Photo: Montana

Addressing Gun Rights and Safety in Montana

In May, 2014, a German exchange student was shot after he trespassed in a man’s garage in Montana. Anger flared up about the controversial “castle doctrine,” which makes legal the defense of one's property with lethal force. It also revealed an 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?

“Couldn’t have picked a more controversial issue”

Rose Everett-Martin and Linda Gryczan of the Montana Mediation Association had taken an Essential Partners workshop. Then, in the fall of 2014, they reached out to EP to convene state-wide conversations about guns.

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 EP.

Essential Partners 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. EP and the newly trained facilitators led dialogues with a range of Montana citizens, from staunch gun rights advocates to those who passionately promoted tougher regulations on access and safety.

A Different Kind of Conversation

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.

Participants also 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.”