The 5th circuit) because of the reasoning the court used. But the court never gave any reasons in its order. Alito ignored the 30 page from the district court.

    University of Texas Law professor points it out here- a copy and paste of him pointing this out is below

    “By a 5-4 vote (with Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and … Kagan?) in dissent, #SCOTUS *blocks* Texas’s controversial law that would have banned most content moderation by big social media platforms (vacating the Fifth Circuit’s stay of an injunction):

    In dissent, Justice Alito writes that “I would not disturb the Court of Appeals’ informed judgment about applicants’ entitlement to a stay.”

    The district court’s injunction came with 30 pages of analysis. The Fifth Circuit’s (Court of Appeals) stay came with none.

    Which judgment was “informed”?

    When you have someone- in this case Republican judge Alito- writing that he would side with a court because of it’s informed judgement when it offered no explanation, no analysis, no reasoning- over a court that offered 30 pages of analysis and reasoning, we are indeed living on different planets.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “It seems to me the Right and Left are on different planets.”

      Yep. And the only way we’re going to accomplish anything in this country is to get them back on the same planet…

      1. bud

        No, No, No. The current Republican Party is a dangerous entity that must be destroyed in the same way the NAZI party needed to be defeated. This mushy nonsense about getting on the same planet is not helpful. We just need a complete makeover of the party of Lincoln. It is just beyond comprehension that the vast majority of elected officials in the current version of the Republican Party cling to the Big Lie. Many peddle the crazy idea that the storming of the capitol was merely an exercise of free speech/assembly. This cannot stand. Yet we have these bland statements that the two parties are on different planets as though the two planets are equally removed from reality. This is nuts. Imperfect as it is, and lord knows the NYT editorial page bends over backwards to inform us of any teeny imperfection, the Democrats represent the only real option. Sadly we are probably stuck with a really terrible option like Tom Rice as the best option in many house districts. That’s shameful and the Dems really need to always post an option other than a bad Republican. But this is where we are. And until this changes this great country will slide ever closer to a true kleptocracy.

        1. Ken

          When I lived in Maryland, I occasionally voted for a Republican just to balance things out a bit. At least I think I did. I could afford to, since the state as a whole (excluding the western panhandle and the eastern shore, both thinly populated compared to the DC suburbs) tends to be Democratic-voting. Plus, the Rs there generally weren’t ideologues.

          But in this state, things are vastly different. I was so disgusted that all the local and state offices but one in the 2020 election offered only one choice — an unopposed Republican — that I wrote in “Not him” for each office on my ballot. When “elections” start to look like they do in authoritarian countries, a protest vote like that ends up being the only option.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            “But in this state, things are vastly different.”

            Actually, things are very different everywhere. The Republican Party has pretty much gone stark, raving mad. I call it Trumpism, but it didn’t start with him. The insanity is what gave us Trump.

            Of course, unlike you (I think), I feel sorry for the normal Republicans who in recent years found themselves surrounded by the madness. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Lamar Alexander, who was one Republican I was always glad to vote for in the late 70s and 80s.

            I keep seeing pictures of Melanie Schull, the lady running against my rep Micah, and she’s always wearing Lamar’s trademark shirt. OK, technically it appears to be a zip-up feel pullover or something, but it LOOKS like Lamar’s shirt. And the shirt inspires the black-and-red color palate of her campaign materials.

            And it makes me miss Lamar, especially since she is a very different kind of Republican.

            And Lamar has faded away, after not running for re-election in 2020.

            It’s a sad state of affairs. But it’s not particularly a South Carolina thing. It’s an all-over thing, that happened to find particularly fertile ground in SC…

  5. Ken

    More funding for mental health? Fine. But are there more mentally unbalanced people in the US than in peer countries around the globe? And can the disproportionate number of gun deaths that occur in this country and not in those countries be ascribed to that?

    This is an evasion.

    Does the Second Amendment pose a barrier to banning guns? Gary Wills disposed of that idea in 15 pages of detailed argument way back in 1995.

