March 16, 2018

It’s Time to Talk About Guns: Surface the facts, convene the conversation | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015Like so many who have been stunned and saddened by seemingly constant instances of gun violence, I have been reflecting on what can be done to create a culture with less danger from firearms and less chaos in the discourse about them. It seems we have lost our moorings when it comes to talking about guns and creating laws and practices to manage them. In the meantime, people are getting hurt.

From the media coverage of shootings in America over the last months and years, one fact keeps nagging at me: the bulk of injuries and deaths from guns are the result of unintended shootings or suicides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 33,636 deaths from firearms in 2013, and research shows that some 60 percent of those were suicides. Another 1.5 percent were accidents—many involving children.

When considered through these lenses, gun violence is an epidemic that is quieter, more local, and less sensational than the headlines indicate—but it is nonetheless wreaking havoc, one home at a time, because of access to guns. It’s a public health crisis that libraries can and should help address.

It won’t be simple. “Guns” mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Right there libraries have a role to help sort out the stories, to disseminate the resources to explain what is what to whom: the personal, the political, and the purely factual.

Libraries are the natural source for the facts about what guns do in our society. One may not agree with any particular point of view on the causes of gun violence, how best to reduce it, and at what cost to other goals and values. Yet putting forward the information that’s out there can help our communities arrive at more of a common baseline of understanding from which to work. At the least, we should surface the reliable information that exists. Where it doesn’t—e.g., the federal ban on the CDC study of the causes of gun violence, which Congress extended this July—we should use our professional clout as information advocates to call for new research and analysis that could shed light on possible approaches to reduce public risk.

Still, such advocacy is ultimately a form of creating and promoting a good collection. Perhaps we also need something more: convening a discussion about what we can and should do, in light of those facts, to make our communities safer. Our communities need a public entity to be proactive, taking leadership to inform a culture that can in turn move ahead on this logjammed issue. This isn’t our first time playing that role: this complex issue is no less controversial than climate change—and libraries have been key to taking a lead on that subject with practical approaches that align with the library’s core mission.

This should start inside our libraries, with taking care of staff. Staff need support to be proactive about safety for themselves and patrons, including how to deal with open carry laws. More important, we should recognize the diversity of opinion that is likely to be present among staff as it is in the rest of the community. Not every employee has the same background or opinion about guns (as one patron writing in USA Today found to her surprise).

Inside our communities, libraries can expand the discourse about guns and perhaps help to walk back a polarized debate that can discourage engagement with those of differing views. This can be quite local and personal, say, by creating a forum for hearing patrons’ (and perhaps willing staff’s) real-life stories. As someone who grew up in a hunting culture, with guns in my house and a gun of my own, but chooses not to have guns in my home now, I know there is a vast range of human experience related to these weapons. Witnessing that might not change people’s minds about the law, but it can build empathetic understanding of differences.

The library is the natural home of the hard conversation: it’s one of the few places where people with diverse opinions converge—an antidote to the filter bubbles in which many of us reside. The library is where all the information coexists, so it’s not a big step for the library to move the discussion forward, creating insight into the impact of guns—elevating it past polemics. Talking about something even when it is uncomfortable can create momentum for informed, positive change.


This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. Donna Dennison says:

    I totally agree that libraries could make a difference on this issues but I believe from a totally different stand point. Like all of our other touchy subject’s I believe the key is education. My husband is a certified hunter and gun safety educator. He teaches two hunter education classes and two gun safety classes a year. He works closely with the local sheriff department and the DNR and has someone from both departments come to his classes. By teaching students how to handle guns safely accidental shootings could be eliminated. Yet our local library will not let him hold classes in their conference rooms. I am a librarian at a rural school and our superintendent will not let me hold gun safety classes in my library. We, as librarians, don’t have to take on the issues but we can support those trying to make a difference through education.
    The article stated “60 percent of those were suicides”. If someone is suicidal then it doesn’t take a gun. How may overdose? How may hang themselves? How about libraries working with the mental health agencies in the area? How about using the libraries to educate families on the warning signs before it happens not until it too late? Our local library will also not allow support groups to meet in their conference rooms.
    As a teacher, librarian, mother and gun owner my heart cries out every time I here of another senseless gun death. But I believe education not legislation is the key.

    • Thank you, Donna! You said exactly what I was going to say in my reply to this article. Fear and ignorance is what is keeping library administrators/school administrators from allowing libraries to hold meetings and programs that talk about guns/gun safety/ etc.