One evening not long ago, eight of us -- strangers, mostly -- sat down together to discuss one of the most confused and emotional topics of our time: guns.
"Why do you carry?" I said to the group. "I really want to know."
Several weeks earlier, I'd written a column that discussed Gandhism and guns. It ended with an invitation to any gun-carrying reader: let's sit down and talk. I want to understand -- not mock, not sucker punch -- the reasons you have for carrying and owning guns.
About two dozen people responded. Some I'd expect. Some not. A left-leaning attorney. An ACLU member. Police officers.
Scheduling conflicts (mainly mine, when I forgot to ask my wife if we had plans that evening) whittled the group down to seven, plus me. We met on the fourth floor of the Chattanooga library, shaking hands, cramming two tables together, then leaning in to the conversation: help me understand why you carry.
One man immediately spoke up.
"Why do you have a fire extinguisher in your home?" he asked me.
"In case of a fire," I said. "So that nothing happens to me or my family."
"That's why I carry a gun," he replied.
We talked for over an hour. The evening was vastly meaningful and instructive and rather pleasant, reminding me of the deep importance of honest and respectful face-to-face conversation with those that may seem politically different than you.
"I carry when I travel," one man said. "To protect my family. Having something happen to them would be the worst thing I could imagine."
While so much of the hype surrounds the right to own a gun, one man made it very clear that gun owners also have a responsibility.
"To be the most trained they can be," he said. "Carrying a gun is a right and a responsibility."
Without proper training, carrying a firearm in public can be both reckless and threatening. Two police officers there -- one former, one current -- spoke about the way that untrained gun owners can induce the very harm they are hoping to prevent.
"A false sense of security," one officer said. "Having a gun is not a guarantee of your personal safety."
Someone even suggested that using your gun to try and stop a criminal can put you in even more danger.
"That gun will get you shot," he said.
The evening reminded me of something often left unsaid: those most critical of haphazard gun policy are gun owners themselves.
"Sometimes the nuttiest and least trained are the quickest to pull that weapon," one man said.
"That is more of a threat than your gang bangers," another said.
But the topic we spent most of the night discussing?
Media and violence.
"It is huge. It has shaped all of it," one man said.
From the headlines and 24-hour news to the nightly rapes and robberies and murders in our shows and films, the message of media is clear and loud: the world is dangerous.
You'd better arm yourself.
Plus, when there is a school or mass shooting, the newspapers report and over-report, which may influence copycat shootings while also sending the message to potential shooters that they, too, will get attention.
"Glorifying them," one man said.
Such media violence is a distortion of reality, giving people the false understanding that the world around them is threatening enough to warrant carrying a firearm in public.
In fact, the opposite is often true.
"The level of violence is down lower than the 1960s," one man said. "The murder rate has been cut by 50 percent since 1992."
I asked about the role of fear in all of this. One officer said something I still can't shake.
"Eight out of 10 people that I pull over for traffic stops tell me they have a gun in their car," he said.
I was stunned. Shocked. Eighty percent? Are there that many guns being carried -- concealed or not -- by the general public?
"Half the time, they hand me their carry permit before they hand me their driver's license," he said.
The evening drew to a close. We shook hands, and agreed to talk again. It felt like good work, the kind of work you do in a democracy. It made me rethink many of my opinions, and dissolved many of the unfair stereotypes I had of gun owners.
As we stood up to leave, one man looked at me.
"We never talked about Gandhi," he said.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...