I spent Friday evening in the mostly conservative outer-ring suburb of Lakeville with people from both sides of the gun debate. Not together, of course, because with rare exceptions neither side wants to talk to or acknowledge the humanity of the other side. My takeaway: Everybody is scared.

I started the evening at the vigil outside the main event — “Honoring the Second Amendment,” with a talk by gun-rights advocate John Lott. I’d guess there were 100-plus people standing in the cold holding candles. There were moving remarks by survivors of gun violence, by an imam, by a minister. They are frightened, as am I, by the presence of guns in our communities and the havoc they wreak. By design, there was no interaction between the people at the vigil and those entering the pro-gun event. (I took some heat before the event on social media, from gun opponents who said I was disrespecting the vigil by also planning to attend the talk.) After an hour, I put down my candle, got out my e-mail confirmation and ID, and walked across the sidewalk past the cops and into the warm building to be among the gun owners. (The crowd seemed about the same size, 100-plus.)

I’m generalizing and speculating, but these seemed mostly like old white people who are afraid of two things: people who do not look, act, worship and think like them, and people who they imagine wish them harm. I am guessing that very few of them will ever be in a position of actual physical danger, in which having a gun for self-defense would be a factor. Their gun functions as a security blanket, a talisman that extends an aura of safety over themselves and their loved ones.

The other thing they seem more afraid of is having their guns taken away. Being among them that night really helped me understand this in a visceral way. Because for them, happiness truly is a warm gun. (Look up the Beatles lyric if you don’t know the reference.) Afterward, I was trying to think of an equivalent notion that would disturb and frighten me in the same way, and the closest thing I could come up with was my phone. Not a great analogy in the U.S., but it could be for people with phones under authoritarian regimes. I imagined how I would feel if there were a large, organized citizen and governmental movement that believed smartphones are harmful to society and should be regulated or banned. I would feel threatened and frightened because, well, I love my phone, and it gives me comfort and security.

I had identified myself to the organizers as an anti-gun activist, but I was still treated with respect and courtesy in e-mails, and in person at the event. I followed their posted rules, which didn’t mention still photography but which I verified beforehand would be allowed.

The only challenging moment of the evening was when I was taking a photo from my seat. A tough-looking plainclothes security guy leaned over from the aisle and half-shouted at me, “Sir, what are you doing?”

“Taking photographs,” I mouthed (not wanting to interrupt the speaker as he had done) and pointed to my cellphone, as if that weren’t obvious.

I had a civil conversation before the talk with the director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and a stylishly dressed young volunteer for the organization. I asked if she had an assault weapon. She said yes, she had built it herself, customized so all the parts that she touches while shooting are “soft.” The common ground in all my conversations was that we wanted safety for ourselves and our loved ones.

The talk was by Lott, a gun proponent who has a doctorate in economics. (His methodology and conclusions are controversial and have been discredited by many mainstream researchers.) I found him to be an uninspiring and rambling speaker with indecipherable graphics, which disappointed me, because I was hoping to have my outrage stoked by a rousing talk and energized crowd.

I doubt any minds were changed, not mine, not those of people standing vigil outside in the cold, not those of people inside at the event. But I do feel some humanity was shared, and that is important if anything is going to change to make us safer. Throughout the evening, I handed out copies of a little booklet I had made with photos and profiles of victims of the Florida school shooting. They were accepted with thanks by everyone I offered them to, except for Lott. As I was leaving, I noticed a woman standing next to her husband, who was talking to someone else. She was intently reading the booklet, which left me feeling great, like an evangelist who had perhaps planted a single seed of change.


Paul Shambroom, of Minneapolis, is an artist and educator.