By SuzAnne M. Miller
Nearly every Missoula nonprofit understands the benefit of providing good food and lots of wine before proceeding with a live auction. As my husband of many years enjoys telling anyone within hearing range, I am an auctioneer’s delight. A little wine almost always removes whatever pressure I may have managed to put on my “don’t bid” brakes. I have been known to bid against myself.
And so it was during the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program’s 2015 Writers’ Fall Opus fundraiser that I challenged the auctioneer. I offered to double my bid if they would bump the number of potential participants from four to six for their “ATF” (alcohol, tobacco, and firearms) auction item.
The ATF event consists of a day spent shooting with firearms instructor Truman Tolson from the Missoula City Police Department, followed by bourbon and cigar tasting in the alley behind The Rhino Bar with owner and bourbon connoisseur Kevin Head.
Well, talk about a quintessential Missoula event. I simply had to have it. I just knew that the Giddy-Up Montana Girls would love yet another uniquely Montana adventure. The auctioneer ostensibly called Truman to verify extending the package, and sold, it was mine!
The Giddy-Up Montana Girls are a group of women who have for the past seven years been coming out to ride in Montana with me. It started out as a commercial relationship. Dunrovin took a couple of them into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on a week-long trip. After that initial trip we became fast friends and have formed a tight group of older professional women who love getting off the grid and exploring Montana.
You can read about our 2015 trip in the autumn issue of Distinctly Montana (flip to page 20). Three of the women are from the East Coast and all involved in the medical profession with some high-flying universities (Harvard, Boston University and Duke); three of us are from Montana (an attorney, a nurse, and a biometrician), and one is from California (a photographer and graphics artist). This year the graphics artist developed a Giddy-Up Montana brand which clearly indicates the role wine plays in our evening conversations.
Every year I try to add a unique Montana surprise to keep things interesting. Last year’s surprise was in the form of little hammers to put in our saddle bags for our ride to the ringing rocks near Butte, where we hammered out a pathetic tune. This year’s surprise was the ATF event.
I told them nothing about what was to happen that day, and they trustingly went along with me – until we actually began the drive down the road, and the sign to the Western Montana Fish and Game Association’s firing range appeared. The smiles on the faces of the women from the East Coast disappeared. Silence replaced laughter in the car. I caught my breath. Had I totally misjudged their comfort zone? Had I violated their trust?
The answers are yes, and thankfully, no. I had misjudged their comfort zone. I did not understand our enormous differences in life experiences with respect to guns. All of the Montana women had fired a gun before; none of the East Coast women had ever even touched a gun. The sound of a firearm means hunting season to Montanans; it means death in the streets to people living in New York or Boston. These differences sink deeply into our emotional makeup and color everything about the subject of guns.
It must be noted that I love these women. I wouldn’t dream of putting them in a compromising position. I offered to turn back, to take them somewhere else. But they too love me; and they trusted me enough to stay, to overcome their apprehensions and experience something foreign and uncomfortable. I was humbled.
Starting off tentatively, all of us paid close attention to Truman and his very able assistant, Ken, as they took us through the safety procedures and explained the differences between the various pistols and rifles. They were, in a word, superb. Each time we went to the firing line, Truman had us first dry fire, then step back and live fire. Each time he gently and firmly put his hand on our backs, not is a demeaning or superior way, but in a very supportive and steadying way. He helped us breath evenly and focus on the target. He wanted us to relax to achieve a steadfast posture and hand. He succeeded in more ways than one.
He and Ken’s professional guidance took the edge off, got us engaged in the art of target shooting, and facilitated a discussion of guns as none of us had done before. The woman from Duke proved herself to have a “dead eye” with both the pistols and the rifles, hitting the bull’s eye time after time and loving the challenge of it. Talk turned to how gun manufacturers could easily make a big difference with guns in the hands of children and how most gun owners support some forms of gun control. We swapped stories about our own experiences with guns, or in the case of the doctors, the aftermath of others’ encounters with guns. We learned that Ken had once been shot.
Common threads were revealed. None of us could emotionally disassociate the gun from what we perceived to be its primary purpose. While I own a powerful .44 magnum hand gun that I used to carry in a shoulder holster for protection while fishing and hiking in Alaska’s bear country, all of the other women associated hand guns strictly with gun violence. It was disturbing to use the hand guns, especially with targets that were human shaped (which, as it turns out, are not even legal in the state of Massachusetts). In contrast, hunting rifles were much more acceptable. We all found beauty in their handmade wooden stocks and could appreciate the skills needed by effective hunters.
Firing an AR-15 rift was “other worldly” for all of us. It was both amazing and horrifying that such inexperienced shooters could so easily hit a target 150 yards away, using the laser scope for guidance. Its power to destroy was evident and sickening. It is incomprehensible to us that ownership of such a weapon is not restricted.
By the end of the shooting, smiles reappeared and the ride back down the road was anything but silent. My mind was, however, stuck on how much I personally had learned, and how privileged I was to have experienced this with these women.
My Montana roots have colored my vision of guns in America. But for this experience, I am not sure that I would ever have grasped the intense visceral reaction to guns that many in America feel. Guns are a complex and nuanced topic. Our feelings towards them have roots in vastly different cultures within our one country. It strengthens my belief that meaningful gun control measures will happen when responsible gun owners stand alongside those for whom guns are anathema. We can understand and support one another. We can make a difference. We must capture the national gun conversation from the extremes. It can start with us.