I grew around guns, revolvers, pistols, and rifles. Twice in my life, I came very close either to being a victim of gun violence or to committing it. Both involved members of my family. Both could have destroyed my life. As a result, I chose not not own any guns. I am also a vocal advocate for legitimate gun control. People who own guns should have licenses, accident insurance, and mandatory gun safety classes before they own a gun. We do it for driving a car; we should do it for guns. We should also have strict backgrounds checks to make sure guns are not falling into the wrong hands.
My views put me at odds with my family. They mostly support the right to own guns in its broadest sense. Past efforts at having a discussion have been pointless. Both sides are very entrenched in our views. I do not want to be anywhere near a gun. I also do not trust gun owners to keep their cool in heated situations. They think I am imposing my way of life on them and taking away their constitutional right.
The conflict over gun control is only reflective of the American political landscape and the social crisis in which the country finds itself. Neither side wishes to concede any ground in a high-stakes-winner-take-all competition in which political ideology is more important than problem-solving. The funding needed for a political party to win an election, coupled with extremely vocal activists on both sides make finding common ground difficult.
The American political system is set up so that compromise is only possible in very narrow circumstances and the process of deal-making is time-consuming and political suicide. As it is a two-party system that does not reflect the plurality of ideas, there are no coalition partners to offer alternatives. Imagine a Congress in which there were four or five parties, which needed to negotiate a winning political coalition to govern the country. It would be a much more dynamic and lively political process.
Political deals in earlier decades were possible because there was a common external threat, the pace of social change was much slower, and there was a higher degree of trust and relationship-building across parties. These factors created a good mix of competition and cooperation that kept the country moving forward. With the end of the Cold War and the advent of digitalization, political compromise has become a lot more difficult. As the US struggles with the new world order, values are shifting, money is tighter than ever, and digitalization has engendered the expectation that everyone can and should play a role in politics.
It is now easier to mobilize and be heard, fundraise, and even march on the capital than it was when we were children. We live in a permanent state of crisis and react instantly to events. The far-left and the far-right gain from this crisis because it is unpopular to be in the middle. Dialogue is seen as a sign of weakness, and people can take matters into their own hands just by being the loudest and most threatening.
While Donald Trump is a visible manifestation of what ails the American people, he is not to blame. He is a product of our reality. The American political system is broken. It is outdated, unreflective of our needs, and unable to respond to new and changing social cleavages. The Senate operates with so-call archaic rules, nine people in a country of 323 million people decide what is constitutional, and the House of Representatives is more fight club than a problem-solving legislative body. Whoever has more money is more important than the person with the best ideas.
If we are looking to blame someone, we have to start with ourselves. It is only we who can change the system and the political climate in our society by starting in our immediate group of family and friends. We vote and elect our leaders, and we lead our communities. We feed the political cyclone by posting every development and news as they come out. We want to be heard, but for all our yelling on facebook and the like, our leaders are not listening.
My motto in the last few years is “thinking globally acting locally”. Washington is the seat of the federal government, but the less the federal government does, the better it is for the country because we are 50 different communities with different needs and interests. Local communities need to be empowered to find the local solutions to their problems. It might mean that some states are more progressive and others more conservative. That is OK. People need to tell their own party leaders to listen more to and to find ways to consult local communities more about what they want.
Gun violence is not going to be reduced by political bickering and ideology. There seems to be a consensus that something has to be done to prevent gun violence in the future. We need deeper national dialogue on the issue based on respect and dignity of the other. We can start by doing the following:
- Create a culture of dialogue. Suspend judgment about the issue and engage in the search for solutions through dialogue. Reach out to someone on the other side and have a chat about their fears, concerns, and thoughts. Think about finding common ground and resist the need to advocate. Ask more questions, fewer statements.
- Support dialogue on the issue by finding local solutions to the issues that reflect the local culture. It is important to reframe the discussion away from gun control towards reducing and preventing gun violence. Support more state-led processes. Gun violence means something different for residents of Miami, New Berlin, Minnesota, or Sacramento. In some communities, there might be high majorities for a more relaxed approach while in others, there may be a need for stricter measures. Some communities may be Ok with schools having some form of protection while others may not. That is also OK.
- Create a safe space for people to engage by focusing less on people and more on the issue. We need to depersonalize the problem, and we need to allow politicians to engage in meaningful dialogue. Specifically, town hall meetings need to be facilitated by impartial facilitators who will enable everyone to speak and who ensure a safe space for local people to come and be more informed about issues. As they are now I would not attend one and I would not advise anyone to hold one. Everyone should be welcome to dialogue and not feel threatened.
- Lastly, we need to empathize and find understanding for each other. Understanding is not agreeing. It is the first step in finding creative and sustainable ways forward. We do not have to like what other’s do, to understand why they are doing it. Whether it is kneeling during the anthem, marching in parades, or defending their right to bear arms, behind all of these situations are people who are just as afraid of the future as we are. Everyone one of us wants a better life and a brighter future for our kids. It would help to focus on the commonalities we have and to build on those.
Ralf Waldo Emerson once said, “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” It is time our political leaders did more listening and understanding of all views, and people who want to participate in the process begin not in Washington but in their own communities. We can all agree that all lives are valuable and a loss to gun violence is simply an unacceptable loss. Let’s make our communities safer for all, while at the same time respecting and valuing the rights of our neighbors to own guns if they so choose.