On his recent trip to New York, Todd Underwood did not pack a gun. This was unusual, the first time in five years that he went anywhere, even to church, without one. Underwood, who is 37 years old and from Kansas City, won’t say how many guns he owns, but “a fucking arsenal” is a fair description.
Underwood wasn’t always a gun guy, he told me, though his father, a factory worker, kept a revolver or two under the bed. His interest really took hold in February 2014, when he was laid up, recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery, with an infant daughter at home. Underwood started browsing the gun-trading sites on Facebook. He already owned some guns, including a Glock model 19, a beginner’s weapon, molded plastic, but soon he “started liking the midrange guns, and then I started to like a particular brand of gun — SIG Sauer — the best gun ever made.” Underwood ultimately developed a taste for bespoke 1911s, which cost as much as $7,000 apiece. When Facebook shut down its gun-trading pages in January 2015, Underwood saw a business opportunity. That’s when he launched United Gun Group: “a social marketplace for the firearms community.”
In May, Underwood drew all kinds of flak for agreeing to let George Zimmerman sell the Kel-Tec PF9 that killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on his site. Underwood defends the decision still. Zimmerman was a “dipshit,” he concedes, but he was acquitted at trial, his gun was legally purchased, and he was licensed. Underwood was able to resell it for $250,000 (all of which, he says, went to Zimmerman). “What would you do?”
Underwood was coming to New York to meet Carolyn Tuft, though neither one of them knew it yet. Tuft, who lives in Salt Lake City, is a survivor of the 2007 Trolley Square shooting, the massacre that seriously injured four people and left five dead — including Tuft’s 15-year-old daughter, Kirsten, the youngest of her four children. Tuft herself was shot three times, in the arm and point blank in the lower back. The 54-year-old has so much buckshot in her body that she suffers from lead poisoning, and she wakes up each day nauseated and in pain. Her manner is both assured and halting — the result, she explains, of constant painkiller use.
Underwood, Tuft, and more than a dozen others on both sides of the gun debate — a hunter; two Baltimore cops; a criminal-court judge from New Orleans; a couple of high-schoolers who grew up in the ganglands of Chicago’s South Side — had agreed to meet face-to-face, tell each other their stories, and try to understand one another’s points of view, in an experiment in radical empathy organized by New York Magazine in partnership with a nonprofit group called Narrative 4. Each traveler carried a personal story about guns: Lauren Green, a divorced mother from Connecticut, was raped at gunpoint as a child; Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a former Florida state legislator and proponent of campus-carry laws, had fended off an assailant, a former boyfriend, with a gun. There was David Peters, a Marine from Texas who became disenchanted with the weapon he’d been trained to love; Genara Lattimore, who became a police officer in part because of the gun violence she saw on the Baltimore streets; Terri Ricks, whose life was changed after being shot in a bar brawl; and Shawn Duncan, Underwood’s cousin, who had recently purchased a 20-acre wooded parcel so he could hunt deer and pheasant on his own land.
Samaria Rice was en route, too, from Cleveland, to tell the story of how Tamir, her 12-year-old son, was shot and killed by police in a playground in 2014 for holding a toy that looked like a gun. Losing her son to a police officer’s bullet did not make her wholly anti-gun — she believes current gun laws should have protected him. In Ohio, she points out, it’s legal to carry a weapon in plain sight — never mind that Tamir was a child with a toy. “I think the NRA should have come out in support of my son,” she told me on the phone before the summit.
Americans may never have been so ideologically and politically divided, and guns sit at the symbolic center of that divide. According to a preelection survey by Pew, 79 percent of Hillary Clinton voters believed that enacting stronger gun laws should be a higher priority than protecting gun rights. Among Trump voters, only 9 percent agreed. Mass shootings, weirdly, seem to only deepen the rift, with liberals seeing the tragedies as proof of the need for further restrictions and conservatives seeing them as proof of the necessity of arming themselves. Statistics and argument make no dent in fixed opinions: Each side, incredulous, regards the other as sectarians who’ve somehow got their values mixed up.
