Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: My Father-In-Law’s Gun Hobbies Are Distressing

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My father-in-law is a serious hunter; he is even listed in the NRA (National Rifle Association) record books. Many of the animals he has shot are mounted around his home. In fact, I find it quite disturbing that one of the animals he hunted, a bear, is located right next to where he sets up the family Christmas tree. I am not a vegetarian; I do eat meat. I am not opposed to killing animals for food, but I am distressed by several gun-related behaviors: the idea of hunting for sport; opposing gun registration; and the right to carry weapons anywhere.

I have to say that my father-in-law and the others in his family are wonderful people, and this has challenged my stereotype of all gun owners as being terrible human beings.  

What suggestions do you have for how to handle conversations around guns with family members?

The topic of guns always ranks high on the lists of controversial social and political issues. However, as indicated in a list of 330 Gallup polls conducted on public opinion and guns in the past 12 years, the priority of gun issues is strongly influenced by several factors: the circumstances of gun violence; numbers of innocent victims, especially when children are involved; and the kind and amount of press coverage. There is no doubt that emotions can be intense when guns are discussed, with many people feeling so strongly about gun issues that they are single-issue voters – meaning they will support or reject a politician based solely on his/her position on guns.

A couple of points on the specific advice you asked for about how you can handle conversations about guns with your father-in-law and other like-minded family members. When your family members who have an interest in guns and hunting activities are having a conversation about their gun-related activities – setting up hunting dates, discussing the advantages of different kinds of guns and ammunition, analyzing shooting strategies – as a non-hunter, you probably have very little to add to those conversations.

In fact, interjecting your views, (e.g., on the need for more gun control, talking about how you oppose hunting for sport), would position you as a bit odd. You could anticipate eye-rolling and expressions of, “What’s with her?” You would, in effect, be bringing your personal values and emotions into a conversation where the gun-owning parties are in agreement about the role of guns in their lives – they are enjoying talking about a shared interest. This is not to minimize the importance of your values and emotions, but timing and appropriateness are everything, if you want to be effective in some way.

This brings me to my next point: in what ways do you want to have an effect on your family members and their views on guns? For example, is your intent to: inform them of your views; persuade them to change their views; educate them about the facts of guns and violence; clarify everyone’s position on where they stand; motivate them to take some kind of action? The point is that when you initiate or join in a family conversation about guns, you need to be clear in your own mind about your agenda.

One way for you to be a welcome and credible conversationalist with your family is to use guns, or any controversial topic, as the basis of developing critical thinking. When the focus is on critical thinking, your initial goal is to present and foster discussions on controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan way, using a pros (favors a certain position) versus cons (opposes) format.  Many people, especially children and young adults, hold unexamined positions, many of which are merely passed on from one generation to the next. Therefore, if you lead with a focus on critical thinking instead of merely sharing your personal views, you may find a discussion results in which your family members are more open to considering a variety of perspectives.

There are several Web sites that are helpful for presenting controversial issues using a critical thinking framework. One is Pros and Cons of 48 Controversial Issues. (Note: although ProCon does not currently call out guns as a separate topic, it does include “Do Violent Video Games Contribute to Youth Violence?” which does discuss guns.)

Another useful Web site is Controversial Debate Topics and Big Issues which does focus on the specific topic of “History and Debate of Gun Rights”. For each topic, people weigh in on the topic as being either pro or con and they explain their position. These websites can be helpful for summarizing the keys issues comprising the pros and cons and for providing some fact- and data-based fodder for discussions.

In fact, many families have discussions about controversial topics as a matter of course, the dinner table being a favorite venue. For example, you can say, “I saw on the news tonight that there are conflicting views as to whether people should be able to openly carry guns anywhere, or whether there should be rules about where guns can and cannot be visible. Let’s try and understand why some people think they should be able to openly carry their guns anywhere. Then let’s try to understand why others are opposed to this. After we’ve looked at the controversy from various viewpoints, let’s go around and see what positions each of us takes on this.”

The focus is on trying to look at conflicts and differing viewpoints from various perspectives. Will opinions magically change as a result of these types of critical thinking approaches? No, at least not immediately, but what can change is the framework for having discussions. By emphasizing the pros and cons of a social issue, and by asking everyone to try to understand others’ positions, the seeds are being planted for an expanded and more enlightened approach to understanding and articulating personal values and beliefs. At the very least – and this is an indication of some success – some of the discussion participants may say, “Hmm. I never thought about it like that.”

I will close with a dose of reality: Some discussions are not worth having, especially when they are repeat conversations. Your father-in-law is a proud sports hunter and displaying his conquests is a source of pride. It is his house, his Christmas tree, his bear. What would be your reaction be if he brought to your home some trophy animal from his hunting and said that he would like to you display it by your Christmas tree? Most likely you would be offended – the same as he would be offended if you asked him to remove the bear in his home at holiday time when you’re around.

You said your father-in-law and his family are wonderful people, so I assume you want to maintain relationships with them. If so, you may want to table your views and judgments about his hunting and love of guns – views that are so contrary to your own – and focus more on how you can help facilitate some good, critical thinking discussions about controversial social and political issues among your family members. Everyone benefits from this approach.

You just never know who might be the one to say, “Hmm. I never thought about it like that.” This is an important statement that increases respect, civility, and awareness – its own form of intellectual victory.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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