A group of about 120 people arrived Monday at something approaching a consensus on gun ownership rights.
Many attending the “Let's Talk About Guns” forum at Arts United Center emerged from small-group discussions agreeing on the need for universal background checks and mandatory training for gun owners – and perhaps firearms proficiency testing and insurance requirements, similar to those affecting motorists.
“I heard more agreement between the tables than I might have thought I was going to,” said Patti Hays, co-founder of program organizer Advancing Voices of Women.
The forum lived up to the name of AVOW's Civil Conversations series. There were no raised voices and few interruptions.
Even the two panelists – Dawn Hillyer, whose company HidingHilda makes and sells women's handbags equipped with handgun compartments, and former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, who used to lead the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – saw eye to eye from time to time.
Both support extensive background checks, for example. And they agreed that a gunman's Feb. 14 attack on a Parkland, Florida, school that left 17 people dead was a turning point.
“I think this one's going to stay with us,” Helmke said, in large part because teenage survivors in Parkland are articulate, organized and media-savvy in a state with “significant” elections this year.
“Young people are organizing,” said Helmke, who directs the Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center at Indiana University. “They are organized here in Fort Wayne. They are organizing in Indianapolis.” He mentioned that a 17-minute student walkout is planned at schools across the country today.
“Finally we're having the conversations,” said Hillyer, a member of the National Rifle Association. “And we all want safe communities. We all want our children to be safe. It just looks different to some people. ... Everybody has their own agenda, their own views, their own beliefs.”
Hillyer told the audience that she started carrying a gun after being stalked for years by a man who broke into her house, hacked her email account and made hundreds of death threats despite her many complaints to police.
“Firearms are not for everybody,” she said. “To be a single mom with three kids, it was the most effective choice that I had that I could save my life if I needed to.
“For years I hid until I decided to pick myself up and take care of myself and be my own hero,” Hillyer said.
Helmke said: “What I'm concerned about is having laws on the books so that people like the stalker can't easily get a gun. ... We have very few laws on the books to make it hard for dangerous people to get guns.”
Acknowledging that “there is no one single answer,” Helmke offered several possible options for reducing gun violence, including imposing universal background checks, limiting the size of ammunition clips, limiting the availability of semi-automatic rifles and better defining the categories of people who are prohibited from buying guns.
He said guns are used in 32 homicides and 50 suicides each day in the United States.
“Let's treat this as a public safety issue, let's treat this as a public health issue, let's figure out what we can do that other countries have done” to reduce gun violence, he said.
Helmke said raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles would be “a good step.” Hillyer said she has no problem with store chains that have raised the minimum age for gun customers, but she is wary of a national law to that effect.
In the end, Helmke said, lawmakers will respond to what the public demands.
“People need to vote,” he said. “It makes a difference.”
Tuesday's forum was the fourth in the AVOW's Civil Conversations series. Others have examined school choice, sexual harassment and elections. The Journal Gazette Foundation sponsors the series.