The 1940 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has long been a favorite of mine. It stars Jimmy Stewart in the role of the leader of a boys’ organization who, upon his father’s death, is appointed a United States Senator in his stead.
I’m back from a trip to DC that also related to death. The murder of 17 students and instructors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on St. Valentine’s Day 2018 heightened anger about American gun violence. It resulted in the “March for Our Lives,” a nationwide protest against the ease with which children, the mentally unstable and domestic abusers gain access to firearms.
It is estimated that 800,000 people attended the march in the nation’s capital; similar rallies were held around the country, attracting hundreds of thousands more, most of whom were of school age. A short video I took of the event in Washington conveys an idea of its size:
Despite the March for Our Lives’ importance, it was not the reason I journeyed to Washington. Some weeks beforehand an online article in the local newspaper caught my attention: it said a consortium of media outlets was organizing a meeting called “Guns: An American Conversation.” The idea was to bring together a few people from around the country, whose views on guns varied widely, for a face-to-face discussion of this burning topic.
The initial step to attending the meeting required filling out an online questionnaire. Those that made the first cut were interviewed by phone. Out of over 900 folks that took the questionnaire, I was one of 21 respondents selected to take part. It’s the only lottery I’ve ever won! Travel arrangements were made and everyone arrived on Friday evening.
Come morning we trooped to The Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was apparent that the organizers chose a good spectrum of people. The youngest was 16 and the oldest were retirees. We hailed from 11 states; 8 of us were women; 5 were people of color and 1 was Muslim.
Democrats, Independents and Republicans were among our number. There were gun owners – including NRA and former NRA members, as well as people that didn’t own guns. We were students, a lawyer, a diplomat, a teacher, moms and dads and singles. (Search You Tube for “guns an american conversation” to see a great video featuring several participants.)
In short, we represented a slice of contemporary American society.
Did we jump right into talking about guns? Emphatically not. For over 10 hours that Saturday a capable team of moderators taught us good communication skills and led us through exercises that made use of them. As the hours went by we worked in pairs, trios, with half the group and as a committee of the whole. Whenever the conversation threatened to get heated the moderators steered us away from confrontations. The deeply personal nature of stories people shared was illustrative of the trust that soon developed among us.
Sunday was a shorter day. The moderators edged the group closer to direct discussion of the subject at hand, within the framework of “tough conversations.” The leaders reinforced the lessons on listening well, respecting each other and communicating with clarity.
Come April the 21 will be invited to join a closed Facebook group, where the process of learning and discussion will continue. And, a limited number of the folks that weren’t invited to Washington can join the project.
I won’t assert that the brief meeting of a handful people will alter the gun discussion in the country. That said, remember how the small rudder of an ocean liner gradually changes its course!