Can church leaders help reframe the gun debate?

April 11th, 2018

Exemplary leaders develop the art of framing or reframing an issue. They learn that their first response to a contentious issue is not their personal position but rather how they and their constituents might frame the issue so that meaningful conversation and action can happen. Church and public leaders need not accept the terms of debate framed by proponents or opponents, whether in church issues or public matters.

Today all leaders face a dilemma that cries out for reframing — the debate about the dramatic number of people in the United States who die by guns each year, far beyond the death rate for gun violence in other countries. There is no one way to reframe this hot button issue, but all of us must seek to give thoughtful people alternatives. Here is one possibility.

How we got here

Over 20 years ago, two powerful government figures faced off at a Congressional hearing — Jay Dickey, a congressman from Arkansas, and Mark Rosenberg from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Testifying before Dickey’s committee, Rosenberg was seeking support for research in the science of gun violence prevention. Dickey was determined to dismantle the project for fear that the CDC work was part of a larger gun control plan. Interestingly, both belonged to the National Rifle Association and believed in the right to gun ownership. But on that day, there was only disagreement and heated debate. In the end, it was the Dickey Amendment added to a funding bill that effectively shut down CDC gun violence research.

Then, a strange thing happened. The two men became friends. Todd Frankel documented their journey in a 2015 Washington Post article. As Frankel put it, “The relationship evolved over years. And slowly, cautiously, they started to talk about guns.” They stayed in touch even after Rosenberg lost his job at CDC and Dickey lost his congressional seat. The two men eventually wrote a commentary for the Post in which they shared their pilgrimage and shared hopes. They now were of one mind. “We have also come to see that gun-violence research can be created, organized, and conducted with two objectives: first, to preserve the rights of law-abiding citizens and legal gun owners and, second, to make our homes and communities safer.”

The most convincing argument Rosenberg made to Dickey was how the number of deaths involving automobiles had come down significantly even as car ownership increased dramatically. It was done through research leading to myriad changes that reduced deaths even as people bought more cars.

What if car ownership were a constitutional right?

That made me think, “What if car ownership were a constitutional right?” There was always opposition to car safety measures and there still is today. Just think how long it took to overcome resistance to mandatory seatbelt laws and air bags. But, while car safety efforts face resistance, they do not have the overlay of “violating a constitutional right.” Yet, even if car ownership were a constitutional right, the goal of car safety workers would have remained: We will reduce the number of deaths involving automobiles while permitting people to own cars.

Is that not the same challenge today regarding deaths from guns? Is there anyone who cannot affirm the goal of having fewer people die from guns this year than last year? Therefore, there should be no reason why people who have influence across political barriers cannot covenant to reduce gun deaths based on research and demonstrated effectiveness. Their mandate is simply: We will reduce the number of deaths involving guns while permitting people to own guns.

Today people offer solutions with no scientific evidence that their proposals reduce the number of gun deaths. One person may suggest arming school teachers while another wants fewer guns, but we don’t have enough evidence on most solutions offered. Remember, deaths from automobiles went down even as the number of cars went up.

Furthermore, with gun deaths, the opportunities for small steps that lead to larger discoveries are vast. Suicides and murders would have to be addressed, since they are the largest category of gun deaths. But people across partisan lines could devote themselves to many other categories, including accidental gun deaths, the deaths of children and youth, school shootings and mass shootings. Each provides the opportunities for research and testing of options. Likely, an innovation that helps reduce deaths in one category will have spillover effects on other potential gun deaths.

Jay Dickey died in 2017, but the plea he and Rosenberg made remains. “We can’t afford to not even try. We have too much riding on this — all of us do.”

People need alternative narratives

In our time, many people get their narratives from the most simplistic and polarized sources. When issues are framed as extreme alternatives, well-meaning people often feel they must choose sides with everyone else. Church leaders can make a difference if they put themselves in the role of interpreter, reframer, questioner, and fellow seeker for the way of Christ amidst today’s challenges.

This article is reprinted by permission from Leading Ideas, a free e-newsletter from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at

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