We watched the Guardian documentary Gun Nation in Civics class yesterday. Well done. Profound. Check it out.

I was hoping my students would notice the calm and respectful tone. People with strongly held beliefs, based on valid experience, shared without name calling, yelling, interrupting, or insulting others. It was an emotional issue, but people shared honestly and calmly.

Some of the tone could be due to film editing, which is also a point. Those with the power to project views, I believe, have a responsibility to do it responsibly. I would guess that less than respectful and charitable views and opinions and names came up, but the filmmaker chose not to include them. The interviewer/filmmaker, a man from Britain who wrote a book about gun culture 18 years ago and was following up with the people interviewed then, sounded skeptical and even shocked at times. He asked questions and listened to the answers. He did not share his views. He wanted to understand.

It was fair. I don’t think it pushed an agenda, but specific issues were brought up by a coroner, a police officers, a pastor, numerous gun enthusiasts, and a parent of a Columbine victims. This issue is bigger and more nuanced than what can be expressed in a handful of interviews. A documentarian chooses the details and questions they want emphasized and focused on.

I was impressed at the need for nuance and understanding on an issue like this. It is not as simple as FOR or AGAINST. It is not as simple as FREEDOM or TYRANNY. This kind of rhetoric removes the nuance and multiple perspectives and experiences and preferences that are the reality of important (and controversial) issues. Inflammatory, accusatory rhetoric stops us talking, and listening, when that is what needs to be done. Is ________ GOOD or BAD? The answer is YES. And then a lot of follow up questions.

The last scene of the documentary haunts me. A man is asked if anything can be done, should be done, about gun violence in America. His answer, after a pregnant pause, is “No. Let natural selection take its course.”

If that’s not a question to grapple with in a Civics class, I don’t know what is. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is how this question is first framed in Genesis with Cain and Abel.

What can be done? What should be done? What is our obligation to each other in an organized society? Who decides? When does my freedom FOR something infringe on your right to be AGAINST (and away) from something? What did the writers of our foundational documents intend? How are they interpreted today? Has this changed over the years? What is the difference between a primary and secondary source? Which voices and sources should we pay attention to, value?

These are not just questions about guns. These are the questions we need to ask about all other issues as well. I’m glad we have the opportunity to wrestle with these questions in school. AND to learn about specific facts and histories that allow us to responsibly and accurately comment and vote, etc. not merely emotionally react. THAT BAD! ME ANGRY! It is this kind of opportunity that I don’t believe “natural selection” provides. This feels like a win for our society. If not a win, at least a point in its favor.

Part 2

After listening to what my students wrote and said about the documentary, these things stood out to me:

  1. Someone thought that teachers should be trained to use guns.
  2. Someone said that the documentary was against guns, and another said the documentary was basically “guns are good.”
  3. Someone suggested the necessity for background checks, citing a gun shop owner.
  4. Someone suggested we would be safer if more people carried guns.
  5. Someone questioned the point of the documentary.
  6. Someone quoted the NRA line, “The only way we can defend ourselves against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
  7. Someone said, “I don’t know what the solution is but I know it’s not no guns, or more guns.”
  8. Someone said, “It’s interesting to see how strongly people can believe opposite things.”
  9. Many declined to comment.

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