We’re two former Tennessee governors, we both served eight years, one of us is a Democrat, the other a Republican. We have different views on various issues, and we’re friends.
For the past year, we’ve done a podcast together. The animating principle of our conversations with guests grew out of the words of former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker: “Always remember that the other fellow might be right.”
Our mission in this unusual collaboration is to show that Senator Baker’s memorable insight can become a powerful tool to solve tough problems by creating respect for the other person and for different ways of looking at the world.
‘Hopeless disagreement’ has become reductive
As we all struggle with the aftermath of this tragedy, the openness and respect in political dialogue the two of us have been trying to promote has been, for this issue, quickly submerged in a swamp of intransigence and impasse. A tragedy that has brought out the better angels of our nature has also brought out some of the worst.
The murderer was heavily armed with multiple assault rifles and that has naturally been a focus of discussion.
Democrats take it as an article of faith that an assault weapon ban is the only sane response. Republicans believe deeply in the importance of preserving the right of people to possess firearms. It becomes quickly clear that there is hopeless disagreement on strategies surrounding assault rifles. And so we’re reduced to offering “our thoughts and prayers,” but nothing else, to victims and their families.
Can Americans talk about guns?:These students showed how to do it.
Nashville shooting leaves 3 more kids dead:Don’t you tell me it’s too soon to talk guns.
Small steps go a long way
We’ve both come to deeply respect the wisdom and common sense that Senator Baker embodied. One thing he often told people was that whenever you have two sides that are hopelessly divided, the trick is to find something, even a little thing, that you can agree on, and then build from there.
Perhaps we could begin by simply agreeing that we do have a problem. There is no other developed nation in the world that has anywhere near the mass shootings we do. The assault rifle issues are at an impossible impasse, but if we disengage there for now and turn our attention instead to smaller steps, doable and still useful, there are possibilities.
We could start with “red flag” laws — a way to identify people with potentially dangerous mental health issues and a legal process to remove their access to firearms. That might have been effective in the shooting we just had; the shooter was under treatment for mental health issues and yet still obtained and possessed multiple guns.
Another small step might be making gun owners take more legal responsibility for securing their weapons. Anyone, conservative or liberal, who believes in the value of personal responsibility should be able to agree that it is irresponsible to possess a dangerous weapon and not reasonably secure it from misuse by others.
Want fewer shootings?:Pass tougher gun laws. Our research shows lax laws fuel violence.
Gun violence is a problem:How many more students and teachers must die before lawmakers act?
Let’s talk less and work together more
Steps like these seem possible, but still require careful negotiation between competing worldviews. One thing Senator Baker often emphasized was that the most important thing in any negotiation was to strip the emotion away and deal with facts.
That argues for a factual, dispassionate look at, say, the last 10 years of mass shootings. What weapons were used, how were they obtained? Armed with that, one can look for the lowest-hanging fruit: of the many things we might do, what has the best combination of ease of getting done and effectiveness?
What has the second? The third? We’re too smart a people to let posturing and rhetoric substitute for facts.
‘They’re begging us to do something’:Nashville lawmaker calls for gun reform as hundreds protest after Covenant shooting
‘We’re not going to fix it’:Why lawmakers see no chance of major gun law changes after Nashville
It’s obvious that Democrats and Republicans need better ways of working together. Both of us have always found that the best way to get people to work together isn’t to talk about working together, but to do it. Start with some easier problems and solve them together. Then, when we’ve done that successfully, we’ll be ready to graduate to harder ones.
Our first hope is of course that out of this tragedy will come ways to better protect our children and schools. But we have a second hope as well — that if we handle it wisely and show some successes, our response could become an inflection point where America starts to relearn how to talk with one another and solve problems.
Gov. Bill Haslam was the 49th Governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Knoxville. Gov. Phil Bredesen was the 48th Governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Nashville.