The project of trying to force people from opposing sides to empathize with one another was quixotic, almost risible in its earnestness. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, recently published a book titled Against Empathy in which he argues that the current cultural impulse to regard empathy as a panacea for society’s problems is misguided. Bloom makes the case that empathic decisions, such as donating to the organization that makes you “feel” the most for its cause, can be both ill-conceived and inefficient. Empathy privileges the one over the many and personal experience over data. “It’s because of empathy that the whole world cares more about a baby stuck in a well than about global warming,” he told me.
And yet, it’s also true that many decades of social science have shown that empathy is a useful tool for chipping away at biases fostered in social and cultural bubbles: Kids who go to integrated schools are less racist, in general, than kids who don’t. Even a little compassionate contact with what social scientists call “out group” members — that is, people who aren’t like you — can have an enduring impact. Last year, a group of canvassers went door-to-door in South Florida talking about transgender rights. Instead of spouting facts, they made an empathy appeal, speaking for ten minutes about the personal experience of being trans and about the prejudices that trans people face. The strategy worked, lowering discriminatory attitudes against trans people not only in the moment but even, when researchers checked, three months later.
Narrative 4 was co-founded by the novelist Colum McCann on exactly these principles — even if the impulse is more literary than scientific — with a mission to build empathy through storytelling. At the heart of the Narrative 4 process is what the group calls “story exchange.” In pairs, participants share personal stories, taking turns, listening to one another. Then, in a second step, one partner takes on the other’s story as his own, telling it in front of the group in the first person. This last part is crucial. Narrative 4 insists that part of the process of transformative empathy is fully taking on another’s story — using the pronoun I, embodying, for a few moments, someone else. Narrative 4 has organized dozens of these exchanges, including one for Jewish and Arab teenagers and one for survivors of the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But this was the organization’s first foray into such volatile terrain as asking people to speak directly to their experiences with guns, a test of whether its empathy-building methods might work on such a deep emotional and philosophical divide.
I was skeptical, I confess. While empathy might be a useful palliative for some kinds of human bias or trauma, I wondered how well it would work on primal fear, which is at the root of people’s feelings about guns: When the worst occurs, do you believe a gun will save you or not? I had been initiated in the gun debate during my reporting on the Newtown massacre of 2012 and had seen firsthand how combustible it is. The people of Newtown, gutted by grief, are as divided as people anywhere on Earth. The murder of 26 people, including 20 first-graders, has not created a consensus on guns but the opposite. Pro- and anti-gun groups have been formed in the memory of dead children; in the aftermath of the shooting there, the Obama administration failed to get any new gun legislation passed. Francine Wheeler, who lost her 6-year-old son, Ben, that day, had come to New York for the Narrative 4 event. She has lobbied in Washington for more restrictive gun laws but knows how difficult this topic is in more intimate spaces, with friends who disagree. In Newtown, “if people don’t agree with me, we don’t talk about it, because I can’t change them,” she told me. “I can’t make them think differently. I don’t want to confront and make people uncomfortable, because I have to shop in the store with them, our kids go to the same schools.”
Jillian Weise is similarly accustomed to keeping her opinions about guns to herself. Born with a disability that requires her to use a prosthetic leg, Weise bought a pistol and learned to use it after being stalked. (Disabled women are four times more likely to be raped, abused, or sexually assaulted than other women.) She is also a poet with a Ph.D. who hangs out mostly in the blue circles of the left, where her stance is controversial. “I am a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. It feels socially dangerous to admit this,” she wrote in the literary magazine Tin House in 2015. “So I dare not speak up.”
Just off the plane, Todd Underwood had told me that he was open to the story-exchange experience but also that he saw gun-control advocates as “completely irrational,” and the rhetoric around restricting access to guns as “a lot of misinformation by people who are completely uneducated, making an emotional decision, and trying to justify it intellectually.” At dinner on the first night, he was holding forth, talking about why he supported Donald Trump, as his left-leaning seatmates seemed to wilt under his bluster. No one was feeling much empathy.
