There was no arguing, there were no raised voices and there was no attempt to change anybody’s mind. The contentious issue of gun rights came to Bowdoin’s gun-free campus on April 4, 2018. “Let’s Talk About Guns: A ‘What Matters’ Conversation” drew a large and diverse crowd to the Smith Union’s Morrell Lounge, where a wide range of opinions was expressed. Refreshments and live jazz were on offer as participants were encouraged to sit with strangers and talk about the topic amongst themselves, after which the wider discussion got underway and microphones were passed around.
The event was put on by, among others, the McKeen Center for the Common Good and Make Shift Coffee House, a mobile discussion forum which promotes face-to-face conversations where differing viewpoints can he heard without fear of judgement. “Tonight is about understanding, not about debating the issue or persuading people you’re right,” said Craig Freshley from Make Shift Coffee House, who moderated the evening. “This is an opportunity for people to share their experiences, not criticize other people’s beliefs.”
Among the experiences shared:
A gun-owning preacher described how, on his own doorstep, he held off an intruder who was threatening his family. “My gun stopped that crime,” he said. “I want every American to have the right to bear arms.”
A young African American male from Baltimore talked being almost robbed in his home city over winter break, and how he would like to have the means to protect himself if such a situation happened again. “What I’m scared of is that next time maybe I won’t [be able to get away] and I won’t have the means to protect myself.” A young African American woman, also from Baltimore, told the crowd how the sound of gunfire was a common occurrence during her childhood, and how she lost a cousin to gun crime. “It’s not my place to tell people not to have a gun,” she said, “but they should know how to use it, and ownership should be properly regulated.”
Others present felt that firearms should not be a part of everyday life. “I’ve been working for gun control for as long as I can remember,” remarked one older gentleman, who recalled an elementary school friend whose father shot his mother and then himself. “I’ve seen many situations in which the availability of guns created criminals,” he added. That viewpoint was echoed later in the evening. “I don’t have a solution,” said one young man, “but the presence of guns tends to cause problems.”
Some audience members expressed concern that gun control measures could lead to a roll back of Second Amendment rights, and the protection they provide against oppressive governments. “The reason the founders put the Bill of Rights in there,” said one middle aged man, who said he was a US Marine Corps veteran, “was to protect against government intrusion on … the liberties of the individual, freedom of thought, freedom to write what you think, freedom to assemble like this.” Another former marine and veteran of Afghanistan repeated the concern. “The invasion of the US may seem far-fetched,” he said, “but if you take away a population’s guns,” he added, “it becomes a more realistic prospect.”
A high school teacher said he was tired of worrying about what he would do if he heard the sounds of automatic gunfire from down the hall. This worry, he said, led him to conclude that “the availability of battlefield weapons on a retail basis does not make me feel a greater sense of liberty.”
One young woman from Maine said she grew up around guns and had had many positive experiences hunting with friends and family. She also said she understood why some people may want a handgun for protection, “but I don’t really understand how ownership of automatic weapons has any utility other than mass murder,” she added.
Others felt the answer to the country’s gun problem goes beyond the issue of firearms. The solution to many of society’s problems, said one student, does not simply lie in gun control, “but in tackling wider issues behind the violence, like mental health and poverty.”
“Let’s Talk About Guns: A What Matters Conversation,” was sponsored by the Bowdoin College McKeen Center for the Common Good, Make Shift Coffee House, men’s and women’s track and field, Helmreich House, Bowdoin Democrats, Bowdoin Republicans, and the Eisenhower Forum.