Can Americans talk about guns? These students in Austin and Knoxville showed how to do it.

It's one thing to debate issues academically. Passions can boil even when questions of life and death are only hypothetical in the moment. But sometimes debates become real in real time, which happens far too often with gun violence in America.

And that's exactly what happened Monday for two brave groups of students in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas.

Braver Angels (for which I work and which is America’s largest grassroots, bipartisan organization focused on political depolarization) held two student debates Monday focused on gun control and the Second Amendment. The debates were conducted in alliance with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the bipartisan student group Bridge USA.

Braver Angels Debates, popular on college campuses across America, unfold according to a particular ethos. Designed by April Lawson of Braver Angels (formerly of the Aspen Institute and The New York Times), these are parliamentary debates meant to emphasize intellectual humility and the communal pursuit of truth.

Opinions in your inbox: Get exclusive access to our columnists and the best of our columns

Speakers are welcome to marshal their evidence. Facts and data are great. But they are also welcome to share their personal experiences with the issue at hand to give a human face to the things that divide us (and a basis for empathy). Those who take part in Braver Angels Debates are invited to be open about their certainties, but also their doubts.

Debate, well done, ought not be about victory after all, but about truth. What we have learned at Braver Angels is that the pursuit of truth is a collaborative exercise.

Debates took place in the shadow of Nashville shooting

On Monday, tragedy settled like a dark cloud over the students, staff and volunteers who had been preparing for the debates at St. Edward's University in Austin and at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Earlier that day, a heavily armed shooter stepped into a Christian elementary school in Nashville and opened fire. Six people, including three children, were killed in what is only the most recent shooting massacre to scar the conscience of the American people.

Mourners write messages on memorial crosses at an entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., on March 28, 2023.
Mourners write messages on memorial crosses at an entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., on March 28, 2023.

The motivation behind this vicious act remains unclear. What is clear, however, is the all-too familiar fallout where thoughtful discourse dissolves into social warfare.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, pundits and activists frothed on social media, trading invectives. People somehow believed that, at a moment of devastating loss, the proper reaction was to mock the ineffectiveness of “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting at a Christian school.

Others somehow thought it was OK in response to the shooting to condemn transgender people because the shooter reportedly was a transgender man.

One thing I have noticed in my years building space for thoughtful civic engagement is that when the temperature of our debates rises, thoughtful voices step away to keep from getting burned.

Thankfully, that is not what happened Monday night at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in Knoxville or at the Bridge Hilltop chapter of Bridge USA in Austin. Instead, conservative, progressive and moderate students came together to discuss a set of issues that threatens to tear America apart.

A shooting happened next to my classroom: How do you teach after violence like that?

Want fewer shootings?: Pass tougher gun laws. Our research shows lax laws fuel violence.

The debate in Austin was moderated by 24-year-old Chandler Skinner, a native of Texas, where the right to bear arms traditionally has been almost sacred. Skinner grew up in a military family that places a high value on responsible gun ownership.

The resolution before the audience was whether to ban assault weapons, and students on all sides of this debate reported that they learned a lot from each other. Progressive students, for instance, said they learned that the term "assault rifle" is too vague given the variety of firearms that could be covered by such a description. That's important knowledge in a policy discussion.

Students found common ground on gun regulation

Students who lean conservative said they hold a good deal of common ground with their left-leaning peers on policy ideas, including background checks and training requirements for gun ownership.

In important ways, the students were not as far apart as they may have believed.

Can anything still unite us?: Americans increasingly don't value God, country or children

Ashley Judd: Americans thought child labor was a travesty 'over there.' That myth has been shattered.

Meanwhile, a pall descended on the debate in Knoxville. The campus lies only 180 miles to the east of Nashville, and faculty met briefly to consider whether they should cancel the event in the aftermath of the shooting.

But it was never really a question. Braver Angels Debates are about confronting hard questions. Students would be told, as is usually the case at these events, that emotions could run high, and participants were encouraged to step out of the room to take a walk if they needed to compose themselves.

The organizers also told the students that they believed these young men and women could handle the conversation, which centered on the proposition that the Second Amendment does more harm than good.

Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don't have the app? Download it for free from your app store.

Students brought passion to speeches given in opposition and support of the resolution, and they questioned each other rigorously.

Debate chair Sadie Webb, a 23-year-old from rural New Mexico who grew up familiar with guns but wrestles with concerns surrounding gun violence, said she did not envy those who weathered intense cross-examination from their classmates on each side.

And yet they did so marvelously, debating the concept of rights themselves, including whether they are inalienable or actively given and whether they ethically can be taken away.

After a student said the Second Amendment is a “God-given right,” the philosophical collision went to another level, with students exploring the role of faith in each other’s thinking.

Some students surprised others with their positions, including a conservative student who deeply cherishes gun ownership but who thinks the Second Amendment does more harm than good because gun regulation should be an issue left to the states individually rather than prescribed to the country as a whole.

John Wood Jr., a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion, is a national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress and former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County.
John Wood Jr., a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion, is a national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress and former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County.

The experience was powerful and edifying. One student summed it up by saying they proved that “despite their differences, two people, and a group of people, can still have a reasonable conversation.”

But can America?

I believe we can. But only if we stop following the lead of those who would divide us and instead follow the examples of the brave young people on campuses in Austin, Knoxville and beyond who are showing us what it means to debate with compassion and dignity in an era of cynicism and disdain.

John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr 

More from John Wood Jr.

Love your enemies: What Martin Luther King Jr. can teach us about healing toxic polarization

I tried to talk about the hard issues America faces. Then the social media storm erupted.

America's culture wars are a losing fight for Democrats and Republicans alike

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Americans talk past each other on guns. How to have that conversation.