How Civil Must America Be?

A billboard advertising Brownells Retail Store sits on the side of Interstate 80 in Grinnell, Iowa.

GRINNELL, Iowa — All paths seem to cross at Saints Rest, a downtown coffee shop that opened in 1999. In the early morning, retirees amble over for kaffeeklatsch; later, professors from the college here meet students, who hunker down with laptops. Teenagers come by after school.

The shop’s name stems from a term of derision for the teetotaling, lecture-friendly Congregationalists who settled the town in the 1850s. Those days are long over. Grinnellians now tend to keep any impulse to hector one of their neighbors under wraps.

Pete Brownell, a well-known and well-liked local philanthropist, sometimes stops by Saints Rest for coffee on his way to work. He and his wife, Helen Redmond, have supported many projects in town, including a public library renovation and a residency program run by a local artists’ collective.

He is also the third-generation C.E.O. of Brownells, a major firearms company whose headquarters are here, which calls itself the country’s “leading supplier of firearm accessories, gun parts, and gunsmithing tools.” Brownells sells and manufactures guns and ammunition. For much of the last year, Mr. Brownell also served as chairman of the board of the National Rifle Association.

For some time, none of this attracted much notice. People certainly knew that their good, generous neighbor subsidizes their quality of life with money earned in the gun industry in a state where gun deaths run nearly neck and neck with drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But at Saints Rest and elsewhere, most people broach neither subject. There’s other stuff to chat about, like how things are going.

Grinnell is both progressive bastion and gun town, a place urbane and rural. It is home to an influential liberal arts college with an endowment of more than $1 billion, and also a Monsanto plant. Usually, these juxtapositions are a point of pride, if they are noteworthy at all.

But since the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, Mr. Brownell has become a divisive figure in town, to nearly everyone’s reluctance. The culture wars here — and all of the culture wars converge right here — may be about guns, or about religion, or they might be about money. But they may really be about manners.

Credit...Matthew Hintz for The New York Times
Credit...Matthew Hintz for The New York Times

The first thing most everyone says is that the Brownells are good, generous people. Their children all go to school together. Mr. Brownell and Ms. Redmond care very much about making Grinnell a good place to live for everyone.

The second thing people say is that they want to protect the family’s privacy. Mr. Brownell’s family did not choose his occupation, people point out. Besides, Ms. Redmond, who is president of the board of the Grinnell-Newburg Community School District, votes Democratic and supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She has donated to the progressive state-level political action committee her neighbors created last year. Everyone is clear that Pete Brownell’s politics are his own.

The third thing is that they don’t have a problem with guns. “We all agree people have the right to own guns, and that using them for hunting is great and that’s fine,” said Tim Dobe, an associate professor of religion at Grinnell College. “No one challenges that.

“I am in favor of the Second Amendment,” said The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, right across the street from the college library. Her father was a hunter; she has also lost a loved one to gun violence.

And while Ms. Abrahamson quietly resigned from the board of a community arts center when she realized that the group has accepted money from the Brownells, she did not say so at the time.

But over the last few years, the gun company in the middle of everything here became harder to ignore. In December 2012, The Los Angeles Times reported that Brownells sold several years’ worth of high-capacity ammunition magazines in the 72 hours after the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (There have been more than 100 F.B.I.-designated active shooter incidents since.)

Then, in 2016, Brownells opened a massive new warehouse, office and retail complex on the outskirts of town. It looms over Interstate 80. In May 2017, Mr. Brownell became the president of the N.R.A.’s board. “Each of these things were pushing people toward discomfort,” Mr. Dobe said. “Las Vegas broke it open.”

This disquiet eventually bubbled up online. “It was clear that people had been holding back their feelings,” said Eliza Willis, a professor of political science at Grinnell. A local Facebook group gave them the space to express their feelings. “All these people came out of the community making comments and expressing unhappiness about the facility and about his election to the presidency of the N.R.A.,” Ms. Willis said.

Others expressed their disagreement and their concern for the Brownell family’s privacy.

“It got quite active and a little heated,” Ms. Abrahamson said. “It’s not like there’s a unified feeling about this.”