The next morning, Friday, the participants sat, edgy as cats, in a circle in a rented ballroom. Their stories suddenly seemed more precious to them, with the prospect of having to give them away to a stranger who likely would not see things the same way. Two by two, they were paired off: Todd, the gun-group founder, and Carolyn, the survivor of the mall shooting. Jillian, the NRA member who keeps a revolver for protection, with Francine, whose 6-year-old son was killed at Sandy Hook. Chantell English, one of the Baltimore police officers, was paired with Samaria Rice, whose son, of course, was killed by a cop. Upon hearing this, Chantell’s eyes widened, and she made a little fanning motion at her face with her hand. The officer, though, would have to wait. Samaria Rice had been delayed at the airport.
The nervous pairs spread out to find semiprivate nooks where they could talk.
Jeremy Waldron, 18, a senior in high school on Chicago’s South Side, where gun violence has made even going to school dangerous, sat down across from Shawn Duncan, 45, a businessman and father of three who works as a hunting guide in his spare time.
Jeremy: I have a single mom and a 12-year-old sister named Janice. We live in a bad neighborhood with three different gangs. Janice told my older sister that she was getting beat up by another girl at school, and my sister confronted the girl. Then the girl’s family showed up at my house, and they threatened to shoot everyone. No one was hurt. But the guns give people so much power — to get adults out here with guns just because someone gets pushed on the monkey bars … Have you seen the Purge movies? In the movies, the government wants to kill off the lower classes, like to help the government debt. That’s how guns are used in real life. They know we won’t use them for hunting or self-protection. They know we will kill each other off.
Shawn: I learned to hunt with my father and grandfather and a dog named Sam. As a kid, I didn’t shoot, just watched, but when I grew older, my dad gave me my great-grandfather’s shotgun. And when I had kids of my own, I wanted to give them what I had. I wanted to pass on the things that were important to me. My oldest child, a son, is 20. I made him take a hunting-safety course, and when I asked him what he’d learned, he said, “Load your brain before you load your gun.”
Nearby, Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who co-sponsored a bill in the Florida state legislature that would allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits to arm themselves on college campuses, was talking to Lauren Green, a rape victim who has campaigned against similar measures. Michelle spoke first, with the polished confidence of someone used to being in the public eye. Lauren was all raw nerves.
Michelle: When I went to college, my dad sent me with a handgun. I kept it under my bed. One night, I was breaking up with a boyfriend and trying to do it gently, but he got very angry. The word rape didn’t come into my head right away. There was a moment when I realized this was going to happen unless I did something. I got out the gun and said, “If you come at me, I’m going to shoot you.” He left. Now I don’t feel like a victim. I feel like I did the right thing.
Lauren: I was very young, 13, insecure, no self-esteem. We had a double field-hockey practice one day, and afterward I had to walk home. There was a car with boys scoping out the practice. As I was leaving, the boys asked me if I wanted a ride. I said, “No.” They said, “You’re getting in,” and one of them showed me a gun in his lap. I got in the car, and everything was surreal after that. They took me to a disgusting apartment. I’ll never forget the smell of it. Other people’s smell. Sweaty. I didn’t want to. I had never had sex before. I remember looking down on myself from the ceiling. Then they were arguing. The other guy wanted to have sex with me now. While they were arguing, I bolted out of there. I didn’t even have all of my clothing on. I ran through backyards. I didn’t tell anyone. Days later, I had a nervous breakdown. I was so mad at myself because I got in the car and I knew I wasn’t supposed to.
Samaria Rice arrived at last. Sick and exhausted from a long day of flight delays, she went immediately to the hotel to rest, but when she heard who her story partner would be, she became enraged. She railed against the very idea that anyone thought she would ever tell her story to a police officer, with her child shot dead by a cop and the shooter gone free. She had been disrespected enough. She would not play along with our game. As she spoke, I began to think that empathy has its limits, that the grieving mothers of slain children should not be expected to be able to consider the humanity of another person with a different experience.
