Last month while driving through the Florida Panhandle, I saw a sign that tempted me to do something that I normally never would have dreamed of doing in a million years. So I took the next exit, pulled into the parking lot, paid my $7 entry fee and entered my first gun show.
Held in an empty storefront in a strip mall, this gun show seemed small by industry standards, but was nonetheless lively and filled with people. There were about 30 vendors with thousands of guns spread out on racks and tables. They had handguns, hunting rifles, knives of all shapes and sizes, lots of ammo and camo, and a myriad of assault weapons.
I was the only person of color in the room, and likely the only non-southerner. I kept a low profile, and no one made me feel unwelcome. Still, it took everything in my power to keep my mouth shut and my judgment meter turned down when I overheard a vendor refer to an AK47 as "the ultimate killing machine."
You might be asking, "Why would you ever go to a place like this one, Kevin?"
To be clear, I have never owned, and cannot imagine owning a gun. I have never even held, let alone discharged one. While I am not for banning guns altogether—I have a number of friends who hunt, and they consume everything they shoot—I do support banning assault weapons and enacting strict laws on gun control.
So what compelled me to go to a gun show?
My motivation is simple: "Grace made me do it." Grace Lee Boggs, my mentor who passed away this month at the age of 100, taught me that the best way to defend any position I take is to understand the opposing point of view. In other words, how could I argue against something (in this case, the need for guns in our society) if I didn't engage with and try to understand the other side?
What I discovered is that the gun show was a pleasant, even festive event. While some people were focused on purchasing guns, most people were more interested in socializing. I came to understand that it was less about the guns and more about the culture.
Journalist Paul Theroux writes: "A gun show (in the South) isn't about guns. A gun show is about like-minded people who feel as if everything has been taken away from them." Theroux claims that, for many white southerners, the Civil Rights Movement was as much a war as the Civil War. Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham were battles to be fought and won. And like the Civil War, the South lost.
Add to that a depressed economy and wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan where many young southerners sacrificed their lives. Now their black president wants to take away their gun rights—it represents yet another defeat.
These folks see guns as a symbol of self-determination, the right to live and express ourselves as we choose. Many issues and movements that I am passionate about, such as civil rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights and indigenous peoples' rights, are also about self-determination.
As I was standing in the middle of the gun show, I remembered where I was just a week before—with my family at the Castro Street Fair, in the heart of one of the gayest neighborhoods in the world. Instead of guns, their symbols of self-determination were rainbow flags and marriage equality signs. Bearded men expressed themselves by parading around in drag (it was women's clothes in the Castro and camo in the gun show, although studded leather vests were prominent in both venues).
Despite the differences, there was an abundance of good food, a festive spirit and kind-hearted people.
I came closer to understanding what Grace had always taught me: that by exploring the diametrically opposing side, we discover that we have much more in common than not.
As conversations around gun control heat up in Washington, D.C., social media and perhaps around our kitchen tables, I hope that we can all have the courage to take a brief stop in each other's worlds and explore things that we might not otherwise consider.
We may discover that, in this middle ground, solutions beyond our wildest imaginations will manifest, and our diverse yet common need for self-determination will be respected and fulfilled.
Kevin Fong, who lives in San Francisco, is a nationally recognized and respected facilitator, trainer and speaker in leadership and executive development and organizational systems, philosophy and design. Visit elementalpartners.net.