Column: I Learned The Limits of Dialogue During Vermont’s Gun Debate

Thursday, July 02, 2015
When I retired from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2012, I enrolled in The Dartmouth Institute’s Master’s in Public Health program. My internship this year was spent working with the gun safety advocacy organization GunsenseVT. Its vision is to create a safe “gun culture” in Vermont. It was an eye-opening experience in the legislative process, and made me appreciate the hard work of our elected officials, who make difficult decisions and at times even more difficult compromises for the public’s welfare.

Gunsense was advocating for the passage of legislation that would have instituted comprehensive background checks (CBC) on the transfer of all firearms, with certain exceptions. I vividly remember the raucous public hearing before the joint Senate Judiciary and Health committees at the Statehouse in Montpelier this past winter, when they were taking testimony from proponents and opponents of CBC. It seemed as if both sides were talking past each other. It was apparent that individuals on both sides of the issue love Vermont and want to see its heritage and culture honored and preserved. It was interesting to note that both the supporters and opponents of gun safety legislation agree that Vermont citizens have a constitutional right to bear arms. Where they disagreed was on whether an individual’s Second Amendment right is absolute, and on whether the Legislature has the right to regulate firearms for public safety.

The opponents of gun safety legislation felt that the proposed legislation was addressing a non-issue, because Vermont is a very “safe state.” But all things are relative. Even if Vermont were the safest state in the nation (and we are not), from a public health standpoint there would still be room for improvement on curbing gun violence.

Opponents of gun safety legislation claimed that Gunsense was “cooking the numbers.” However, Dr. Chris Barsotti, an emergency room physician, pointed out in an article for Vtdigger that Vermont crime data can vary. It is available through the Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission Report, the Vermont Crime Information Center, the FBI Uniform Crime Report and the Centers for Disease Control. He compared the reported data for 2012. Depending upon the source, the number of homicides in Vermont was said to be 13, 7, 8 or 9, respectively. There was a wide variation in the reported data just for homicides, which you would think, since it is “hard” data, would be relatively easy to track.

Unfortunately, getting accurate data can be problematic. Although there is the National Instant Background Check System (NICS), states are not mandated to report all individuals who would be denied the ability to legally acquire firearms. Also, for some reason, in 2002 Vermont switched from having a state-level check to only performing the federal background check. Add to that the fact that Congress in 1996 included this language in the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill — “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control” — and it is no wonder that data is hard to come by.

But sometimes data can get you only so far. Maria Konnikova highlighted the research of Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, in the May 16, 2014, issue of The New Yorker. She was reporting on his work with a group of pediatricians who were looking at different ways of communicating the advantages of vaccinations in an attempt to change parental attitudes toward the positive. She stated the results were “dramatic”… as in none. None of the tested interventions worked. In some situations, it had the opposite effect; the subjects became more firmly entrenched in their opposition to vaccines. Nyhan called it the “backfire effect.” Nyhan has apparently been trying to debunk false ideas for quite some time. He and two college classmates founded Spinsanity, a fact-checking site that predated venues like Politifact. What Nyhan and other investigators found was that if an individual held a strong position on an issue, the contrary view, even if factually correct, made the subject distrustful of its source. So how does factual information change strongly held beliefs, opinions and misconceptions? The research is unclear. So how can we reach consensus on extremely polarizing issues?

It was quite apparent at the public hearing at the Statehouse this past February that individuals can be passionate on both sides of an issue. So, how do we come to some kind of consensus on extremely polarizing issues, issues which are important to all of Vermont’s citizens? We know we will never get universal agreement, but to use the vaccine analogy, can we at least attain a “herd immunity?”

What the internship has helped me realize is how important it is to engage individuals on an interpersonal level, through public forums, community functions, via email or telephone. But at the same time, as Nyhan has pointed out, I have learned how difficult it is to influence individuals, especially those who have formulated strong, preconceived ideas or opinions on an issue. I have learned that it is more productive to engage in dialogue with individuals who have not developed hardened attitudes on a topic. Individuals who see gun safety legislation solely as an absolute Second Amendment issue seemingly will never allow themselves to consider the public health dimension of gun ownership.

So, I guess, we need to keep these societal conversations ongoing, and hopefully, just hopefully, we will be able to make incremental changes for the good of society.

Paul Manganiello is a resident of Norwich.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy