By: Lenny Mirra – June, 2018
The mission was simple, get both sides to sit down with each other and discuss new ways to end gun violence that all sides could agree on. This was my initial feeling when the gun control group Moms Demand Action demanded to speak with me about this very issue, especially timely coming on the heels of the Parkland Florida shooting. The one hour meeting scheduled at Panera Bread quickly turned into two and a half hours of very productive talk.
Full disclosure, I’m a gun owner and strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, but I’m not a member of the NRA and I do not take donations from them. In fact I don’t take any donations from any special interest groups as part of a promise I made when I first ran for office in 2012, believing, as most people do, that there is too much money in politics. In short, I’m not beholden to any person or group.
It didn’t take long to discover that there is actually some common ground with this group and most gun owners. As one MDA member said, “I don’t want to take away guns from law abiding citizens, my friends and family members own guns, but there are some people that just shouldn’t have them.” I asked if they’d be willing to sit down with gun owners to further discuss the issue and this rather feisty group didn’t even blink. “Bring it on! We’ll talk about it any time.”
A couple weeks later I was allowed to address the crowd at the March meeting for Georgetown Fish and Game where I’m a member. I made the outrageous suggestion that we as gun owners should be coming up with our own policies to address gun violence. “Do we as gun owners really want someone like Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, to own guns?” Not a single person, gun owner or not, wanted that. So rather than wait for gun control groups to come up with laws to address this I suggested we come up with our own solutions. To that end I asked the fifty or so members in attendance if they’d be willing to sit down with MDA to discuss it; several signed up on the spot.
At around the same time I had the pleasure of attending an event with Conversation Cafe of Greater Newburyport, a group that does an excellent job of getting people to discuss various topics in a fun and respectful manner. The format involves a few words of introduction and a media presentation by Celeste Headlee, author of the book “We Need to Talk.” The process was geared towards making us all better listeners, which I found would be helpful and productive in any meeting on a controversial subject. There were a lot of differences of opinions in that room, but the format made for very polite conversation and an agreement to disagree on certain subjects. At the end we all parted friends.
There was a similar result on a recent segment of 60 Minutes where Oprah put together a group of 14 people, seven of whom voted for Donald Trump and seven who did not. It made for very entertaining TV to watch this group disagree on just about everything the president has done in his first year in office. What made it most compelling was how this group became fairly close friends where they meet on a regular basis and chat with each other every day in a private Facebook chat group. Hmmmmm.
In the background of all of this was a daily barrage of stories about high school students walking out of classes and marching in protest of gun violence. There was a lot of disagreement on the efficacy of such marches, on whether they were effective or useful in stopping mass shootings or even producing productive dialogue on the subject. I typically enjoy a good debate but this one often took a bad turn, pitting groups against each other and causing them to be more entrenched rather than more open to solutions. You could see this play out in the anonymous postings that often follow news stories where posters from around the country or world can spout off anonymously, typically leading to name calling and personal attacks. But I found it even more disheartening when a local Facebook page had a bit of this among locals who were using their real names, actual neighbors pitted against neighbors. Among the arguments for and against student walkouts one poster wryly suggested that rather than walking out of class these students should be meeting with their elected officials to discuss ways they think can reduce gun violence.\
Pentucket High School ended up having an assembly instead of a walkout where students spoke about gun violence and several of them decided to form a group that meets once a week to focus on ideas about it. I learned this because four of those students attended the roundtable discussion I finally got around to arranging at Flatbread in Georgetown where MDA members broke bread with gun owners for our first roundtable discussion. There were a lot of strong feelings in that room but good pizza has a way of keeping people in a good mood. I did my best to steer the language toward actual solutions to gun violence rather than opinions on guns. The mission had also changed a bit. In addition to getting both sides to meet and talk to each other I wanted the young students to see what it looks like when adults act like adults and work together towards a common goal like reducing gun violence.
The gun owners discussed the ineffectiveness of more limitations on their rights, like limiting how many guns they can own, or how many rounds allowed in a magazine. But they did open up about things like better mental health screening and treatment, and maybe better security at school buildings. We brought up the subject of school bullying, not only because it may play a part in school shootings but because it causes lasting harm. As the conversations continued it became apparent that a working group meeting on a regular basis would not only produce excellent solutions to gun violence, but would be helpful in breaking down the walls between those who disagree on the issue and creating much needed dialogue. The students attending would not only see an effective way of solving problems, they would also be part of the solution.
Toward the end Ray, a gun owner and NRA certified gun safety instructor, spoke directly to Rebecca, an MDA member, and even invited her to take some gun safety classes with him. “I don’t agree with your opinion on guns Rebecca, but I respect it. And when I see you in public I’m going to say hi, because you’re my friend and I respect you.”