Guns, Second Amendment Rights, and Community Safety in Montana
Typically a quiet, sparse place, Montana hit the news waves in May, 2014, when a German exchange student was shot after he trespassed in a man’s garage. In the wake of the tragedy, anger flared about the controversial so-called “castle doctrine” and the underlying tension in Montana about guns, self-defense, and safety. How could people with deeply divergent views come together for a productive dialogue in the midst of pain, fear, and anger?
For Public Conversations, which had facilitated a dialogue about guns and safety in Boston the year before, a different, but related question resonated deeply. Could a dialogue approach successfully used in a blue state foster as constructive a conversation in a red state? Would there be the same level of interest in the topic, the same willingness to show up and participate with people who strongly differ?
Rose Everett-Martin and Linda Gryczan of the Montana Mediation Association had taken Public Conversations’ flagship workshop “Power of Dialogue,” and were looking for the right issue to launch a state-wide dialogue effort. In the fall of 2014, they reached out to Public Conversations to convene conversations, recruit community leaders who would serve as dialogue facilitators and adapt the Boston program to the Montana context.
They also took the lead on recruiting dialogue participants in rural mining town Butte, the hometown of Evil Knievel. According to Linda, “You couldn’t have picked a more controversial issue in a more rough and tumble place.” The two obtained the necessary funding to make the project possible, culminating in November dialogues and dialogue facilitator training delivered by Public Conversations Project.
Public Conversations Project trained 12 facilitators who hailed from a wide range of leadership backgrounds, including members of the Montana Bar Association, legislators, directors of programs, and advocates. Their collective stature positioned the dialogue as a meaningful opportunity for conversations that could deepen understanding and shift relationships. Public Conversations and trainees facilitated dialogues with a range of Montana citizens, from staunch gun rights advocates to those who passionately promoted tougher regulations on access and safety.
Many entered the room wondering what could possibly come from a two-hour structured exchange and left with a sense of accomplishment. Several participants said they'd never had a civil conversation with an opponent on this issue. They were surprised with how quickly they connected and how carefully they listened; pleased to be listened to and accurately understood. In addition to building a more nuanced understanding of others’ opinions and experiences, participants noted an evolving understanding of their own point of view: “I thought critically to learn what affected my beliefs, and what they actually are,” noted one participant. “I am not as neutral as I thought,” said another.
The chief concern uniting individuals with widely different viewpoints was with the safety of their community. Beyond the specific issue of guns, participants were deeply moved by personal storytelling, noting how insight into individuals’ experiences enhanced their empathy, their understanding, and their self-reflection. Almost all reported willingness to talk again with someone who doesn’t hold the same perspective, on guns or another issue.
Above all, the group expressed greater appreciation for nuance, complexity, and a diverse array of experiences. In the words of one participant, it’s “not so black and white.” Mediator Linda Gryczan noted, “Once people engage in this, they feel so good, they want to share it with their friends. They are able to overcome any distrust of the process. and there’s a lot of distrust.” That foundation, and the network of facilitators build the community’s capacity when a hot-button issue arises in the community; now, as Linda put it, “we have a way to have a different kind of conversation.”
Participants represented the full spectrum of political perspectives and views on guns: from extremely conservative to extremely liberal and all degrees in between. Through their dialogue they came to deeper understandings of the “whys” behind others’ beliefs that grow from life experience and values commitments.
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