Guns and Neighbors

We seem unable to have any rational conversation about guns these days, but if we could, I believe the platform would be public health. Guns in rural areas are heavily implicated in suicide, especially in populations suffering job loss, opioid addiction, alcoholism, and other societal stresses. Guns in urban areas are the weapon of choice for gangs, and for mass shooters. Whatever sliver of common ground might be found in preventing unnecessary deaths might be a place to begin conversation.

Guns are big business in the United States. Businesses who profit from the sale of guns, ammunition. and gun paraphernalia, can also be major philanthropists in the communities where they are located. That means a lot of people, regardless of their beliefs about easy gun availability, benefit from the profit derived from guns.

Grinnell, Iowa, is ground zero for that kind of dilemma. Grinnell is the home of Brownells, a major firearms company and longtime family-owned business. Pete Brownell, CEO of the company, lives in Grinnell. He and his wife are philanthropic contributors to many local causes. The company also provides many well-paying, skilled jobs with benefits — a boon for any relatively small town.

Not everyone likes the way Brownells makes its money, even though some of that money goes to benefit the community. But it’s not a distant issue, confronting a distant and faceless corporate entity. The Brownells and many of their neighbors meet up in the local coffee shop.

Neighborliness is important in Grinnell — part of a cultural ethos called “Iowa nice.” But candor is important to some Grinnell residents too, as is the chance to talk openly about what it means for the town to benefit from gun money.

Much of this simmered below the surface until Pete Brownell became head of the NRA, and the Las Vegas shootings happened.

“For some time, none of this attracted much notice. People certainly knew that their good, generous neighbor subsidizes their quality of life with money earned in the gun industry in a state where gun deaths run nearly neck and neck with drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But at Saints Rest and elsewhere, most people broach neither subject. There’s other stuff to chat about, like how things are going.

Grinnell is both progressive bastion and gun town, a place urbane and rural. It is home to an influential liberal arts college with an endowment of more than $1 billion, and also a Monsanto plant. Usually, these juxtapositions are a point of pride, if they are noteworthy at all.

But since the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, Mr. Brownell has become a divisive figure in town, to nearly everyone’s reluctance. The culture wars here — and all of the culture wars converge right here — may be about guns, or about religion, or they might be about money. But they may really be about manners.”

The question for Grinnell, and for all of us, is whether we can find a way on both sides to have a civil conversation about guns, gun deaths, the right to bear arms, and the influence of gun-related money on politics and philanthropy at all levels.

So far, Grinnell hasn’t found it. Pete Brownell hasn’t responded to invitations from local clergy and others to begin talking. People who know the Brownells say that neighborliness is a two way street, and having local residents put their concerns on Facebook was, for the Brownell famly, a step too far.

I’ll be interested to see if this one small community can find a way forward. They might provide a model for the rest of us. Brownells, and the neighbors in Grinnell, Iowa, might be a place to start.

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