In Rice’s absence, a substitution was arranged: Officer English, who carries a gun for her job and believes in the right to bear arms, would tell her story to Charles Miles, a Narrative 4 envoy from Chicago who has witnessed gun violence at the hands of both the police and gang members. Both of them have had the experience of ducking under a hail of bullets.
Charles: I have two cousins who were killed by gun violence. One was shot 18 times in his car with his girlfriend, a double homicide. And the other was shot by a police officer in the gangway of his own home. I have mixed reactions to the police, especially in the neighborhood where I grew up. I like the police, especially when you need them, but you had to be worried about which cop was going to come.
Chantell: I was assisting with executing an arrest warrant for a man that had multiple charges for homicide, robbery, theft, and assault. I saw the passenger door of the car swing open. After that, all I saw was a flash. I could hear the impact of the rounds hitting my car. I bunkered between my car door and my seat. I was just frozen. Eventually, the guy ran out of bullets and he took off running. But the driver was still in the car. I went to his side. He was reaching, searching. We were able to get him out of the car, but when they did a search of the car later, they found more guns. For many months after that incident, I felt as if I made the wrong decision, because I didn’t shoot. I didn’t shoot because I knew that behind him were homes. If I were to have shot and missed, to apologize to someone for making that mistake would have hurt me a lot more. But everyone said, “Hey, you’re a police officer, that’s your job.”
When Chantell finished her story, she looked Charles straight in the face: “I really appreciate you saying your cousin was shot by a police officer. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” She walked away, sobbing.
After telling their stories, all the participants were muted, wrecked. Todd Underwood had spent more than an hour with Carolyn Tuft, hearing real-life horror-movie details about a shotgun and a beloved face and lakes and lakes of blood. He was exhausted, he said, and having a hard time even being around people. He would continue to defend his right to bear arms, he told me, but “how could another human being see what she saw? I’ve cried enough today. I am physically and mentally done. I can’t wait to get back to my hotel room and take a couple Xanax. My give-a-fuck is gone.”
If participants had been anxious on the first morning, by Saturday they were out of their minds. They had sat with another person’s grief, rage, fear, and pain overnight, and they knew someone else had been sitting with theirs. The stories, living things, had been transplanted from one human to another, and their new owners were made visibly, physically uncomfortable by them. Now they would have to tell those stories in their own voices, in their own words. They were both eager for catharsis and fearful of the level of intimacy it would require.
An accord had been made with Samaria Rice. Having come all this way, she agreed that she would observe the story exchange without any obligation to participate. Hearing this, the two police officers became jumpy. Others in the group had lost children, but Rice’s loss was the most recent — and the most politicized. The officers had spent two days in plainclothes baring their souls. Could Rice’s mere presence force them back into being representatives of the uniform? Would their stories trigger a reaction in her that no one was prepared for? Rice sat down away from the group, near a window, with her coat on. The whole room felt like it might explode from the tension.
The participants sat in a circle, next to their partners, and prepared for the next phase: telling the other’s story as their own. Chantell and Charles volunteered to go first, perhaps wanting to get it over with. If Rice was rattled by hearing a police officer’s account of being shot at on the job or the story of another black man killed by cops, she didn’t show it. The room seemed to exhale.
Then Francine, the grieving mother from Newtown, and Jillian, the disabled NRA member, had their turn. Francine would be the first person to tell you that the death of her son shattered her completely. What it cost her to embody Jillian and defend her right to bear arms was lost on no one. As Jillian, Francine painted a picture of a beautiful poet whose book, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, attracted stalkers. Jillian had asked employers and police again and again for protection from the men who lurked around her car and her office, until finally she bought herself a Smith & Wesson. “I keep the gun in my night table because I’m terrified for my life,” said Francine as Jillian. “Sometimes I think women should have guns and not men. I don’t know if this stalker has a gun. But I have no one protecting me. So I don’t really have a choice.”
