Two long-running debates are now roiling the country with renewed energy: gun control and gay marriage. One might argue that the two are wildly different discussions, though mandatory background checks and waiting periods for marriage, straight or gay, might be worth considering. But I think the conversations—each demanding thoughtful discussion and mutual respect but instead generating desperate anger and almost willful contempt—inform each other, and together tell us more about ourselves than perhaps we’d like to realize.
Let’s start with guns. There is a reason that no general election presidential campaign has ever made gun control a major issue. It’s because both Democratic and Republican strategists appreciate that the issue is complicated and doesn’t sort itself out on party lines. There are plenty of suburban voters and particularly women who are likely to vote Republican but support increased gun control laws. And there are even more blue-collar union members in places like Oakland County, Michigan, who will start thinking twice about voting Democratic if it means voting for gun control.
President Obama is now trying to make guns a great moral cause of his second term. Fair enough. But he never even mentioned gun control in his convention acceptance speech, and in a campaign that spent more money on television ads than the total ad budgets of both Bush, Gore, and Kerry campaigns combined, he never ran a single gun-control ad. Of course, the campaign was before there was the tragedy of Newtown, but during his first term gun violence was an epidemic in his own neighborhood in Chicago, and the national psyche was shocked by the attack on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the slaughter in an Aurora, Colorado, movie house. On some level, though, the smart operatives in Chicago respected the opponents of new gun laws, at least enough not to vilify them or impugn their motives or character.
But we are in an odd moment, as the discussion has become uglier after the campaign ended. Now the NRA runs an ad using the president’s daughters as political fodder, while The New York Times calls the group’s head “mendacious, delusional ... almost deranged.” And it’s a surprise that neither side seems to persuade the other?
Who supports the NRA? The same union members the Obama campaign didn't want to enrage in the campaign, the same rural hunters in Ohio that the formidable Obama turn-out operation was targeting. They weren't bad people on November 5, 2011, and they aren't now. But they are fellow citizens who disagree with the president’s position on guns. And while the NRA is often its own worse enemy, its membership is made up of regular Americans, "our brothers, our sisters, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers.”
If that last phrase rings a bell, it's because I lifted it from a 2011 statement by President Obama, when he remained opposed to gay marriage but his feelings were, in his words, “evolving.” His point, which strikes me as one of the most poignant and effective arguments for gay marriage, is that gay Americans are part of the American fabric and family and any attempt to isolate them as “different” is inescapably prejudicial.
When opponents of gay marriage respond with anger and venom, it serves no more purpose than when those who support gay marriage declare that those who don’t are bigots. Suddenly, Republicans opposing gay marriage are being attacked for having the same position Hillary Clinton had last month and President Obama ran on in 2008.
There are a growing number of Republican-leaning voters who are both pro-gay marriage and pro-life—and I suspect that those looking to increase support for gay marriage will choose not to attack their allies’ pro-life views. Some of those Republican-leaning voters who support gay marriage will also oppose the president’s support for more gun laws. Some of them will even be NRA members.
Billions of dollars are spent in politics on research of all sorts and, like most political consultants, I’ve sat through more focus groups than NCIS has solved crimes. But most of that sophisticated research boils down to a few basic principles that we all learned, or at least were taught, at an early age: few will listen to you if you shout, and the louder you shout, the less they will listen.
One thing is for certain: being absolutely convinced you’re right has little to do with convincing others they’re wrong. With these deeply emotional issues, it is in the quiet moments that each of us will look into our hearts and make choices based as much on what we feel as we think. It’s my bet that the calm voices of persuasion will carry the day.