Hurrah for Bipartisan Gun Legislation

I applaud the imminent passage of bipartisan gun legislation that is long overdue.

This is not the first time that a small bipartisan group of legislators has been able to forge bipartisan legislation. Two other examples come to mind, one old and one relatively new.

In 2013, a small bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, four Democrats an four Republicans, collaborated to forge a comprehensive bill on immigration reform that was passed by the Senate. Alas, this legislation died when it came to the House of Representatives.

A more recent example that had a successful outcome in the Halls of Congress was the passing of a bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure that started with the forging of a bipartisan bill by a small bipartisan group of legislators.

What was the secret to the ability in these three cases to forge success at bipartisan legislation by a small bipartisan group of legislators? I respond by drawing on my experiences trying to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements about contentious public policy issues. As I elaborate in my recent book Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive and Respectful Conversations, I have had some modest success and some enormous failures in my Respectful Conversation Project over the past decade or so, on the basis of which I share the following lessons that I have learned.

The primary lesson I have learned is that the major obstacle to people on both sides of the aisle finding some common ground in the midst of their disagreements is not taking the considerable time and effort needed to “get to know” the person who disagrees with you This requires listening carefully to the other person to better understand his/her position and the “reasons” that he or she has for taking that position. It requires what I have called “strong listening,” which goes beyond being polite to being willing to actually examine one’s own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs of others.

The reason that this starting point is important is that each of us is finite and fallible. Each of us may have a partial glimpse of the “truth” about the issue at hand that is deeply informed by “who we are;” our biographies, our particularities, such as our gender, our race and ethnicity, our socio-economic statue, our sexual orientation; even our personalities. Because no two or us are the same, I may see things that you do not see and you may see things that I have missed. This opens up the possibility that by talking respectfully with each other, we can collectively gain a better approximation to the “full truth” about the matter at hand.

I have found that such an intimate, personal starting point that includes “strong listening” builds the mutual understanding and the mutual trust needed to find some common ground. But what is the best venue for such an intimate personal starting point? My experience suggests that it is extremely difficult to facilitate such strong listening in large group settings. But it is possible in small group settings. This, I believe, has been the reason why small bipartisan groups of legislators have been able to forge bipartisan legislation relative to immigration reform, hard infrastructure, and, most recently, gun issues.

I want to be clear about how what I have said above flows from my commitment to the Christian faith. I am calling for a small bipartisan approach to forging bipartisan legislation NOT ONLY because I have seen it work successfully in the three cases noted above and in my own efforts at moderating conversations about contentious issues. My call for such respectful engagement among those who disagree flows primarily from my commitment to the Christian value of “love,” whether or not I am successful.

In brief, the foundational assumption that has informed my Respectful Conversation Project this past decade or so is that to provide a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about that disagreement is a deep expression of love.

A looming question remains as to whether the procedures of the large legislative bodies, the House and Senate, are conducive to passing legislation that is formulated and approved by small bipartisan groups of legislators. I do not have the expertise to adequately answer this question. But here are a few reflections.

First, I am encouraged that both the hard infrastructure bill and the gun bill formulated and approved by small bipartisan groups of legislators were approved by both the House and Senate. That must reflect that there was enough content in both of these bills to satisfy those on both sides of the aisle (although everyone settled for “less-than-a-full-loaf,” which is inherent in bipartisan approaches for doing politics).

I wonder why the 2013 immigration bill passed by the Senate died in the House. I dare to believe that this bill would not have died in the House if the House, like the Senate, had started by forming a small bipartisan group of their membership tasked to bring to the floor of the House a bipartisan version of the bill passed by the Senate.

I close with my amateurish assessment of the filibuster. It appears to me that the original purpose of the filibuster in the Senate was to ensure that minority voices would be adequately heard, which I deem to be a noble purpose. But that original intent has surely been completely reversed in that the present use of the filibuster serves only to silence certain voices. At a minimum, the rules for the filibuster need to be revised to be a “listening filibuster” where all voices are heard.

Persons possessing more expertise than I have relative to House and Senate procedural rules need to undertake the arduous task of refining those rules, some of which are archaic, in a way that provides a safe and welcoming space for disagreements to be heard and discussed in a respectful manner. In the meantime, I leave you with “three cheers” for the passage of bipartisan gun legislation.

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