Orlando and guns: Stephen Colbert just showed Congress how to get along

Gun control is always a polarizing subject, and especially after an event like the Orlando shootings. But constructive conversation is possible. Stephen Colbert just showed how. 

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS/AP/File
Stephen Colbert (r.) talks with former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush during the premiere episode of "The Late Show," on Sept. 8, 2015, in New York.

Traveling years after 9/11, I noticed a distinction between how United States and Israel airport security worked. The US was focused on stopping the bomb, Israel was focused on stopping the bomber.

That distinction plays out again today in response to the shootings in Orlando, Fla. Some frame the problem around the weapon and call for more gun control. Others see the problem as the terrorist who pulled the trigger and call for more forceful action against the Islamic State and “Islamic jihadists.”

Those different ways to frame the issue were immediately made clear in Stephen Colbert’s Monday night discussion with Bill O’Reilly.

This was very, very different than what we generally find on the news and the Internet. For the most part, we find talking heads, partisans, and biased news outlets that continue their my-way-or-the-highway approach, belittling those on the other side and reinforcing divisions rather than solving problems.

But there are some exceptions and common ground – like this discussion with Messrs. Colbert and O’Reilly. Perhaps from here, we can see a path forward.

Monday night, Colbert started his evening comedy show on a serious note. Shocked and dismayed by the events in Orlando and the lack of progress we have shown as a nation to confront this kind of a problem, he asked us to not repeat the same script of the past but to act. And then he walked the talk by doing something unusual in today’s world.

He held a respectful, honest dialogue with someone from the other side.

Kudos to Colbert. And to O’Reilly, the conservative host of “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Colbert, a progressive himself, often invites and encourages respectful discussion with the other side. His first “Late Show” featured Jeb Bush, and he then invited and held respectful conversations with every credible Republican candidate for president as well as the Democrats.

In theory, progressives share a core value of listening and accepting people with different backgrounds and beliefs. But generally the opposite is true, as Nicholas Kristof confesses, when progressives deal with people from the right or of faith. Colbert, when having a more serious conversation, is the counter-case, providing a great example to true progressives.

Although a comedian who is fighting for ratings, he restrains his audience when they disrespect any guest. He did that for O’Reilly this week, and earlier for Ted Cruz and other guests when they said some unpopular things.

While other entertainers and news anchors (who are also increasingly in the entertainment business) would have taken advantage of the unrest, Colbert elevated the discussion.

Isn’t this the kind of responsible behavior we should expect?

Back to guns, an issue with very different opinions.

During the first segment, we learned that O’Reilly thinks the main concern highlighted in Orlando is effectively confronting the Islamic jihad. He emphasized that they do not represent most Muslims, but they are dangerous and we need to take them out. He offered several steps we as a nation can take, and even got some support and applause for a few of his proposals from this mostly left-leaning audience.

Colbert sees the best way to frame the issue is around “easy access to high capacity, rapid firing weaponry,” and pointed out, as President Obama did, that it “doesn’t have to be either or” but that both can be true.

Though there definitely are differences, there was some common ground.

O’Reilly pointed out that Australia reduced gun murders by 72 percent over 20 years, and that we can learn something from them.

Interestingly, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for Bill Clinton and a liberal, also referenced Australia’s success the very next night during a talk at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. He then concluded with his support for strong gun control, and frankly his desire to get rid of all guns.

O’Reilly reached a different conclusion and went into more data. Gun murders in the US have actually gone down – 30 percent over roughly the same time frame as Australia. US shootings went down 60 percent. Looking at what has historically worked while still respecting the Second Amendment, O’Reilly concluded we need mandatory sentencing for crimes committed with guns.

And – here is the common ground for these two – let Congress define which guns are legal and which ones aren’t. Bazookas are illegal today, some kinds of semi-automatic weapons should be considered, too.

But don’t forget, from O’Reilly’s perspective, the first thing must come first, and that is to stop the person who pulls the trigger. O’Reilly explains that the Federal Bureau of Investigation could not arrest the Orlando shooter before the killings took place because he had not yet committed a crime. If there was a declared war against the Islamic jihad, they could have prevented this from happening.

Wow – a genuinely respectful conversation where people from different political beliefs honestly listen to each other, possibly altering their opinions a bit and finding common ground to solve the problem.

That is the kind of public discourse this nation can have and needs more often.

John Gable writes his AllSides column exclusively for Politics Voices.

He is founder and CEO of AllSides, a media technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss multiple perspectives. The crowd-driven technologies at AllSides.com provide bias ratings, news, issues, search and civil dialogs that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people.

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