The fracas also underscored the fact that no one seemed to have talked to Mr. Brownell about any of it directly. A day or two after the Las Vegas shooting, Ms. Abrahamson said, she phoned his office to invite him to meet with her and another pastor, Cameron Barr, to discuss ways they might “work together to increase gun safety.” She said that her overture, which she repeated in a Facebook message, received no response.

A week later, other members of the Grinnellians for Change Facebook group sent a letter asking for Mr. Brownell’s attention. It was signed by 170 people and published in the Grinnell Herald-Register. The group wrote: “Nowhere are mutuality and reciprocity more important than in a small town such as ours.”

Mr. Dobe characterized their message this way: “Now that you’re the president of the N.R.A., we think you kind of owe us a conversation.”

Again, Mr. Brownell did not answer. “Pete Brownell did not respond as a neighbor,” said Kesho Scott, an associate professor of sociology and American studies at Grinnell. Ms. Scott’s and Mr. Brownell’s daughters are friends and sleep over at each other’s houses. The parents see each other at the bank. “All of a sudden he wasn’t responding to his neighbors,” Ms. Scott said.

Friends of the Brownells, including the Grinnell city manager, Russ Behrens, say that neighborliness is a two-way street. Members of his family had seen the Facebook group’s angry, frustrated posts and comments, a couple of which suggested confronting Mr. Brownell with a vigil at his home.

“There were people that could have sat in a room and had a conversation,” Mr. Behrens said. He and other friends have talked privately in the past with Mr. Brownell about his views on gun safety. He felt things got out of hand online. “By that time Pete almost had to go to his corner because they had already kind of set the message in and made their attacks. Nothing good was going to happen from that point on.”

“It really prevented any type of conversation,” Mr. Behrens said.

The tenor of the conversation might have made people who aren’t opposed to accepting money from Mr. Brownell “a little more afraid to talk,” according to Sam Rebelsky, a computer science professor and a friend of the family.

Mr. Brownell did meet with George Drake, a former president of the college who has been working with Ms. Abrahamson and others, on the condition that Mr. Drake keep the conversation confidential.

Mr. Brownell’s neighbors say they want to build on whatever common ground they share with him on gun politics. First, they have to know what that might be. (He also declined to speak with me.)

His public remarks have been unsurprising in the national conversation, but also strike some as unneighborly. He echoes the N.R.A.’s talking points on the Second Amendment, repeating that people he characterizes as “anti-American” are trying to take away guns, which are our national heritage.

He has a familiar mix of gun politic signifiers about ecological preservation, wildlife restoration, respect for military veterans, police and emergency medical workers. He has also said that he wants the N.R.A. to be an inclusive organization that supports L.G.B.T.Q. gun owners and other marginalized groups.

Mr. Brownell’s tone never fully matched the most aggressive rhetoric stemming from the N.R.A., like that of Dana Loesch, of its spokeswomen. Ms. Abrahamson and others said that they had hoped Mr. Brownell was going to use his role to modulate the N.R.A.’s tone over what was supposed to be a two-year term. Nothing he has said in public suggests that he did.

His neighbors may want to believe that his so-called real views, the ones he would share in private, are different from what he has said publicly. They also suspect it may not really matter. Like it or not — and many do like it — gun money does a lot for Grinnell.

Credit...Matthew Hintz for The New York Times
Credit...Matthew Hintz for The New York Times

In 2016, Mr. Behrens told USA Today that Grinnell, like many other cities, is increasingly reliant on “philanthropic support for parks, aquatic centers and libraries.” The Brownells have supported the construction of a new skate park and a community garden, through donations to a redevelopment nonprofit.

They have also supported a robotics team at Grinnell-Newburg High School. They have contributed to the Grinnell Area Arts Council and the Poweshiek County Community Fund.

Brownells Inc., the gun company, has become an integral part of the economic health of the city. Alongside the college, Grinnell Mutual Insurance Company and the Grinnell Regional Medical Center, it is among Poweshiek County’s largest employers.

Founded in nearby Montezuma in 1939, where its headquarters were until 2016, Brownells was a relatively small and specialized business for its first 60 years.

Since Mr. Brownell joined the company as an executive vice president in 1997, Brownells has acquired three other firearms companies, become a military defense contractor, secured a patent for its online ordering system, opened a retail store and undergone two expansions, the first of which the company almost immediately outgrew upon its completion in 2011.

