Earlier this week in my public speaking class, my five classmates and I gave our second speeches of the summer. This speech, a precursor to informative and persuasive speeches, was in the format of a group discussion, a type of speech that I had never really considered to be a speech at all inasmuch as simply being a group discussion. But nevertheless, the speeches were given, and I believe the things revealed in my peers through the speeches and discussions accurately illustrate general attitudes that mark the divide in perceptions and beliefs about society’s problems.
The format of a group discussion speech, as dictated by the public speaking instructor, is a 2–3 minute speech presenting nothing but definitions, facts and statistics about whatever topic has been chosen. After that, the presenter shifts roles and acts as a facilitator and works to engage their audience in a candid conversation via 10 pre-written, open ended questions during a 12–15 minute discussion time. The speech concludes with a minute long improvised summarization of the group’s attitudes and thoughts about the topic. Topics in my class included children & technology, corporal punishment, human trafficking, flipped classrooms, and the role of pharmaceuticals in society. The topic that I chose myself, and will be discussing, is gun violence and regulation in the United States.
- In 2015, over 13,000 people died as a result of gun violence in the United States.
- Gun violence tends to be discriminatory in its effects, largely present in marginalized (poor and/or colored) communities and often yielded against women (domestic violence).
- According to US census information from 2010, 40–45% of all American households have guns and at least 8% of those households have stockpiles of 10 or more weapons.
- Most developed nations have relatively (relative to the US) strict gun regulation laws. The basic model is that you must be 18 years of age, undergo a federal background check, and pass a public safety course in order to be a gun owner. Additionally, automatic rifles and assault weapons (semi-automatics) are prohibited for civilian ownership and use.
- Gun death rates in the developed world range from 0.0–0.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. The US has a gun death rate of 3.6 deaths per 100,000 residents, or, 25 times the average gun death rate in the entire developed world.
After providing these, and a few more, basic facts about gun violence in the US, I went on to inquire as to what people believed were the biggest contributors in perpetuating gun violence and cultures of violence in the United States, what they thought national rhetorics about self defense and mental health meant in terms of gun violence, and ultimately how they believed we could go about remedying rampant gun violence in the United States.
When asked about the biggest contributing factors in high gun violence rates the answers came in many forms: gang violence, lack of resources that comes about as a result of urbanization, homelessness, and unequal access to education. And while it was not explicitly, mentioned their answers can be interpreted and boiled down to what the root of these problems are: racial discrimination and poverty, the type of “environmental factors” that create and perpetuate the situations that “breed gun violence.”
When asked what the present and historical implications of those factors were and what they meant, a consensus was reached that “control issues” were why people were in these positions and these patterns of violence were upheld. They went on to say, after being asked how gun violence disproportionately affects marginalized people, where the rhetoric of criminality and self defense emerged, and about the politics of gun ownership, especially as it pertains to our attitudes on mental health, that “some people are very violent,” “guns fall into the hands of the wrong people,” “people will always find a way to get or to make guns,” “people, especially criminals take gun violence to a whole new level.” As I tried to shift the focus of the discussion to the historical implications of gun violence and ownership a participant ventured to say that “before we had immigration people were afraid of African-Americans, they felt threatened by what these people would do if they had rights and so they felt they had to have weapons to protect themselves”
I don’t understand what they meant by “before we had immigration” or “were afraid of African-Americans” (as if fear of black people is something of the past), but the second part of their statement very well encompassed what I think most would argue in terms of where the post-chattel slavery rhetoric of “self-defense” emerged. As the United States moved past the “protection of property” rhetoric that originated in desire to prevent government powers from taking away their slaves, the necessity for excessive possession and use of guns manifested in a different kind of protection of property, protection from all who are perceived to be immoral and dangerous-people of color. Or to use the common code, criminals.
After a bit of uncomfortable silence, someone said,“in light of all of the police violence happening recently I think that people feel more threatened by cops and think that they need to carry guns.”
This statement was based on a myriad of grossly false premises which indicated an intense unawareness of who perpetuates violence in terms of civilian/police relations, and who in the United States can safely exercise their second amendment right to own and carry guns (try to find a black person who owns a gun because they believe they could shoot a police officer in self defense). It was very unsettling to witness this clear misunderstanding, especially “in light of all of the police violence happening recently,” and indicated to me that all of these “conversations” we’ve been having or trying to have about police brutality in the United States have been for naught.
And although it was difficult to really dive into some of the issues and ideas I had wanted to examine, their initial and relatively brief responses clearly indicated an array of deeper held beliefs and misunderstandings about gun violence and, as it turns out, misunderstandings about crime.
Overall, despite their understanding about the implications of gun violence and about the necessity for systemic change being muddy, even in the face of facts and information, they held clear cut opinions on the action we should be taking against gun violence.
“Gun restrictions won’t work.”
“Felons shouldn’t be able to have [guns], and you should have to pass a psych evaluation in order to own one.”
“Education about guns will help the most.”
The problem is that their proposed “solutions” were either based on inaction or predicated on discriminatory practice and selective accessibility. I thought this very clearly illustrated the problem that we have with guns in the United States. No one is quite sure what the root or roots of our problem with gun violence is and, in turn, a false polarization of the issue is created: everyone should have guns or no one should have guns. Clearly, neither one of those ideas would work in practice and instead we should shift our focus to effective compromises that allow for a safe and progressive society. But in order to do this we must educate ourselves on objective information about gun violence, study the impact and history of gun regulation in other countries, examine how language about “self defense” and “criminals” can be coded, inaccurate and dangerous, and work to foster non-polarizing conversations about gun violence and regulation so that we can turn education in to action, and action into a safer society to live in.