Can We Redesign The Way We Talk About Gun Control In America?

Thoughts and prayers are not working; focusing on common emotional ground might, says Fred Dust, partner at the design company Ideo.

Can We Redesign The Way We Talk About Gun Control In America?
“In moments of mourning, we can begin to think about dialogue.” [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]

After a gunman shot and killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at a music festival in Las Vegas the night of October 1, America awoke reeling with a fresh pain painted over a familiar heartbreak. In the United States, mass shootings have become an epidemic, an endless cycle that we can’t seem to straighten out into anything resembling an endpoint. A headline–“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”–republished continuously on The Onion on the occasion of every new mass shooting, encapsulates the epidemic of the past several years, which we denote by where they happened: Newtown, San Bernardino, Charleston, Orlando, and, now, Las Vegas.


By nature, humans are an adaptive species. Whether or not we do so consciously, when the horrific becomes the expected, we adjust. The morning following a shooting, we tend to take in the tragedy and feel horrified, yet we also manage to go about our days.

“We’ve paved over the ability for these things to really take hold.” [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]
Fred Dust, partner and global managing director at the design company Ideo,  also suspects that Americans’ common baseline on issues of gun control is more extensive than surface tensions would indicate. A distilled version of the conversation around gun control tends to pull in two directions: On the one end, there are the 18% of Americans who believe gun laws should be less strict; on the other are the 52% who are pushing for more restrictions like background checks for purchasers and a licensing process for sellers. But the two camps, Dust believes, share more common ground than they realize. What’s preventing them from collaborating across their beliefs is the polarized structure of the conversation. The gun control “debate,” he says, forces people to chose a side, rather than emphasizing the need for consensus. Would we be able to make progress on the issue if we started talking about it not as something one side could win, but as an issue where we’re looking for consensus?

At Ideo, Dust’s work positions design as a tool for positive impact. But it’s not only physical spaces and structures that can be engineered for good; conversations can be designed; language can be productively repurposed (Dust’s talk at the Fast Company Innovation Festival next week will walk through the concept of designing dialogue to further social good).


What’s for certain, he says, is that we can’t continue to retreat into our polarities and into acceptance mode, which is impeding our ability break the cycle of mass shootings. He often poses an experiment to his friends, in which he asks them to tell him exactly where they were when they heard the news break about Sandy Hook, or about Charleston or Orlando. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find an American born before 1995 who couldn’t tell you where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, “people have no ability to place themselves in the context of mass shootings,” Dust says. “We’ve paved over the ability for these things to really take hold.” By taking a design approach to the conversation around gun violence and encouraging people to reach toward common ground, Dust wants to give people a way to connect more empathetically to the fundamental issues.

“Moments of mourning are a natural point to have deep conversations.” [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]

The Time To Talk About It Is Now

Acceptance of these horrific events–or sending out “thoughts and prayers” and essentially, by doing so, further separating yourself from the situation–Dust says, “is the worst we can hope for. It’s the least likely way that we are ever going to see change.”

What is similarly unproductive: Skirting the call for change in the aftermath, as the White House did after the Las Vegas shooting, saying that now is not the time to talk about gun control. “Moments of mourning are a natural point to have deep conversations,” Dust says. Look to organized religion, Dust says, for how dialogue can be organized following a great loss. From Judaism (sitting shiva) to Catholicism (wakes), we see examples of designated mourning periods structured around bringing people together in conversation.


In his research on times of personal crisis at Ideo, Dust has come to understand that the times immediately following trauma are when people feel most moved to make a change, and to do so in a constructive way. “It’s interesting to see how, when you lose someone close to you, you’ll often take that moment to make a significant change in your life,” Dust says. “I think that can happen on a societal level–in moments of mourning, we can begin to think about dialogue.”

That dialogue, Dust says, will be most productive if it approaches the issue through the lens of a shared humanity. Jumping right into the policy debate cold, without delineating the very human need to be having this conversation–none among us wants to experience the loss of a loved one to unmitigated violence–will keep us stuck in the same immobile silos of Second Amendment versus gun control. What Dust is suggesting is a collective reckoning–a deep breath that allows us to ask “why do we need to have this conversation” before having it. The why, he suspects, will sound similar from both camps.

“We were in a room with a collective agreement, but no collective language.” [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]

Speaking Different Languages

However, there’s a sense in which people on both sides of the gun debate are often speaking different languages. Gun advocates bristle at arguments from people calling for increased regulation, saying that their ignorance around the particular points of firearm knowledge precludes their right to legislate on the issue. That way of thinking, Dust says, only serves to deepen the divide between the two parties.


