Have "The Tennessee Eleven" found a new path forward in the gun debate?

(Courtesy Jan Rose Kasmir via AP)

I vaguely recall hearing something about the group Starts With Us when it was founded in 2021, but I haven’t really run across any of their endeavors in the years since, at least until I stumbled upon an op-ed written by a group billing itself as “The Tennessee Eleven”. The individuals in question made up Starts With Us’s first ” “Solution Session”, a sit-down conversation and discussion designed to pull in Americans from all walks of life and political backgrounds to find common ground on some of the most contentious topics of the day; in this case “gun violence.”

In their op-ed, the Tennessee Eleven claim to have found “solutions” to the current gun control debate, and offered up some advice to Joe Biden and the White House’s new Office of Gun Violence Prevention. After reading through their list of recommendations I can’t find anything I object to, but I also don’t anticipate the Biden administration taking their suggestions to heart.

Despite our differences, we know that suffering is behind all types of gun violence, including suicide, homicide, and mass shootings, and solutions must respond to this hurt and pain.

Against that backdrop, we submit this counsel to President Biden and the team he has appointed to lead the first-ever federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention:

  • Listen to citizens. Don’t think you know what we need. Teach us and we’ll learn; involve us and we’ll make a difference. A Starts With Us/NORC poll suggests majorities of Americans want to get involved, with 82% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats saying it is important for citizens to be involved in finding solutions to our country’s problems.
  • Expand who is at the table. There are voices that have been muted. Often the pro-gun community feels placated, like we’re at the table but not allowed to use our voice. Many marginalized communities have historically never even received an invitation. Add more chairs. Take an all hands on deck approach. Expand the “us.” The best solutions come from many, not few.
  • Have difficult conversations. Don’t shy away from uncomfortable dialogue that challenges your assumptions. When we waded all the way in,  we began having more “aha” moments and less “uh-oh” ones.
  • Resist the urge to finger point. Blaming and shaming fuels division and blocks solutions. Grace is sorely lacking in our public discourse; use this opportunity to role model curiosity, compassion, and courage. We believe these values are essential building blocks to problem solving.
  • Think holistically. Don’t overlook solutions that address the root causes of violence. We prioritized solutions that address trauma, uplift people and communities, and build meaningful connections. Part of this work is restoring a sense of community so that people don’t resort to violently acting out. Another part is recognizing that a culture of safe gun ownership can best be created through education, community outreach, and incentives rather than only laws.
  • Take off partisan blinders. Avoid the tribal, binary thinking that so often infiltrates American political life and instead think with/and. Democrats don’t have all the answers. Neither do Republicans. Our time together taught us that there is less of a spectrum from red to blue and conservative to liberal; it’s more of a circle, with overlapping goals and ideas.

First off, note that the group suggested no new gun laws. No bans on so-called assault weapons or “large capacity” magazines. No waiting periods. No “universal” background checks. No “red flag” laws. Instead, as the Tennessee Eleven state, creating a culture of safe gun ownership is best done through education and outreach instead of imposing new restrictions on lawful gun owners.

That alone flies in the face of the mission of the new White House office, which is staffed with many longtime gun control activists. Similarly, I don’t think that Biden, who deemed the firearms industry “the enemy” during the 2020 campaign, is going to resist the urge to finger-point or take off his partisan blinders. He’s certainly not going to expand who’s at the table. Any gun owner invited to be a part of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention is going to be pre-screened and vetted to weed out any gun owner who thinks gun control is an ineffective and unconstitutional way to tackle violent crime.

Again, there’s nothing particularly objectionable in what the Tennessee Eleven are calling for, and much of what they’ve put forward is pretty good advice when it comes to engaging with those of a different point of view. I can’t help but notice, however, that their recommendations don’t actually include any specific policies or proposals to reduce “gun violence” or violent crime in general. It’s all about how to act, not what actions to take.

I guess that makes sense given Starts With Us’s goal of overcoming “political and cultural division in America by practicing curiosity, compassion, and courage every day.” It’s great that they were able to bring together Tennessee residents from all walks of life and points of view for a civil discussion, and I’d even be willing to take part in a “Solution Session” myself if one is ever held in Virginia. But as much as I appreciate the group’s admonition to Biden and the new White House office that more laws aren’t the answer, I wish they had taken their discussion a little further and offered up some actual strategies that can combat violent crime without demonizing gun owners or criminalizing their right to keep and bear arms.