But it wasn’t until Jillian told Francine’s story that the full impact of undiluted empathy was felt. Jillian is small, just four-foot-six. And yet as Francine, she was commanding. No one could look away from her. She took us through Francine’s morning that day four years ago. Francine and her son had stopped at Starbucks, where Ben ordered “hot chocolate or chocolate milk, something with chocolate in it,” chattering away about how he wanted to be an architect or a paleontologist. When they got to school — a good school, part of the reason they had moved to Connecticut from the city — Ben was so eager to get inside that he left the car door open. As Francine, Jillian told of how Ben was shot four times, when just one bullet would have done it. And how, when Francine learned that her son was dead, she started baking brownies. “I wanted to be normal,” said Jillian as Francine, and then her cadence slowed. “I wanted us to be normal … I hate when people say ‘I can’t imagine.’ I want you to imagine it.” I looked behind me. Samaria Rice was wiping heavy tears off both cheeks with the palms of her hand.
In the silence that followed, and with almost supernatural composure, Carolyn, shot three times in the mall shooting, began in a quiet voice. “I’m Todd Underwood. I’m from Kansas City. I am the founder of United Gun Group, which is the company that sold the gun that shot Trayvon Martin.” Her steadiness faltered for a second. Then she went on to describe Todd’s abusive and authoritarian father, who kicked and beat him. Todd has muscular dystrophy. Though he is large, he is also unsteady on his feet, and the lesson Todd learned from his father was that the person with the power gets to execute his version of justice. When Todd was a teenager, he had a run-in with the police after smashing tomatoes in a field. “My father was so upset that he punched me in the face, with his fist, full force. And that was the last straw for me. I decided, I will not be bullied, ever again.”
Carolyn continued, still as Todd, telling how he was driving home from work one day and got into a road-rage tangle with another driver. “He wouldn’t leave me alone, tried to drive me off the side of the road. So I pulled over and he pulled up behind me, and I saw him coming toward the car, so I took my gun and I held it against the window, so when he walked up to me, he’d see that I had a gun. And when he got there he saw the gun and stopped, and he said, ‘I just wanted to say I’m sorry.’ ”
The room gave an audible gasp.
“I just want to keep my family safe. I want to protect them, as we all want to protect our families. My wife is about to give birth to our second child in January. I feel safer having it near me, and I feel safer when I’m away on business trips knowing that she has a gun in the home to protect herself and our kids.” Here, Carolyn gave a little shrug with her left shoulder and looked at Todd, who was staring into his lap like a child. “My name is Todd.”
Todd put his forearms on his knees. He gathered himself, looked at his notes, and began. “My name is Carolyn. I am an artist. I was self-employed. I had my own company. What I was most proud of in my life was — ” Here his composure dissolved. For almost a full minute, the room waited in silence as he endeavored to regain himself. Twice, Carolyn gave him little comforting pats. “What I was most proud of,” he resumed, “is that I was a mother. I love my kids. I had two boys and two girls. And it was a good mixture of me being a mother but also treating my kids as if they were my best friends. The home was just completely filled with love.” Todd described her youngest daughter, Kirsten: a social butterfly, a bright light.
And then. Two days before Valentine’s Day, Kirsten wanted to get cards for some friends, so she and her mother went to the mall in Salt Lake. “We hear a loud bang,” said Todd, as Carolyn, through tears. “We didn’t know what it was. And we were standing by the window of the store inside the mall and I heard another bang and I started looking out the window to see what it was. And then I saw a flash in front of me and I was covered with glass. All over. And I didn’t know what was going on. It just shocked me. My daughter Kirsten looked at me and said, ‘Mom, come over here.’ And then the glass started falling down from the window. And then I saw the shooter standing in front of me. He shot me in my arm. And then I noticed he shot my daughter in the back. And I was on the ground, and he shot me again, in the back. And then I watched him put the shotgun against my daughter’s head and end her life …”
The words coming out of Todd’s mouth were ones he would never have said as himself: “I want to see common-sense gun reform. I want to make laws to prevent people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them, to stop them from ever being able to own them. I complained to my daughter about her messy room at times. I would give anything to be able to have that messy room again.” Here Todd gave his face one more big squeeze. “My name is Carolyn.” In the room, everything was anguish. Carolyn gave him a tiny smile and another pat. When I looked over my shoulder, Samaria Rice was gone.
