The conversation about gun control in the United States is notably polarized; with each tragic incident of violence seeming to further fuel and entrench the opposing views. In this adversarial context, it is a hard push for the policy change that is direly needed.
So what can restorative practices offer to this important issue? What restorative justice and other restorative practices offer is a space where each person’s voice and experience is heard and respected, where impacts, fears and values can be expressed, and where unexpected points of connection can emerge.
Before moving to New Zealand, I facilitated a restorative justice process following an accidental discharge of a weapon that illustrated how this space of respectful communication can help to move the dialogue forward.
Restorative Justice Conference Participants
- Offender –Les (36)
- Victims- Sheryl and Tom (A married couple in their late 60s)
- 2 Facilitators
- 2 Community Members
- Police Officer
Criminal Charges Pending: Reckless Endangerment
Factual Synopsis: A thirty-six year old man (Les) accidentally discharged his gun in his house. The bullet went through his window and into the bedroom of his next-door neighbor, missing his neighbor (Sheryl) by a few feet and causing damage to the house and a family heirloom.
The week before Christmas, Les was putting his guns away so that they would be safely out of reach when family came into town for the holiday. He stored away his riffles and then began the routine he uses to familiarize himself with his handgun. Les made a mistake in the sequence and the gun fired. The bullet traveled out Les’ window and into his neighbor’s bedroom, whizzing through the air on the opposite side of the bed from where Sheryl was standing. Ending its trajectory, it lodged itself in an antique mirror, a family heirloom.
Les ran next door panicked, apologizing to Tom and Sheryl, so relieved to see they were ok. Sheryl and Tom were still in shock. What followed was a whirlwind of reporters arriving and police officers responding to a gun shot report, handcuffing Les and taking him to the Police Station.
The police department wasn’t sure what to do with the case. They didn’t want to send Les (who had no prior charges on his record) to jail for a mistake, but also wanted to communicate the gravity of offense and ensure that the harms were repaired to the greatest extent possible. One of the Commanders suggested that the case be referred to Restorative Justice.
The restorative justice conference was an emotional one as both parties grasped the proximity to complete tragedy. Les, Sheryl and Tom all had the chance to share how they were impacted and to be heard by each other.
Sitting in the circle, what struck me was the contrast between how the traditional court system and Restorative Justice treat relationships after a wrong doing. The court system often drives a further wedge between victim and offender. The offender may deny responsibility or make excuses and the parties are often not allowed to speak without legal counsel. It is framed as an oppositional relationship. I see this same oppositional relationship at work in the conversation around gun regulations more widely, with each side often unwilling to listen to or engage with the other.
Restorative Justice provides the opposite experience. The process encourages open dialogue, prioritizes repairing relationships, and relies on consensus in order to determine outcomes.
At the end of the conference, Sheryl, Tom and Les agreed that Les would pay for the necessary repairs, complete a gun safety course and write a piece about what he learned from the experience for the local newspaper. The newspaper piece was directed at fellow gun owners. In that piece Les said, “I learned a lot through this experience, but the one lesson I would pass on is: don’t get too comfortable. Always remember how dangerous a gun can be.” He also commented on the fact that rules are put into place in order to prevent terrible accidents and incidents from happening.
Through focusing on the impacts of what happened and what was required to make things right, the individuals involved in this case were able to arrive at a common sense plan to promote greater gun safety and regulation both for Les and more widely in the community. This outcome makes me wonder if a similar outcome could be reached in the wider discussion about gun regulations if the opposing sides were given a space to come together to talk about impacts, needs and ideas for how to make things right. Often, in the modes in which we communicate (very often online, looking at a computer screen), it is easy to lose track of the human on the other side of the issue. That is perhaps the greatest contribution restorative practices could have to the discussion: providing a space and structure for humanizing communication.
Lindsey Pointer is a restorative practices facilitator, trainer and researcher and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand with support from a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship and the Fulbright Program from the U.S. State Department.