Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reducing violence

Either we are experiencing an unusual period of violence, or the media is paying more attention to the daily cycle of shootings all across America than they usually do. I suspect the latter. The Huffington Post, for example featured stories and pictures of all the gun victims just since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a month-and-a-half ago. The shocking total in that short time period: 1280.  But if the U.S. suffers about 30,000 gun deaths per year, a death toll of 1280 since Newtown is actually a lot less than usual. Even so, a shocking statistic. What the media is doing is reminding us that we live with a grim, normal reality in this country of a large number of gun fatalities. So many that we usually don't pay much attention, any more than we notice the daily carnage of traffic fatalities. But since Newtown we are paying attention.

The story that got to me and some of my mediator friends was the disturbing incident out of Phoenix this Wednesday, the same day that Arizona residents Gabby Giffords and her husband were testifying in Congress in support of gun control. The shooting took place after a mediation session, set up to try to resolve an ordinary contract dispute of the kind mediators see every day, between a furniture mover/refurbisher and a dissatisfied customer. The amount in dispute might have been less than $20,000.  Reports are that the furniture guy, representing himself, attended the mediation for an hour, and then said he had to get something from his car. What he got was his gun, and then he lay in wait outside the building for the opposing party and his counsel to come out whereupon he shot them both.

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People naturally wonder. Could this incident have been prevented? Do mediators and participants need to take more precautions to protect themselves? Is mediation dangerous? We deal with angry and emotional people all the time in mediation, and sometimes we stir those emotions up. Should we be doing something differently to prevent violence? I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that mediators need to provide better security. First of all, it doesn't appear that better security would have prevented an incident like this one. This guy was waiting outdoors in the parking lot. Metal detectors and even security guards probably wouldn't have stopped him.

The thing that is more likely to prevent violent incidents like this one is mediation itself: The whole purpose of mediation is to teach people how to resolve their conflicts without violence, and even without litigation (a form of non-physical violence) Mediators should recognize, however, that we're not going to be successful in creating peace in every case, and that we do this kind of work at some personal risk, and at some risk to the parties to the mediation. That's what peacemakers are supposed to do.

We need to do even more than that to deal with the culture of violence in this country. I would be in favor of teaching kids as early as elementary school some basic conflict resolution techniques, techniques that might prevent some disputes from turning into fistfights, and when the kids grow up, into knife fights or gun fights.

Sadly, a lot of the gun control debate going on right now seems to be missing the point. Not too many people are following the rules I laid down in December for having a constructive debate on this topic! And I don't see much discussion about training people to resolve their differences peacefully. The only talk about reducing the culture of violence seems to revolve around censoring video games and violent movies and television, a perennial debate that never seems to go anywhere. Both sides in the gun control debate mostly seem to be doing a good job of antagonizing each other,  just another way to perpetuate a culture of destructive conflict. Gun control advocates threaten to take people's guns away, which only provokes the gun aficionados into calling for armed guards and stocking up on even more weapons.

We need to de-escalate this conflict. We don't need to engage in a destructive debate that only exacerbates the cycle of violent conflict that is so familiar. We can start to de-escalate by reassuring gun owners that nobody is taking away their legitimate rights. We can look for common ground on issues like expanded background checks and stricter licensing requirements. And we can pay some attention to techniques of resolving conflict without violence. Mediation, anyone?

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