Asking tough questions of ourselves after Orlando

If America is going to be safer tomorrow than it is today, ego-driven partisanship must give way to a problem-solving patriotism from both the left and the right. 

Mary Altaffer/AP
A photo of a victim of the Orlando nightclub shooting is placed at a makeshift memorial at Christopher Park, across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, Tuesday in New York.

I don’t know what makes me angrier: the man or the gun.

Why does the choice matter? Because lives may depend on where we focus our attention.

Following the massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub on Sunday, we are witnessing once again the same national schizophrenia that has followed every mass shooting from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Half the country wants to talk about the gunman and why he did it. The other half wants to talk about the AR-15 assault rifle he used. 

Like abortion and other hot-button issues, we seem incapable of seeing the whole issue, viewing it instead through our own narrow, often partisan, lenses.  

As I travel across the country to speak about how we can bridge the partisan divide, I have observed that the impulse to increase security is often overshadowed by the even stronger desire to be right. Many of us actually seem more committed to our point of view about terrorism, gun violence, and other related issues than we are to actually solving the problems.

I first studied this paradox following the mass shooting of kindergartners in Newtown. When grief for the 20 murdered children was still fresh, I thought we would experience a breakthrough in the stalemated gun debate. If killing 20 innocent children and six school staff members didn’t break through our ideological “twin spin” machines, I figured, nothing would.

Instead, the same old “pro” and “anti” voices were soon pitted against each other. On one side, there were those who felt that the massacre of innocent 6-year-olds proved once and for all the need for stricter gun control. On the other side, there were those who considered it proof positive that we needed more guns throughout our society, including elementary schools.

Not long ago, I remembered the faces of these children when I was a guest on a radio show, discussing how to cross the partisan divide. Two residents from the New York City area had called into the program: Carol, an ardent gun control advocate, and Stu, an equally passionate gun rights activist.

“So, Mark," the host Brian Lehrer said, “show us what you do.”

Knowing I had limited time, I momentarily froze. After all, how does one mediate a conversation on gun control in less than 20 minutes? Carol and Stu sounded like they had just emerged from central casting as polar opposites. Carol wanted all guns to disappear somehow from America, and spoke wistfully of how safe Scandinavian countries were with their record-low gun deaths. By contrast, Stu was convinced the government was trying to take people’s guns away, and was utterly convinced that more guns equaled more safety.

Listening to them, I knew that what they shared was fear. Like a growing number of Americans, fear has saturated the social fabric. Twenty years ago, most gun owners said they had firearms because they hunted. But today, according to Pew Research, the vast majority profess self-protection as the main reason they want guns in their possession.

“Stu and Carol, let me ask you both to imagine something,” I said, finally finding my voice. “Please imagine that you lived in the same neighborhood. Your children go to the same elementary school. Just like the parents in Newtown in 2012, you are preparing to send your kids to school tomorrow.”

I paused for a moment to let the scene take hold before continuing.

“So here’s my question to both of you: Are you willing to work together to make your kids' school safer? Do you care enough about them to put them first, and your opinions second?”

Before they could reply, I briefly explained that, if they each held on to their existing partisan positions, their children would be just as endangered as they were before Sandy Hook. If Carol had her way, mentally ill mass murderers could still get a gun illegally and attack defenseless elementary schools anywhere in America. On the other hand, if America followed Stu’s lead, every principal, teacher, and school bus driver in America would have a gun on his or her hip, and accidental shootings would skyrocket.

“Are you willing to sit down and take some steps,” I asked them, “to make your kids' school safer tomorrow than it is today?”   

But neither of them budged. They did not have the courage to imagine taking responsibility for an actual school. Instead, they blithely restated their formulaic conservative and liberal “solutions.”

By contrast, the state of Connecticut, which does have actual responsibility for making schools safer, formed a Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety to develop practical proposals. They began working through the tough choices that communities must make. Unlike Stu and Carol, who were responsible only to themselves, the Task Force is responsible for schools throughout the state. So they have begun the real work of citizenship — not arrogantly confirming what they already believe, but humbly going far beyond the blue-and-red half-truths to seek deeper, sustainable solutions.

As conservative Forbes columnist Ralph Benko points out, the first four words of the Second Amendment refers to a “well-regulated militia.” It is members of that citizens’ militia who have the right to bear arms, not any disturbed young man with a credit card who knows how to order online. So why not require gun owners to be part of a National Guard unit? Mr. Benko asks. Or why not require a license, registration and passing a test similar to what is required of all drivers? And, finally, does an amendment that referred to muskets (which fire two to three rounds per minute) confer the right to bear an AR-15 assault rifle (which fires 700 rounds per minute)?

If any place in America is going to be safer tomorrow than it is today, we will have to begin considering unorthodox, transpartisan ideas. We will need to reject ego-driven partisanship and instead embrace a problem-solving patriotism that seeks synergy between the best ideas of the left and the right. Otherwise, we will be stuck right where we are.

So if we really want a safer America, let’s make our country safe for collaboration. As Jim Turner puts it in his book "Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life," “Walking is not a compromise between the left leg and the right leg. It is what makes forward motion possible.” 

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide."

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