Civil Discourse Lives up to its Name

While not exactly the embodiment of “make love, not war,” the Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project event marked a significantly different stance than most of gun rights advocate Adam Bates and gun control lobbyist Chelsea Parsons’ colleagues employ.


Following their “duel” at a Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project event on April 27, gun rights advocate Adam Bates and gun control lobbyist Chelsea Parsons kitbbitzed on the train ride back to Washington, D.C.
While not exactly the embodiment of “make love, not war,” it marked a significantly different stance than most of their colleagues employ.
“It was fine,” said Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress. “We were both happy with the way the event went, the tone and tenor of it. There were certainly no hard feelings afterward.
“But it was pretty late by the time we were heading home, so we didn’t continue the conversation.”
“Chelsea and I are friends,” added Bates, policy analyst for the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. “We chatted on the way.
“I thought the event pretty much went as expected. She is a very reasonable advocate for gun control. She doesn’t make any argument out of left field. Unfortunately, Chelsea and I aren’t terribly powerful within the field, so I don’t know if it will spur any kind of movement.”
Not that Parsons, who started off the 90-minute or so discussion by citing a number of alarming statistics about the incidence of gun violence while conceding the Second Amendment did guarantee individuals the right to bear arms, was expecting a resolution.
“Adam and I respect at the outset we’re unlikely to change each others’ minds when it comes to our core beliefs,” said Parsons, who was pleased with the number of issues they did agree upon. “I’m not trying to change his mind about background checks, and he’s not going to change mine about defensive gun use.
“When you have a conversation not aimed at changing minds, but instead at finding places of agreement, that perspective lends itself toward a more civil conversation. When you agree from the outset to have a conversation on a topic like this in a toned-down way, the conversation can be productive.”
That’s precisely the intent of the Civil Discourse Project event held at Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, which drew a mostly older audience of 350 to 400 people. They posed a number of questions at the “combatants,” which were redirected by moderator Chris Satullo.
During the course of the evening, topics came up that may have been a revelation to many in the audience.
Among them were “straw gun buyers” — people who buy firearms on behalf of those who can’t pass background checks — the correlation between gun violence and mental health, the degree of crime related to drugs, and so-called “smart guns,” which require some kind of identification recognition in order to operate, thus preventing accidental shootings.
And there probably weren’t many in the building who knew this: According to the Bureau of  Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the average gap between the original purchase of a gun and the time it’s used in committing a crime is 11 years. And that gun is likely to change hands a number of times during that interval.
In the process of the discussions both sides made concessions. Bates was willing to acknowledge mental health isn’t that great a factor in gun violence, while Parsons said she’d consider Bates’ suggestion that banned anyone convicted of a nonviolent crime from ever owning a gun.
“He raised a fair point that we should look at some of the underlying causes of impersonal violence,” Parsons said. “I agree with that premise. Where we diverge is we also need to address the easy access of firearms.
“We call that lapse between when a gun is first sold at retail and when it’s used at a crime the ‘time to crime.’ But where Adam said there was nothing we can do to regulate black market guns, I think there are a number of ways we can strengthen our laws to reduce illegal arms trafficking.”
“There were a lot of points we were in agreement, but we tend to disagree on what the solution should be.”
But both welcomed the opportunity to express their views without being interrupted, which enabled them — if nothing else — to hear the other side.
“Gun rights get people animated,” Bates said. “What typically happens at events like this is not so much people yelling at each other, as taking the opposing argument as if it is in bad faith.
“They question the motive of the other side and then end up not actually listening. It becomes dueling press conferences instead of an actual discussion.
“This is better for all sides, and the audience [can] engage with other side and have an adult conversation.”
Project coordinator Dina Wolfman Baker was thrilled with the result.
“I actually think this was our best one,” said Wolfman Baker, whose previous civil discourse topics included Obamacare, fracking and political funding. “They were articulate but respectful. It was great to realize they had a lot of common ground.”
Moderator Satullo, the former WHYY vice president for news and civic engagement and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor and columnist, was equally impressed.
“They engaged more substantively than anyone else we’ve had,” said Satullo, a professional in residence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for Public Policy. “The last two years the world views of the people were so different you almost couldn’t get them to connect.
“These guys were very good, and we were able to touch on most of the major topics one way or another. They were very much in the spirit of the Bernard Wolfman event.”
So much so that Parsons reacted to a point raised by Bates with the perfect response.
“I disagree — civilly,” she said.
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