Nothing else that happened that weekend begins to compare to those 13 minutes, when Carolyn Tuft and Todd Underwood took possession of one another’s stories. Other storytellers were sensitive, respectful, perceptive, and earnest — but none started out so far apart, ideologically, so none was challenged, in quite the same way, to reach for the same level of empathic generosity. If Samaria Rice had made me wonder at the utility of empathy as an implement for change, Todd and Carolyn proved that radical empathy is at least possible. They were shape-shifters. They became each other. And in that moment, the videographers were crying. The organizers, who have seen versions of this a hundred times before, were crying. No one in the room that day will ever forget what they saw.
In that moment, the commonality of experience, the universality of human vulnerability, had been so obvious — and so breathtaking. Everyone in the room was separated not by a deep canyon but by a thin line. The dividing factor wasn’t really beliefs about gun control; it was about fear and how you respond to it. There were those who held to their gun ownership as an instrument of power and security in a world that too often seemed unsafe and uncertain, and there were those who knew too well that nothing on earth can guarantee safety and certainty for the people you love. They had lived through what the others so desperately feared. As David Peters, the former Marine, put it, “Am I safe or am I not safe?” That is, at some very basic level, always the question. No one quite knew where to go from there, but it seemed promising, this collective realization that all of their beliefs were coming from essentially the same human place.
But when the participants regathered after a break, it was as if a spell had been broken, as if this group, which had forged a fragile unity through vulnerability, couldn’t sustain so much heartbreak. Everyone was tired. They had tarried long enough in alternate realities.
Right away, Francine, who has advocated for gun reform since the Newtown shooting, and Michelle, the former legislator who had proposed a campus-carry law, got into a political disagreement. They reverted instantly to well-worn positions on gun policy, with Francine arguing for limits on automatic weapons and Michelle asserting that the problem was not with guns but with the people who used them. Todd jumped in on universal background checks, vociferously opposing them even as he insisted — pleaded — that his position was rooted in his love for his family.
Michelle had been the most resistant to the process all along. So psychologically fortified was she, so desperate to not feel like a “victim,” that she decided almost at the last minute not to tell Lauren’s story about being raped at the age of 13 in the first person. “If I were a perpetrator,” she said to me, “I would see telling her story as penance, but I’m not. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t hurt anyone. It’s hard to live as a woman in this world and not feel a lot of vulnerability. If I tell Lauren’s story, it will pierce my armor.” And so she distanced herself with the third person: Then she was raped. It was the first time she’d ever had sex before … Uninitiated, I would not have said the pronoun mattered. But it did. It signaled to the room that, in Michelle’s view, Lauren was too damaged to fully embrace.
Now, to everyone’s disbelief, Lauren and Michelle were having it out in public, each accusing the other of insensitivity. Their hostility was an animal thing. As the fight wore on, Francine wore an expression of pure devastation, until, quietly, she left. “This didn’t work,” she said.
Todd stood, trying to reconcile. “Let’s focus on grieving with one another and understanding everybody’s worldview.” But there was no stopping the argument. Not wanting to taint his experience, Todd left the room as well.
Finally, Lauren walked out too. Silence reverberated among those who remained: shock at the sudden flashes of anger, and grief at the prospect that maybe this had all been futile. Then Chantell English jumped up from her chair and began to speak: “We’re police officers. I was very, very resistant and apprehensive about participating.” Typically, she said, “we are seen and not heard.” She talked about how meaningful it had been for her to tell Charles’s story, the story of a man whose family member was shot by police, because it allowed her to exist, temporarily, outside the assumptions that people have about cops. “I wanted people to know that I do feel. We all feel,” she said. “I realize that you all do not hate us. And we do not hate each other. Regardless of what may or may not happen, this moment meant the world to me.” Everybody in the room clapped.
Did the experiment work? Without a doubt, radical, revelatory empathy did occur. But did it matter? The participants would soon return to their “normal” lives — Francine to her grief; Jillian to the revolver in her nightstand; Chantell to her blue uniform. Empathy did not seem to have fundamentally changed anyone’s mind.
