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 NewTowncarShare 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 NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.