Just over one year ago, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and teachers dead. In the wake of this tragedy, students worked together and ignited a wave of gun control advocacy in the United States. As the gun control movement gained steam, pro-gun groups also noticed a significant increase in membership. The mounting dedication to both sides quickly morphed into a volatile debate.
We need to be respectful of one another and strive to find the common humanity in those who disagree with us.
Many believe the time for polite debate about firearms is over, and the data suggests this is a trend. Data from the Pew Research Center shows the partisan gap has more than doubled since 1994. Pew argues that the separation across the political divide extends outside the ballot box as even communities tend to be politically separated, often unintentionally. In fact, 77 percent of Americans report being dissatisfied with the state of American politics. This figure serves as both an alarming wakeup call and a sign of hope for future change.
Due to increased public pressure, Democratic politicians aimed to pass gun control legislation. On February 6, in the first hearing on gun violence in eight years, the House Judiciary Committee discussed HR 8-Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019. The bill would require a background check on every firearm purchase.
Partisan Politics Leads to Character Attacks
I had the honor of testifying at this committee hearing as one of only two pro-gun witnesses on the eight-person panel, where I shared my experience as a survivor of a sexual assault during my senior year of college. I learned about gun safety at an early age and have a healthy respect for firearms. I grew up with them and have been comfortable with them my whole life. However, since I spent the vast majority of my time on a “gun-free” campus, I did not have my firearm with me on the night I became part of the 23.1 percent of female undergraduates who are victims of sexual assault.
In the current state of hyper-partisanship in American politics, political disagreements turn into character attacks.
As expected, the hearing was heated, and tensions were running high. After a grueling six hours, the last congresswoman to speak, Representative Val Demings of Florida District 10, took five minutes to discuss her support of HR 8 and ask the witnesses questions. During her speech, Congresswoman Demings said it is time for those “without the guts or the courage to do something, to leave.”
It shocked me to hear a congresswoman, who I just poured my heart out in front of, state that I lacked “guts” and “courage” because my sexual assault led me to a conclusion she disagrees with. Her statement reflects the current state of hyper-partisanship in American politics, where political disagreements turn into character attacks.
The Importance of Recognizing Common Ground
While the hyper-partisan nature of the United States points to a grim future for respectful political disagreement, my chance encounter with a Parkland survivor serves as a constant reminder of why I choose to hold on to hope.
After the March for Our Lives episode of the Van Jones Show that aired March 24, 2018, Samantha Fuentes, a survivor of the Parkland massacre, approached me in the studio. Just weeks prior to our encounter, she survived the horror of being shot in both legs and having shrapnel lodged in her face. I could see healing scars on her face as she stood in front of me with grace and poise.
Instead of arguing the merits of gun control, like I expected, Samantha simply grabbed my hands, and we locked eyes. “I know you think we have nothing in common,” she said with a warm smile, “but we have matching tattoos!” She motioned to the semicolon tattooed on my wrist, and before I could say anything else, she bearhugged me, and I hugged her back.
The person on the other side of the aisle is just that: a person.
Our life experiences led us in opposite directions politically—I advocate for gun rights and she advocates for gun control. But in that moment, we were just two young women with one common experience: We both survived traumatic experiences that no human being deserves. We were thrust into positions we never imagined possible and were given platforms we never asked for or desired. Though we fight for opposite causes, we fight for the same reason: so no one else hurts like we do.
In a political climate that stresses we should be enemies, that we shouldn’t strive to find common ground, that we should hate each other, I’m thankful we shared that moment. It serves as my daily reminder that the person on the other side of the aisle is just that: a person. I’m genuinely proud of her for finding her voice in the midst of tragedy and using it to passionately fight for her beliefs; we should all be.
We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to bring back polite debate. We need to only attack ideas, not people. We need to be respectful of one another and strive to find the common humanity in those who disagree with us.
In the end, we’re all Americans, and it’s time we start acting like it.