Mr. Brownell was planning to relocate the company to a larger city, like Des Moines or Kansas City, when Mr. Behrens asked him to consider somewhere closer to home. Poweshiek County, like many rural areas across the country, has experienced population plateauing or decline.

Reversing the trend, Mr. Behrens said, was the city’s primary consideration in courting the relocation. The Brownells expansion was expected to create at least 162 new jobs in Grinnell and stimulate the city’s housing market.

There was almost no public opposition to the Brownells project. Records say that no one appeared for the scheduled public comment session held immediately before the City Council signed an initial development agreement in November 2012.

With the exception of one letter to the editor of the Grinnell Herald-Register, Mr. Behrens said, “There was no pushback from the community at all,” in part because there was great value in keeping a three-generation family business — “hopefully soon to be fourth,” he added — in Poweshiek County. “It’s not like we went out and recruited some random gun manufacturer,” Mr. Behrens said. “This was about the expansion of an existing industry. We today have no reservations about doing it, and we would do it again.”

The facility’s grand opening, complete with a ribbon cutting attended by the governor of Iowa and Lou Ferrigno, took place in June 2016, the day before the Pulse nightclub shooting. The Pulse shooter had armed himself with a semiautomatic rifle and a Glock pistol. Brownells had given away prizes, including similar firearms, about 12 hours earlier.

This, says Kirsten Klepfer, the pastor of Grinnell’s First Presbyterian Church, “woke me up.” A week after the shooting, she preached an uncomfortable sermon at the Sunday morning service. “If we think there’s no connection between Orlando and Brownells, we’re probably not thinking hard enough,” she said.

She noted that about two-thirds of annual firearms deaths are suicides. This, too, has a local connection; mental health resources in the city and state are dismal. Poweshiek County’s mental health center closed in 2013. Iowa ranked 47th in practicing psychiatrists per capita in 2016, and last among all states in per capita psychiatric bed availability.

Ms. Klepfer told her congregation that, the day before the store opened, she had approached Brownells seeking financial support for a new behavioral health program that was having a cash flow crisis. She subsequently withdrew the request.

“I’m ashamed,” she told her congregants. It had become clear to her that “we like them when they pump our community full of money, we turn our eyes when they pump our communities full of guns.” She has since told another mental health organization she works with that she believes they should not take donations from Brownells.

Ms. Klepfer, the church’s leader for over a decade, may be the person with the strongest principled objection to what she sees as the community’s complicity in the firearms industry. She may also be the person who struggles least with the moral complexity and social risk of raising such objections. “There’s a reason we’re not a big church,” she said, “and it’s mostly me.”

The Pulse shooting also moved Janet Carl, the recently retired director of the college’s writing center, to action. Ms. Carl, who represented Grinnell in the Iowa Assembly for six years in the 1980s, said that the shooting prompted her to submit a letter to the Grinnell Herald-Register, the first she had ever written. After it ran, she was contacted by three other people who wanted to become more active on gun safety, colleagues who had had no idea that they shared her concerns.

This was the origin of an ad hoc organizing group, which grew after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The group planned several weeks of protests and educational events to coincide with the five-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, including a silent walk to the Brownells facility.

They invited David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son was killed at Sandy Hook, to attend a screening of the documentary “Newtown.” In advance of his visit, Mr. Wheeler wrote to Mr. Brownell asking for a meeting. He received no response.

The “Newtown” screening took place on the college campus but was not a school-sponsored event, and the college has largely stayed out of local politics. Every faculty or staff member I spoke to was careful to say their efforts do not represent their employer. And the students, whatever their reputation for rabble-rousing, have not participated much in this off-campus effort.

They largely consider the school, rather than the town, to be their home; their political concerns tend to the insular or the lofty. The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, organized in 2016, is a rare independent undergraduate labor union. (The actual non-student dining service employees are not unionized.) This last year, most campus activism was devoted to an unsuccessful campaign to persuade the school’s board of trustees to divest from fossil fuel companies.

It was Grinnell alumni who brought the debate to campus. Shortly after Mr. Brownell became president of the N.R.A., Alana K. Smart, a 1968 Grinnell graduate, raised the question of whether the school, founded by an abolitionist, ought to accept money from the family.

Ms. Smart, a chairwoman of Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence, discovered that the Brownells had made a named gift in to the college in 2014. Their gift helped create the Ignite Program, a community engagement effort that brings local elementary and high school students to campus.

Ms. Smart and her classmates formed a group called Concerned Alumni of Grinnell College and set about expressing their concerns to the school. In October, members of the campus community learned about the alumni reaction through reporting in the student newspaper. This caught the attention of some faculty members.

After a campus meeting to discuss the college’s gift acceptance policy, in January, the board of trustees adopted some modest changes. Now the college may consider “the source of funds” in gift acceptance and may invite “relevant campus constituencies” to screen proposals for directed gifts.

In June 2018, representatives of the Concerned Alumni group, on campus for their 50th reunion, delivered a petition to the college on behalf of 500 signatories. They asked the college to reject further gifts from Mr. Brownell, because he represents the N.R.A.’s “deleterious impacts on the quality of American life.”

At the meeting, Raynard S. Kington, the president of Grinnell College, declined this prospect of vetting individual donors’ affiliations before accepting gifts, calling it logistically onerous and ethically murky.

Mr. Kington, appointed in 2011, has previously suggested that the disagreement over the donation is part of the college’s educational commitment to facilitating civil debate over conflicting viewpoints. (“Grinnellians,” campus marketing copy reads, “ask hard questions and question easy answers.”)

These particular hard questions may be a source of frustration for some at the college, according to Alice Herman, a 2018 Grinnell graduate and an editor of The Scarlet and Black, the student newspaper. She covered a trustees meeting last fall, just after the publication of a story about the college’s relationship with Mr. Brownell.

She was chastised by members of the administration during a break in the meeting, she said, for her reporting. She was approached by Angela Voos, the vice president for strategic planning and Mr. Kington’s chief of staff.

“‘Really? Again?’” Ms. Herman said Ms. Voos said, as she waved a copy of the newspaper. Ms. Voos complained that the story’s characterization of Mr. Brownell as “‘a major benefactor of college and community programs and organizations’” was “‘misleading.’” Mr. Kington, Ms. Herman said, joined the conversation to agree.

Ms. Voos told The New York Times that her memory of the episode is different, but that “the basis of the interaction is correct.” Ms. Herman, she said, “chose to combine a donor’s philanthropy to the college with his philanthropy to the local community and then to conclude that he is a ‘major benefactor’ of the college.” (Ms. Voos added that the Ignite program also had other internal funding sources.)

In any event, the college says it cannot legally disclose the details of individual contributions without permission from the donor. It is possible that Mr. Brownell and Ms. Redmond have made or will make additional gifts under different disclosure conditions.

Ms. Willis argued that accepting Brownell’s money is effectively an endorsement of the N.R.A. “The college confers legitimacy by taking that donation,” she said, contravening the institution’s professed commitment to social justice. (Mr. Rebelsky and many other faculty members said they disagreed.)

Ms. Willis also noted that the college, committed to improved town-gown relations, had much to gain by accepting a donation to start a program “aiming to educate kids in this community that aren’t the children of college professors.”

The college, Ms. Voos said, is proud of the program: “We see it as an extension of our mission to our local public schools.” She notes that about a third of local elementary and high school students live in households that are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, and few have had much exposure to “the college experience,” even in this college town. The program has just finished its fourth year.

In other ways, the college and Brownells Inc. share similar goals as stewards of the local economy. City administrators have pinned their hopes for a revitalized downtown on both. In 2014, the city and the Brownells company jointly applied for funds from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

They were unsuccessful, but the city and the college received joint funding the following year, which was partly to support what the school calls its “Zone of Confluence” project. A two-lane highway that divides the campus and the downtown area has long been a physical manifestation of the town-gown divide. The college and city government hope that investing in this area will connect the campus to the community and bring more money downtown. Here, it seems, everyone agrees.

While he has not accepted — or rejected — invitations to speak with his neighbors, Mr. Brownell has, in his public role, spoken about them. Many of his remarks to N.R.A. members have traded on stereotypes about liberals. To the considerable anger of these neighbors, he positioned himself as the bemused and indulgent teacher of big-city professor types.

In a 2010 profile that appeared on an N.R.A. website, Mr. Brownell took credit for creating what he called “a gun culture” at the college and for educating Grinnell students and faculty members about firearms. “Previous anti-gun sentiment at the college has been offset by an open-mindedness that never would have existed without a little push from Pete,” the story said.

In a 2011 interview posted on the N.R.A. YouTube channel, Mr. Brownell said that the students “have never really broken through those things that somebody told them at a young age, and they’ve never really experimented with changing their thoughts about just a larger picture.”

What’s more, he said, he had turned “a couple of New York City professors” into gun enthusiasts who visit shooting ranges when they travel. “These trips are ‘Let’s go to the Metropolitan Opera and on the way let’s take our pistols.’”

Few people had even seen these remarks until Ms. Smart unearthed them last year. Mr. Kington, the college president, agreed in June to denounce Mr. Brownell’s statements about taking giddy Grinnell faculty members to the shooting range.

No one I spoke to had any idea who he might have been talking about, nor did they remember Mr. Brownell ever coming to campus to discuss these issues. But they would not necessarily object if he did. Lecturing about “something he has expertise on,” like the Second Amendment, Ms. Willis said, “would be completely keeping within an academic institution, the idea of critical thinking, all of that.”

All paths actually don’t cross at Saints Rest. Anyone in Grinnell will tell you that there are three kinds of people in town: the college students, the “College people” — faculty, staff and the white-collar professionals in that orbit, which even includes clergy like Ms. Klepfer and Ms. Abrahamson — and “everyone else.”

There’s another early-morning kaffeeklatsch at the Hardees across Highway 146, just outside of downtown. At lunchtime, farm-to-table Prairie Canary is a popular Main Street lunch spot, but lots of people head to the West Side Family Restaurant a mile away.

“College people” have been the most involved in these debates. They recognize that they need to bring “everyone else” into the conversation — Grinnell natives, farmers, blue-collar workers, Brownells employees, hospital staff — but have so far struggled to connect.

“There are certainly people on both extremes that want to make an issue out of this,” said Mr. Behrens, the city manager. But “most people in Grinnell go about their daily business. They’re glad Brownells is here, they’re glad the college is here.” Whatever political conflict there might be “never really surfaces.”

Some people do cut cross all the cultures. Molly Miller’s maternal grandparents owned both a farm in Poweshiek County and a diner downtown. She grew up in Iowa City, but she and her sister attended Grinnell College, and she lives and works in town.

Ms. Miller, too, likes the Brownells. She also says their family’s comfort comes at the expense of her family’s own. In November 1991, her mother, Ann Rhodes, was a vice president at the University of Iowa when a physics graduate student shot and killed three department faculty members and a postdoctoral researcher and injured two administrators in another building, before killing himself. Ms. Rhodes, who was also the university’s spokeswoman and tasked with handling the aftermath, was among the first to come upon a wounded colleague, who died the following day.

Ms. Miller was just an infant at the time. She grew up knowing that the shooting had a lasting effect on her mother’s physical and mental health, and on her family.

“I’m going to inherit my family’s farm,” she said. “But if my family’s farm was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year, I think I would find a different livelihood.”

At the Fraternal Order of the Eagles club, I settled in for a beer ($1.75 a pint, frosted mug!) next to Steve Hardeman and his friends Teresa Coon and Roger Van Donselaar. Dr. Coon is a family physician, and engaged to Mr. Van Donselaar, a Grinnell native who has owned a farm for over 30 years. Mr. Hardeman, too, is a native who works in farming.

Mr. Hardeman and Mr. Van Donselaar both grew up around firearms. Dr. Coon only recently relocated to Grinnell after more than two decades in the Quad Cities region of northwest Illinois and southeastern Iowa, a metropolitan area of nearly 400,000 people, where she ran a women’s health medical practice for 25 years.

Mr. Van Donselaar was pleasantly surprised when she managed to get him to have dinner at Prairie Canary. Ms. Coon does not share their views on firearms, which she cheerfully contested while jabbing Mr. Hardeman on the arm for emphasis. He was quite patient with this, up to a point.

No one at the bar made fun of me when I timidly mentioned bump-fire stocks. (These accessories modify a semiautomatic weapon to simulate the firing rate of an automatic.) Shortly after the Las Vegas shooting, where a dozen bump stocks were found in the gunman’s hotel room, retailers like Walmart and Cabela’s stopped carrying them.

Pages cached by the internet Archive and Google show that Brownells also removed the products from their online inventory sometime after Sept. 29, 2017; a company representative did not respond to a request to confirm the products’ removal.

Since then, several states have passed laws banning them, and the Justice Department has said it may reverse a 2010 decision and ban them under federal law. In May, Slide Fire Solutions, the largest bump stock manufacturer, which holds a patent on the devices, closed operations. (Its inventory is still being sold online.)

For gun control advocates, this seems like a victory, and it may be — or it may not. State and local bump stock bans face legal challenges, and local ordinances banning the devices in Ohio have been overturned.

More to the point, Mr. Hardeman said that he or most anyone at the bar could rig a semiautomatic firearm to simulate an automatic fire rate in 15 minutes, no bump stock needed. Brownells continues to carry parts and accessories that achieve similar results, including binary trigger modification parts, which ship to 44 states.

Mr. Hardeman told me a familiar story. He is proud that he was able to contribute to his impoverished household in his boyhood by hunting small game. When he hears that gun owners are irresponsible, he tells me, he’s affronted. To him, his neighbors are lumping him and his friends in with a group to which they don’t belong. He said it seems impossible to talk with them. “Liberals want to take my guns,” he said.

Virtually everyone in Grinnell has taken great care to say that they do not want to take anyone’s guns. This includes Ms. Abrahamson and Ms. Scott, who says that the distinction between gun control and gun safety matters. “Many of us are gun owners,” Ms. Scott said. “We don’t want to challenge the Second Amendment. We just want to know if there’s safety where there are guns. This is not an anti-movement.”

“But it’s what I hear all the time,” Mr. Hardeman said, throwing up his hands.

Before I could ask, the bartender set another frosted mug in front of me. “No, someone else got it for you,” she said when I tried to pay.

After all this not talking, few people seem to have thought about what they might actually say to Pete Brownell. “People keep telling me they want to have a conversation,” said Don A. Smith, an emeritus professor of history, emphasizing the last three words. “When I ask them what they wish to have a conversation about, they say they don’t know!”

Many people I spoke to brought up the concept of “Iowa nice” in our conversations. During my visit, I ferried four hardy senior ladies back downtown after a protest across the highway from Brownells. I asked them whether there’s any difference between Iowa, Midwestern and Minnesota nice. Everyone laughed, and someone piped up from the back seat, “No, but ours is better!”

“Iowa nice” could be the solution or the problem. The social contracts of small-town life seem rather less sturdy these days. No amount of moral clarity or urgency has made it possible to overcome the hurdle of getting people “on all sides” to talk to one another, even as they talk to one another about dozens of other things every day.

“It’s painful,” Ms. Abrahamson said. “I don’t want his family hurt — and I mean in their spirit. I don’t even know if we have that kind of effect on them or not. But I just think in a small town you just have to be more careful with each other.”

The person who circulates among and across all these local tribes with the most ease is Mr. Brownell — certainly because of his wealth, if not also because of his fluency in the cultures that collide or coexist here.

Our cultural ideas about civility and respect incline his neighbors to accept his silence. While many debate their right to carry big guns or their complicity in the gun epidemic, Mr. Brownell is, it seems, the only one who does not need to answer.

Ms. Willis, a fifth-generation Iowan, calls the phenomenon “Iowa polite.” And she said it had been tested. “That’s actually kind of hard to maintain, because there’s a sense of frustration that he won’t talk to us,” she said. “But we have maintained it.” Surely it can’t last.

In May, Mr. Brownell declined to serve a second year as N.R.A. president and was replaced by Oliver North. He remains a member of the organization’s board of directors. His work is not over.

Last month, a group of Senate Democrats asked Mr. Brownell and six other N.R.A. leaders for details about a 2015 trip to Moscow. There, the delegation met Maria Butina, who was charged last month with being a covert Russian agent in an investigation unrelated to the probe by Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel.

After the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February, stickers with the Brownells logo and the text “Brownells, where school shootings are good for business” appeared on walls and fixtures across downtown Grinnell.

No one would say who was responsible for them. It was a strong breach of the oppressive contract of niceness. But it wasn’t the only speech taking place in the public sphere. On my way out of town, I heard a radio spot advertising the can’t-miss Brownells Second Amendment Sale that weekend.

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