This is essentially Paul Bloom’s complaint in Against Empathy — that empathy privileges the heart over the head, diminishes the judiciousness that comes with the human capacity for reason, and is therefore not all that useful in solving difficult social or political problems. In-group empathy — feeling for someone because they are like us—can even create deeper divisions between “us” and “them”: A famous experiment done by social psychologists at St. Andrews University in 2005 showed that fans of the Manchester United soccer team were much more likely to assist an injured stranger on the street if that stranger was wearing a Manchester jersey — and much less likely if he was wearing the jersey of Manchester’s archrival, Liverpool.
But identity is a fractious, multilayered thing, and it’s possible to use empathy to redraw the circles around “we.” We are Democrats and Republicans, black people and white people, women and men, parents and children. Our silos may look like fortresses, but they are, in fact, porous and intersecting. Empathy can help illuminate those nexuses. In a second phase of the Manchester United experiment, researchers primed subjects to think of themselves not as fans of a particular team but of soccer in general, asking them to fill out a questionnaire about their love of the game. Then, when confronted with an injured stranger wearing any team jersey, Manchester United fans were moved to help. They were soccer fans first. This is why empathy exercises work to reduce bullying — they force the bully and the bullied to see how they’re the same: both students, brothers, friends, sons.
For three days, the participants in the gun exchange became members of a nascent tribe. They were the people who had agreed to do this experiment. In addition to the identities they already held — pro-gun, anti-gun, victim, advocate, survivor — they were now also this. Before he flew home to Kansas City, Todd sent Carolyn a Facebook-friend request. This threw Carolyn off guard, not least because Todd has posted on his Facebook feed, among his family photos, a McDonald’s fries container brimming with bullets and an extensive collection of SIG Sauers. “I’m conflicted a bit about what to do,” said Carolyn. She is convinced that owning a gun would not have saved her daughter’s life: “When you’re thinking about valentines, you’re not thinking someone’s going to come up from behind and shoot you.” So understanding Todd’s point of view was difficult. “When I heard who he was, my brain just shut off for a minute. How could you sell a gun that murdered someone?” The pawnbroker who sold the shotgun to her daughter’s teenage killer had netted about $20.
At the same time, she knows she’ll accept the request. “I can’t just ignore it. That would be like slamming the door on this process. I wanted him to feel what it was like to be me. I wanted him to feel my heart. And he did.” Having gone through the story exchange together, “I just want him to be thoughtful. When he sells a gun, I want him to think, What could possibly happen with that gun?”
For his part, Todd Underwood says he hasn’t changed his Second Amendment views at all. He believes that the world is a dangerous place and imagines a domestic war in the near future. He needs his arsenal to protect his family — and he thinks, frankly, that if he had been in Carolyn’s shoes in the mall that day, the outcome might have been different. For one thing, he is trained to recognize the sound of gunfire. And for another, he would have been armed. “I’m not faulting her in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know for a fact that I would respond that way. But I assume I would.”
And yet, Todd can’t go back to exactly who he was before. Carolyn’s story is part of him now. He’s a gun enthusiast who knows how it feels to be a mass-shooting victim. “Being a father, listening to her story — it got me. I get it. I see her point.” And he’s bought into the story-exchange idea so much that he has invited Narrative 4 to Kansas City to do another kind of project: He wants Christians and Muslims to tell each other their stories at his church.
Though he still holds tightly to his right to bear arms, when we spoke on the phone the following week, Todd gave me some news: United Gun Group is about to change its policy. Visitors to the message boards can currently use pseudonyms to chat — at one time, there were 100 George Zimmermans on the site, he told me — but soon you will have to go through an identity check to prove that you are who you say you are on the site. It’s self-policing, Todd explains, a way to ensure that felons and bad guys don’t get guns, without the intrusive intervention of the government. It’s a tiny movement, where none had seemed possible before.
Watch the documentary Guns & Empathy
*This article appears in the December 26, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.