“You often see particular industries or organizations create a specialized language,” Dust says. “Take healthcare: The language that’s needed between a doctor and a nurse and the staff to make sure they’re responding quickly to something is not our language,” he says, “and we, as patients, feel alienated by it.” Specialized language is detrimental in conversations intended to bridge gaps between people.

Even among people on the same side of the debate, language can stand in the way of consensus. Ideo hosted numerous conversations with activist groups working against gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. “We had about 30 different groups in the room and they couldn’t agree on a common language that would allow them to figure out how to move forward,” Dust says. “Within those groups, you have people who talk about gun violence as an epidemic, and talking about it purely within the language of epidemiology, and other people talking about it in terms of behavioral economics. We were in a room with a collective agreement, but no collective language,” Dust adds. Setting aside language and knowledge accessible only to people in specific groups will allow a more relatable dialogue to grow.

“We need to be seeking out ways to bring out the notion that we are all carrying some fears that are common.” [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]

Finding Common Ground

Take the phrase we often reach toward in the aftermath of a mass shooting: “gun control.” “It feels like there’s an American sense that responds quite well to the idea of ‘rights,’ and not so well to the idea of ‘control,'” Dust says. Dust believes that this small point could the origin of a new type of conversation–around how the right to carry arms is ultimately infringing on our right to peacefully gather.


“One of the things that we see out there, as we’re doing our research at Ideo, is the presentation of an undercurrent of fear in so many Americans now, and it doesn’t really matter where they sit politically,” Dust says. “We need to be seeking out ways to bring out the notion that we are all carrying some fears that are common.”

Which is what makes the statement made by Caleb Keeter, the lead guitarist in the Josh Abbot band, which had played a set at the festival, particularly compelling. Though Keeter has been criticized for abandoning his support of the Second Amendment only after standing in close proximity to open fire, his reason for doing so appeals to our common fear and desire to protect ourselves. Members of the band’s crew, he wrote on Twitter, possessed concealed handgun licenses; there were firearms in their bus. But the guns, Keeter realized, were useless: Even had they reached the bus, holding the weapons wouldn’t protect them from the bullets flying, and their firearms might have identified them as perpetrators, not victims. Second Amendment proponents often say that guns are necessary to protect themselves; Keeter’s experience proved to him that they are not, and he responded by advocating for gun control. “It was so powerful–he was saying this fundamental thing that many people believe will keep them safe actually turned out not to be true,” Dust says.

Focusing the gun control conversation on the emotional undercurrents of fear and safety–instead of the political and linguistic splits that overlay them, Dust says, will point us toward consensus. Talking of “bridging the debate” presupposes an irreconcilable divide in the conversation. Starting from the point of “none of us wants to feel afraid” might allow us to progress together.

“What is our right to safety? And what does that right to safety look like?”  [Source Image: SnegiriBureau/iStock]

Moving Forward Together

But how can we bring the emotional core of the conversation to the forefront?

One way to do so, Dust suggests, is abandoning the concept of “healthy debate,” which is what Americans default to in the face of contention. The debate construct necessitates two clearly delineated sides arguing toward victory; only one “winner” is possible.

But what if, Dust says, instead of debating gun control, we focused on a different question: “What is our right to safety? And what does that right to safety look like?” For some people, right to safety looks like carrying a firearm; Keeter formerly fell in this camp. For others, it looks like a unilateral ban on guns. Most people in America would advocate for an end to mass shootings; calling for an outright end to guns becomes more complicated, however, when you bring in questions of individual right to possession or use by law enforcement.


A two-sided debate doesn’t allow for the nuances at work in this conversation, Dust says, nor does, necessarily, focusing on guns as the core of the issue. To try to create more conversations around difficult issues, Ideo has built a framework called Creative Tensions. Instead of a debate format, where two participants are asked to respond to questions, Ideo will lay out a “tension” on the stage, with two poles at either end–for instance, “guns make me feel afraid” at one end, and “guns make me feel safe” at another. In this case, four participants will arrange themselves along the tension in relation to how they feel; Ideo will also ask the audience to do the same. “What we see is that people may find themselves standing next to each other, but thinking about things in slightly different ways,” Dust says. “It allows them to find affinities, and it allows people to tell stories to explain why they are standing where they are, and that builds empathy,” Dust says.

Creative Tensions is an exercise that can be deployed in small group settings or at town halls, but what Dust is hoping for is a way to translate the ethos of the design into a national conversation. Focusing on the spectrum of opinions, rather than the polemics, Dust says, could help people to see that our fundamental desire for safety could be strong enough to point us toward a consensus. “We’re in a place where we have to think about new modes of dialogue,” he says, “because the ones we have now just fail us.”


About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.


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