When the Las Vegas shooting happened in October, I wrote about how much I loathe and despise the National Rifle Association with every fiber of my being. I wrote about how Republicans don’t give a rat’s ass about your life or my life or any of our lives. I wrote about how the issue isn’t just with the guns themselves but our country’s obsession with violence—particularly gun violence—as a national identity. I wrote about how the vast majority (I’m talking eight out of 10 Americans) agree that certain effective gun control policies should be enacted, but our lawmakers won’t do jack shit—and instead extend gun rights.
And as I sit here now to write something about the horrific shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL on Valentine’s Day, I realize that anything I’d pen would sound almost identical to what I’ve published before.
I’m tired of writing those things. And I’m sure you’re tired of reading them. So let’s cut the crap, because the old system isn’t working here. It’s time for a new approach. And it’s not just saying we’re for more gun control legislation; it’s about saying we’re aiming for a culture that’s blatantly anti-guns.
For almost two decades, Democrats have slowly built up the rhetoric about wanting “sensible gun control” legislation. This sounds great, but there’s a problem when you dig a little deeper: No one can tell you what those three words mean and what policies they point to. Instead, the phrase has devolved to serve the purpose of keeping us from angering Republicans who spew nonsense about why it’s their constitutional right to own dozens of semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. For example, who are these policies more “sensible” for? Gun owners or people against gun ownership? Eventually, those tiny gaps create larger divisions that often lead to stalemate.
If we’ve learned anything from the past three years, it’s that Americans want a message that’s easy to connect with. There’s a difference between this message, policy stances, and the end game, and on the subject of gun control, liberally minded folks don’t have an overarching rallying cry that’s simple to discern. Meanwhile, the NRA’s own message is a clear one: Guns are for everyone because the Constitution says so. They don’t allow for negotiation, while gun control supporters are all about compromise. The dangerous cycle repeats itself unless we stop it.
What does that entail? Well, I for one am no longer beating around the bush with all of this word salad to make gun owners feel at ease; the right to bear arms is in our Constitution, sure, but the fact is you’re still in possession of an object that could kill me, my family, my friends, and members of my community. As Michael Waldman pointed out, just because you have the right to something doesn’t mean it comes with no strings attached; even constitutional rights have limits.
This flip from putting the onus on non-gun owners to explain their stance on guns to putting that onus on gun owners is indicative of a much larger shift we need to see. And that will come from a conversation about a culture that allows this sort of thing to happen while changing nothing.
Most important, however, is that taking a firmer messaging stance isn’t the end of the road; it’s a starting point for a holistic approach of conversation, action, and negotiation. We can’t talk about stopping gun violence until we also address the people who have these guns and why they feel they need to own them. These include broader discussions about the ties between weapons and things like perceived masculinity and violence against women.
Obviously, demanding immediate action from our representatives and our community leaders is critical. But much like so many other issues in our society, we need to stop skirting around the topic of guns in our day-to-day lives. And I get it: It’s hard to discuss with your uncle why he really needs to own five semi-automatic rifles while living in the suburbs or talk to a friend about why she enjoys hunting on the weekends. But those answers lead to more questions, and eventually, it leads to a warped sense of what we see as “normal.” For example, what actual safety risks does a community pose that explains the need for a weapons stockpile? What are the core reasons why we like hunting as a hobby? What do these things say about how we as a country view privilege, power, and safety?
Over the past 15 months, we’ve all become increasingly comfortable with the fact that we’re going to be very, very uncomfortable for an incredibly long time. And we should be. Our nation has a lot of problems. But none of them—and especially not gun violence, mass shootings, or genocide—magically appeared overnight; they’ve been sitting there, untouched and unexamined, for centuries. Unfortunately, they’re a gigantic part of our nation’s fabric, and we have to reckon with that.
But of all the things to reckon with, I’d say this is one of the most critical. After all, our lives—and yes, that includes your life—are on the line.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.