BILLINGS – Despite sub-zero temperatures outside, nearly every seat was full at a firearm discussion panel Thursday night at the Yellowstone Art Museum.
About 40 spectators gathered in an upstairs gallery of the museum, surrounded by the works of Theodore Waddell. The exhibit, dubbed “Hallowed Absurdities,” features abstract representations of guns, animals and landscapes. The artist says he wants to use “humor and fiction” to stimulate meaningful discussion about complex cultural issues.
Four panelists offered perspectives from their distinct backgrounds:
• Paul Pope, an assistant professor for MSU-Billings’ Masters of Public Administration program
• Lew Anderson, an educator with Billings Public Schools
• Frank Nienaber, a gun collector and historian
• Billings Police Chief Rich St. John
The discussion was moderated by Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette.
Despite a wide range of attitudes about guns, the hour-long discussion harbored a civil tone through disagreements, and the panelists found common ground. The discussion avoided hot-button public policy issues surrounding gun control, and instead focused on cultural aspects of firearms: their role in history, the media, the panelists’ own lives, today’s society, and general attitudes towards them.
The discussion began with the panelists agreeing on the importance guns had in the shaping of America. The history of firearms was especially important to Nienaber, a gun collector who experiences history through them. He described hearing stories from World War II veterans as they admire a collection of weaponry from that period.
“They’ll talk to you for two hours about what they’ve lived through,” he said. “It’s just fun to see the history of these weapons, and what paid for your freedom.”
And he reminisced about one of his favorite guns, an old flintlock from the Revolutionary War period. He described it as a work of art.
“To have something like that, with the carving and the engraving, and being able to load that with an old powder horn, and leather bag, and go out and shoot a deer with it,” is a great experience, Niebaber said.
Or, he continued, “to be able to set your axe up and split a ball and hit two playing cards at 50 yards, it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Nienaber then passed the microphone to Anderson.
Anderson, no stranger to guns, remembers his time as a high school student, when he’d keep a shotgun in the cab of his truck during school hours so he could go bird hunting afterwards.
“I see it from a different perspective,” Anderson said. “As an educator I don’t see our youth seeing the beauty of it. I see they use it to intimidate, control, bully, things like that.”
Dr. Pope, an assistant professor at MSU-Billings, got his first gun as a gift from his father when he was a child. He said it’s important for a culture to respect guns, but not idolize them.
“Our culture today just doesn’t have enough respect for the awesome power that is a firearm,” Pope said. “We see firearms as so important, but we don’t respect the level of danger as a society.”
Even Nienaber, with his love for the rich history and recreation that guns have provided him, expressed discomfort at the thought of a handgun in inexperienced, uneducated hands.
“I’ve seen it a few times in young guys at gun shows. It’s kind of scary. It’s like they pick up power when they pick that thing up,” Nienaber said.
All the panelists pointed to popular media as a negative influence when it comes to guns.
Chief Rich St. John said TV shows can desensitize people to the tragedy of gun violence when they portray it in a glamorous light. It also can create unrealistic expectations.
“CSI is our absolute worst enemy when we have cases in front of a jury,” St. John said, because people “expect that we’ve got blue sunglasses that can pick out the path of a bullet through the building.”
With St. John’s role as the chief of police, he’s seen many sides of America’s experience with guns. The Billings Police Department has many officers who are avid gun collectors, he said, and so he’s come to see guns as a work of art and an investment.
But he also sees the other side.
“In my line of work, I see the ramifications of death and violence, and I’ve seen people shot. I’ve seen what it does to people when they shoot someone,” he said. “It’s a life-changing event.”