Saturday’s first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, CT was punctuated earlier this week by a New York Times report about state gun law changes enacted in that massacre’s wake.

Nearly two-thirds of the new laws weren’t intended to take guns out of the hands of potential mass murderers. On the contrary: They aim to expand the rights of gun owners.

Also notable has been the surge in sales of assault weapons similar to that used by Adam Lanza to kill 20 children, six teachers, his mother and himself. They’re up 36 percent in the past year, weapons maker Freedom Group reported Monday.

Those statistics suggest that many Americans responded to Newtown with fear, not empathy. That’s the analysis of the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and a past president of the National Council of Churches. Empathy, she says, is an essential building block of American democracy, and on divisive issues such as gun control, it’s in dangerously low supply.  

That concern is behind the Minnesota Council of Churches’ decision this year to adapt its Respectful Conversations program to the gun control issue. Created in 2012 to help Minnesotans understand each other’s views about the contentious same-sex marriage issue, Respectful Conversations employ parish settings, trained facilitators and tested ground rules in meetings intended “not to change minds, but to soften hearts,” said MCC program manager Jerad Morey.

Nine congregations have hosted conversations about guns to date. MCC’s goal is to conduct 25 of them by spring. In subsequent evaluations, a strong majority of participants report gaining better understanding of views different from their own, Morey said.

That’s not the same as finding consensus or charting new state or national policy. But on matters of deep national division, it may be an essential first step. Chemberlin says the conversations tend to reveal the deep values that are behind diverse opinions, and often shpw that the deepest values of each side are shared with the other.

“People living into their fear is not going to help us. It’s not going to heal us,” Chemberlin said. “We need something other than fear to rally around.” Something other than grief, too, I’d add – though that sentiment will be inescapable as this weekend’s sad anniversary is observed.