Offering an Alternative to Polarized Debate - "How Can We Stop Mass Shootings in Our Communities?"

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(The following is by Brad Rourke, Kettering Foundation program officer and executive editor of issue guides.)

On Friday, February 1, 2013, National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) released an Issue Advisory that contains materials that communities might wish to use in deliberating over the issues raised by the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut in December last year. It's not a full issue guide, but a basic outline of the options, entitled How Can We Stop Mass Shootings in Our Communities? It’s available here.

Developing the framework for this issue posed challenges. In the first place, the issue is raw, happening now, and strikes deep emotional chords. This can make it hard to deliberate -- which requires that people face the downsides of their favored actions. In emotional situations, this can be difficult. A good issue framework will make it easier for people to get past their reactions and begin to make judgments together -- to weigh options.

The other difficulty is that the dominant public discourse has already become polarized around the issue of gun control (more vs. less). A public framing of an issue will start with people’s core concerns, rather than with ideology. When issues are framed with policy options at the outset, this can lead to “solution wars” where people battle over their favored solution without examining the value tensions inherent in it.

An issue that is framed around people’s chief concerns will illuminate the things held valuable by people so that they can be weighed against one another. The result is very often a different kind of conversation -- not universal agreement, necessarily, nor even always a clear sense of common ground. What we can expect and hope for, from deliberations over issues framed with the public in mind, is a movement toward shared public judgment.

With this framework, we have tried to offer an alternative to the polarized  debate already unfolding. We typically engage in months of research and testing before releasing issue guides. There was not time to do that in this instance. So, we are eager to learn what use you make of the issue advisory and, if you use it to spark public deliberative forums, what you learn. Please tell us what happens, what you learn, and other thoughts you might have in the comments.