As of October 2018, there have been 47,225 gun-related incidents in the United States, with 11,984 of those incidents resulting in death. The issue our group attempted to resolve is improving gun safety laws and decreasing gun deaths in the United States. Our group’s compromise aimed to decrease the deadly usage of firearms without infringing upon the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The compromise legislation included: completely restricting semi-automatic firearm magazines to ten rounds (as opposed to magazines that can hold 30-100 rounds), expanding background checks to include mental health assessments, expanding background checks to include fingerprinting, criminal history, and previous affiliations with terrorist networks, instituting a waiting period before the person receives the firearm, not allowing individuals under 21 to purchase a firearm, creating mandatory gun ownership training that includes proper storing, maintenance, and self-defense skills, closing the “gun show loophole” by restricting secondary market purchases of firearms, and the creation of a national registry of gun owners.
From the start, the four members of our group had vastly different opinions on how strict our gun reform legislation should be. Thus, the most difficult aspect regarding our compromise was the idea of creating legislation that didn’t infringe upon the Second Amendment. For example, most group members, myself included, felt very strongly about completely restricting semi-automatic firearms, which are firearms that allow users to fire one round with each trigger pull. However, one group member felt that completely restricting semi-automatic firearms infringed upon the Second Amendment. Because of this, we quickly researched ways to limit the power of semi-automatic firearms through magazine size. We were all surprised to find that civilians could access magazines that hold between 30-100 rounds, so we were able to compromise at limiting semi-automatic magazines to 10 rounds. Through this, we were able to successfully place limits on the deadly power of semi-automatic firearms while not infringing Second Amendment rights. It was difficult to reach agreements when some group members felt strongly about protecting the Second Amendment, so we had to keep this in mind throughout the entire exercise.
The easiest aspect regarding our group was something I feared the most, which was debating respectfully. Going into the exercise, I worried that the polarized opinions of our group would create a toxic environment that would prevent us from reaching a compromise that pleased each member. However, the complete opposite was true for our group. I found that we were able to debate peacefully and hear the unique perspectives of each member, which allowed us to reach a peaceful and comprehensive compromise.
Initially, one barrier our group faced was moving our views to the extreme when speaking with like-minded members. This phenomenon described by Cass Sunstein was most evident over our idea to restrict semi-automatic firearms. Most group members agreed to restrict semi-automatic firearms, but after discussing the issue we threw around the idea of completely abolishing the Second Amendment. Our group had to overcome this by realizing that the other members of our group disagreed, which pushed our ideas away from the extreme. Another aspect of polarization literature evident in the exercise is viewing the opponent as an existential threat to each other’s way of life, which is a phenomenon discussed by McCoy et al. I’m not ashamed to admit that I tend to view people with Conservative political opinions as the enemy. As a young gay person, it’s extremely difficult not to feel resentment towards a group that seeks to oppress me and limit my rights. To reach a compromise on Gun Reform, I had to realize that a person who advocates against strict gun reform isn’t my enemy, but rather someone who holds views that deserve my respect. If we stop viewing people with opposite political opinions as the enemy, it will be much easier to reach peaceful compromises like the agreement our group reached
Unfortunately, I tend to believe that reaching a peaceful compromise in the United States Congress is nearly impossible due to the size of Congress. In our group there was only four of us, so we were able to hear the perspective and opinions of each member equally. We were able to talk through each issue and weigh different ideas before reaching an agreement. In Congress, there are 535 members (including both the House of Representatives and the Senate), so it’s nearly impossible for each member’s perspectives to be considered. Rather, the United States Congress is split along polarized party lines, making a legitimate compromise between Democrats and Republicans a pipedream. The U.S. Congress’ polarized mentality is too strong to hash out a compromise that pleases both sides. The characteristics of a winning compromise are when all members walk away with their ideas and perspectives accounted for, meaning no voices are excluded. A compromise includes the idea of every voice being considered and taken into account, but in Congress it boils down to which side “wins.”
In America’s current polarized political climate, it’s more necessary than ever to empathize with rather than demonize people who hold differing opinions. The Contentious Issue Exercise taught me that listening to the perspectives of others can make me empathize with them rather than cast them as enemies. I might not agree with the opinions or perspectives of people with different opinions, but I can understand why they hold their beliefs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, argue that America’s current democratic erosion is caused by a lack of mutual toleration. We no longer tolerate those with differing political opinions, which can lead to the acceptance of policies that erode America’s democracy. Learning to empathize and respect the perspectives of people with opposite opinions can lead to greater mutual toleration. The key to saving America’s democracy is halting political polarization through learning to compromise peacefully, and the Contentious Issue Exercise proved this is possible.
Photo by dietcheese via Pixabay. “Ban, Assault Weapons, Gun.” Creative Commons Zero license.