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My view: hippies, 2 hell's angels, one overcaffeinated babe, a bar and a gunfight

By Ralph Benko. Reprinted from Deseret News.


OK, OK, it wasn't exactly two Hell's Angels.

It was Jacob Hess from Utah, an actual living (Latter-day) Saint with a Ph.D. in community psychology as featured on NPR's "This American Life." Notwithstanding the exposure to NPR, the dude’s solidly conservative.

It was me (Ralph Benko), based in and around Washington, D.C., a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away as a Reagan White House junior official and now a card-carrying, low serial-number, leader of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Nobody to the right of me.

OK. It wasn't exactly two hippies.

It was Joan Blades, born and bred in the hippie capital of the world — Berkeley, California — co-founder of MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org.

It was Mary Gaylord, from Hippietown USA — Louisville, Colorado — professional dispute resolver and nationally renown kumbayologist. Call her the “Louisville Slugger."

The overcaffeinated babe? Debilyn Molineux, national head of the Coffee Party USA. (She's an ideologically eclectic quasi-libertarian based in Oregon, president of the national Coffee Party.)

This is the tiny team behind LivingRoomConversations.org, which has a vision of "a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and backgrounds work together with respect — and even joy — to realize the vibrant future we all desire." We decided to stage a living room conversation of our own.

OK, it wasn't in a bar. It wasn't even in a living room. Since we're so geographically dispersed, it was a teleconference.

And, OK, it wasn't an actual gunfight. It was a fight — actually a civil conversation — about guns.

With those minor caveats … two hippies, two Hell's Angels, and an overcaffeinated babe walk into a bar. … A gunfight breaks out. We followed the living room conversation ground rules. Be curious and open to learning; show respect and suspend judgment; look for common ground; be authentic and welcome that from others; be purposeful and to the point; and own and guide the conversation.

Jacob expressed how if someone, anyone, at Columbine High School or Sandy Hook Elementary, or any of the other scenes of horrendous spree shootings had been armed, many lives could have been saved. This is a view widely shared in his conservative community.

Jacob asked, "Would you feel more or less safe sitting in a movie theatre next to John Wayne (armed and trustworthy to us conservatives)?" "Less safe," Joan answered, unsure whether John Wayne wouldn't shoot up the place himself. (“But Joan, he's a good guy!”)

Joan was eloquent about how she felt that the presence of guns changes the social dynamic and makes her feel disadvantaged and, although she did not use the word, perhaps intimidated, by the innuendo of the possibility of gun violence.

Debilyn shared observations about how the narratives accompanying these shootings were inflected by the ethnicity of the shooters, prejudicing people of color.

Mary, for whom guns-and-brothers had been part of her family culture growing up, expressed a becoming agnosticism on the matter of guns.

Me? I'm a sure enough staunch champion of the Second Amendment.

Yet we all were united by a horror of gun violence. So … what if higher respect for gun rights could be conjoined with a higher requirement for gun responsibility, making us all safer? Although we often speak of the second clause of the Second Amendment ("the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"), there is less said about the first ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State").

What if we honored both parts of the Second Amendment by pairing gun ownership with participation in a well-regulated militia — presumably an auxiliary to the National Guard. If citizens who owned guns were vetted, trained, and guns were secured, we agreed that this dramatically could reduce gun violence and our fear. (Switzerland has something comparable, and its rate of gun violence is only about one-seventh that of America’s.)

Several years ago, a living room conversation between Joan and Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler tipped over the first domino to let the left and the right come together on criminal justice reform.

Conversation is a powerful thing. Your very own living room conversation might well be the one that topples the dominoes of intransigence. Your own living room conversation could translate into the national conversation.

Your voice could generate opportunities for which all of us — hippies, Hell’s Angels and overcaffeinated babes — and you — yearn.

Imagine "a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and backgrounds work together with respect — and even joy — to realize the vibrant future we all desire."

Like the possbility? OK. Help yourself to a living room conversation. No charge. Rules are at http://LivingRoomConversations.org.