    So, that, too, is a diversion, an evasion.

    Civil discourse cannot be abused to assist others in perpetuating such diversions and evasions.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Who are you saying is evading? Gail? Bret?

      By the way, you remind me of what Kristof said in that column I linked to previously:

      Yet we know that gun safety is not a hopeless task, because just about every other country manages to do better. The Onion satirical website regularly responds to mass shootings with a headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It has a point.

      Other countries have mental health problems. But they don’t have our gun problem — which, one could say, arises from another sort of mental problem. A collective one.

      Do you mean Garry Wills, by the way? Haven’t heard that name in a bunch of years. I used to enjoy reading his columns…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and Bret Stephens said this in the piece under discussion:

        Also, can I register a brief note of disgust with the typical Republican fallback line, which is that the real problem here is mental health, not the ready availability of guns? The argument would have us imagine that there aren’t disturbed, emotionally broken young men in Australia, Britain and every other country that somehow manages to avoid these constant atrocities.

      2. Ken

        “Who are you saying is evading? Gail? Bret?”

        Neither. Both. Doesn’t matter.
        Anyone who suggests that mental health care is the solution to gun deaths in the US.
        Anyone who believes the Second Amendment meant individual ownership of guns is a right.

        And just by the way, preferring the term “gun safety” over “gun control” is just a matter of messaging strategy. It’s not substantive. It’s the same sort of thing we hear from a lot of Democrats when talking about Biden: Oh, he just needs to be better at messaging!
        What’s more, “gun safety” makes it sound like the core of the issue is somehow making guns themselves safer. But that’s not the solution.

        Which doesn’t mean more can’t be done about gun safety. This state, for example, doesn’t even have a secure storage law.


        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’ve never found the use of the term “gun safety” to be particularly helpful. A lot of people think it helps them be heard, though…

          I understand why they think that, and I appreciate their efforts to choose their words carefully to increase the chances of being heard. I just doubt that it helps much…

        2. bud

          Ken I usually agree with you but I have to push back here just a tiny bit. I do think messaging is important. Republicans have mastered the practice of messaging in such an effective way that they are able to gaslight their way to enormous political power on issues that run counter to their working class constituents. Take the inheritance tax for example. This has very little impact on the vast majority of Americans. Even that small impact is eliminated if the tax begins at say $500k. But by reframing it as a “death” tax modest income folks who would benefit from the tax by reducing their tax burden are persuaded to oppose it. This is even more true with guns. All the messaging around mental health and law abiding citizens losing some freedom works as a means of selling guns. That ad showing an AR with the caption “Here’s your man card” is very powerful. There is just nothing on the left that has worked. Is better messaging a panacea? No. But it’s where we need to start.

          1. Ken

            Count me as unpersuaded that better messaging is going to change the narrative on guns. When people die by the score in supermarkets, movie theaters, schools, etc., and do so extremely frequently (233 times so far just this year), THAT should be all the “messaging” we need. The previously cited Garry Wills declared, in anger and sadness back in 2012, after Sandy Hook, that we are like pagans, we sacrifice our children to our Moloch, to “our great god Gun.”

  6. Doug Ross

    How about as a starting point to getting rid of 400 million guns, we begin by reducing our military budget by half? Let’s not pretend that the rise in gun ownership can be linked to our all encompassing role as the policeman to the world. We celebrate war, celebrate our military as heroes as we kill innocent people around the globe. Fighter jet flyovers at football games, staged “Daddy’s returning home from the war” events for Youtube, an $800 billion dollar federal military budget… War is the fabric of U.S. culture. We have TWO holidays to recognize war: Memorial Day and Veterans Day. We have local police departments who are armed to the teeth with all manner of weapons, tanks!, etc.

    If we’re serious about ending gun violence, it should start at the top with our own violence against innocents around the world. We killed 5 times as many innocent people in Iraq than are killed by all the guns in the U.S. in any year. And most people think nothing of that.

    Our culture of war contributes to the problem. We need more politicians who put peace first. The ONLY way to do that is to cut the spending.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *