How a Gun Control Advocate and Gun Rights Advocate Overcame Their Differences and Became Close Friends

Editor’s note: This article is part of CNN Undivided series, which chronicles how Americans from very different backgrounds found common ground. In this series, which spans the midterm elections, we portray unlikely friendships between people of different ages, races, religions, and cultures.


Life can change forever in the space between two heartbeats. It’s a fact that Pati Navalta knows only too well.

In 2014, his 23-year-old son, Robby Poblete, was looking forward to a new career, training as a welder and planning his future in their hometown of Vallejo, California.

Then a sudden act of gun violence ended his life and set Navalta on an unexpected course.

From the depths of her grief, Navalta turned to her son’s example and chose to create. The longtime journalist, activist and author wrote a book about her experiences and founded the Robby Poblete Foundation in memory of her son.

« I thought if I created something to help the city become safer, it could literally change the narrative, » Navalta told CNN.

His foundation is based on three pillars: a gun buyback program, a professional apprenticeship program and a creative component, Art of Peace, in which artists create and display sculptures from firearms collected during buybacks. .

Although her mission was specifically created to honor the life and death of Robby, it also placed Navalta in the middle of the spiteful and divisive debate over gun control in the United States. She received death threats prior to her gun buy-back events. She regularly faces people who oppose her efforts to permanently remove illegally obtained firearms, such as the one used to kill her son, from the streets.

« When you talk about gun violence, it automatically becomes political and very charged, » Navalta says.

However, she found a way to address the divide and reach out to those on the other side.

Like Maurice Solis.

Of all the places to find that common ground, Facebook is certainly not the most likely.

And yet, it was there that Navalta met Solis, an auto glass technician and community leader involved in school and law enforcement programs in the Vallejo area. Solis is a prolific firearms enthusiast who owns an array of pistols and long guns, including rare and specialty firearms.

« I love guns because I believe the safety of all of our families rests in our own hands, » Solis told CNN. “The police are not always readily available in emergencies, and as a father I am my family’s first line of defence. I also like the sport of shooting.

Navalta with some of the weapons it collected through its buyback program.

In 2018, Solis responded to one of Navalta’s Facebook posts about its gun buybacks. He said he didn’t think they were an effective form of gun control.

Navalta could have ignored the post, but she saw that he was from Vallejo and his wife was at a social club she knew. She offered to meet him in person to explain her position.

There, at the couple’s dinner table, she told them about Robby and how much she loved him. Shouldn’t the common ground be, she said, that no one’s children be taken from them?

« Her story really spoke to me, especially as a father of a young son. She also pointed out that unwanted firearms are sometimes stolen from homes and used in violent crimes. If she could stop the one of those crimes, so for her it was worth it.

The two became friends, and Solis and his wife even attended two Art of Peace shows.

Whatever one’s opinion on gun control, the poetry of these sculptures — created from tools of violence — speaks to them in a way that political arguments do not, Navalta says. Rifle butts wrap around each other in branches that rise upwards. A pistol becomes a preening bird, the breech of a handgun a butterfly.

A sculpture made from gun parts and exhibited as part of Navalta's Art of Peace program.

“As a firearms enthusiast, I was impressed by the incredible art created from the collected guns. You would have to witness it for yourself and know its history to really put this art into perspective,” says Solis « It was some of the most inspiring and imaginable art I have seen with my own eyes. »

Navalta knows she can’t change people’s minds about why they own guns, and she doesn’t want to. But through this art, through her story, she knows she can find common ground.

“When you enter the conversation through art, it becomes much more heart-focused than head-focused,” she says.

Solis says gun owners in America are misunderstood because the public can sometimes view them as « crazy. »

« They can say ‘Why do you need all these different weapons?’ I’m a peaceful person and most gun enthusiasts I know are some of the most stable people I’ve met,” he says. « They just feel like the Second Amendment was in place so law-abiding citizens could feel safe and enjoy a classic American recreation in shooting, hunting and sportsmanship. »

Navalta says she wants to tell gun owners like Solis that she still believes in their right to protect themselves. In fact, his son Robby was a gun owner himself.

A bird sculpture from a 2018 Art of Peace exhibit in Alameda County, California.

« What we lack on both sides is empathy. There’s no effort to try to understand someone’s point of view, » she says. hard to explain to people why we want more gun control, there’s usually no effort to understand why people are so afraid to take their guns away. »

Such empathy is not easy. Navalta still has to live without her son, to bear the weight of assumptions and possibilities.

In 2019, she met a former inmate in San Francisco through one of the organizations her foundation works with. He had been convicted of homicide by firearm. When the man learned that Navalta had lost his son to gun violence, he made a stunning plea.

« He told me he could never apologize to the woman whose son he took, so he wanted to apologize to me, » she says.

Pati Navalta:

“I knew I would never get an apology from the person who killed my son. So I accepted an apology from a stranger, on behalf of a woman I didn’t know.

What words could well describe such a moment?

« Powerful, » says Navalta. « It’s powerful. »

For a grieving mother like Navalta and a proud gun owner like Solis, the gun debate isn’t just about guns: it’s about protection, freedom, pride and trust.

“I think the best way to make sense of both sides of the gun debate is to have an open heart, an open mind,” Solis says. “It’s not an easy subject to talk about. As a country, we need to come together like Pati and I did, and listen more than talk. Really listen, don’t just wait for a pause in the conversation to give our opinion or response.

Navalta says her experiences have shown her that no matter how divided two people may seem on an issue, there is always a common thread that can be found to connect them.

“Loss is a common thread. Grieving is a common thread. Love is a common thread,” she says. « If you pull those threads, you can bring people closer together. »

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