Getting over the ‘taboo’ in a gun-rights conversation

In Montana, the gap between gun rights supporters and opponents begins to shrink.

 

Last year, several residents of Missoula, Montana, asked Bryan von Lossberg, a first-term city councilman, to introduce an ordinance requiring background checks on most gun sales and transfers within the city limits. Von Lossberg immediately felt nervous.

The councilman, who keeps a rifle in his home and enjoys Montana’s long hunting seasons, knows that gun rights are fiercely defended in the state, which ranks sixth in gun ownership nation-wide. “The topic is so taboo in Montana,” he says, even though Missoula is a university town with a reputation for being the state’s most liberal community. 

“It was surprising to me to have conversation after conversation where I would hear a variant of, ‘Ya know, I support what you’re trying to do here, but I’m not so sure I’d been willing to stand up and express support for it.’” 

Pheasant hunting at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area near near Helena, Montana.
Kris Krüg/Flickr user

Despite his misgivings, von Lossberg couldn’t stop thinking about the data he’d received from local members of Moms Demand Action, comparing states that have passed gun safety measures to those that have not.

In the eight states that require background checks on all gun transfers, there were 38 percent fewer deaths of women shot by intimate partners, as well as lower rates of gun suicides and aggravated assaults with firearms. By contrast, Montana ranks fifth in gun deaths per capita and received an “F” from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in 2015. To make matters worse, seven of the 11 Western states also earned failing grades, including all four of Montana’s neighbors.

These figures led von Lossberg to another important number: His daughter had recently turned 4 years old.

“Hunting and guns are really important parts of Montana culture, and I want my daughter to pursue hunting, but I also want to set a good example for her on gun transactions,” he says. “The research shows when communities use this tool, it benefits the community. I want her to follow that example.”

Von Lossberg introduced an ordinance a year ago this September. A month later, over 300 people attended a hearing on the measure. Testimony lasted five hours and was interrupted several times by disruptive behavior, including one speaker who passionately accused council members of treason. And yet the majority of speakers supported the measure. It was as if a “pressure valve” had been opened, according to von Lossberg. “The number of people who want this topic discussed and addressed – it was overwhelming.”

The councilman was encouraged by the support, but he also listened to his opponents. He worked with Councilwoman Marilyn Marler, a co-sponsor and fellow gun owner, to revise the original ordinance. They agreed to include language exempting concealed-carry permit holders, because they already go through a background check. The change earned praise from some skeptics, and the gap between supporters and opponents began to shrink. 

“Most dialogue on this topic gets boiled down to where you’re pro-Second Amendment or you aren’t,” von Lossberg says. “Over the course of the year, our community wrestled with that dichotomy, and we realized that it’s just not reality.”

Eventually, the council was rewarded for pushing the difficult topic into the open. This Sept. 26, a second hearing was held, nearly one year after the first. Another large crowd turned out and the ordinance passed on an 8-4 vote, making Missoula the first city in the Northern Rockies to require background checks on gun sales and transfers. 

Now, the question is whether the ordinance will survive legal challenges. Opponents, including the Montana Shooting Sports Association, claim it violates both state law and the Second Amendment. But volunteers with Moms Demand Action are confident in the city attorney’s opinion, which states that a “local government unit … has power to prevent and suppress … the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens and minors.”

Volunteers are now considering how to export the ordinance to other Western communities. In von Lossberg’s view, the linchpin of that effort will be civil dialogue, similar, he says, to what we strive for within our families.

“My wife and I are raising a little girl,” he explains, “and every moment we’re together seems like an opportunity for a teachable moment – talking about our feelings, our fears, our hopes.” He’s convinced that this simple recipe for open communication is part of the answer for communities hoping to curb gun violence. 

“It’s hard to have courage about something when you can’t even talk about it within your community,” he says. “Regardless of your position or passion, it’s critical to hear all the voices that are touched by this issue.” 

Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.