Mass. campus searches for answers to gun violence
"I'm going to take up your challenge here and find some common ground if I can, and actually, it shouldn't be very hard," Feldman said. He endorsed some broadening of background checks, but rejected any ban on weapons or caps on the size of ammunition magazines.
"Quite frankly, any gun that goes on the ban list goes on Richie Feldman's buy list," he said.
The discussion stayed civil, but as body language tensed and rhetoric hardened, it took on an unmistakable edge.
A military-style rifle "was used to kill babies in Newtown and now everybody wants it," Rosenthal said, admonishing Feldman when he interrupted. A few minutes later, Moysey did the same to Rosenthal.
"This issue is complex. It's not simple. So we need to have a thoughtful conversation about it. I think that's what we're trying to do," said the criminologist, Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University.
The mood grew testier still during a question-and-answer period. One woman with a heavy Russian accent who wouldn't give her name warned that any restrictions on guns risked sending the U.S. down the same path as Nazi Germany. An Emerson senior, Maria Warith, who said she supports the right to own guns, asked why they were getting so much attention after Newtown when the media seemed to largely overlook hundreds of killings in Chicago's black neighborhoods.
After nearly two hours, Rosenthal, the gun control activist, couldn't hide his frustration.
"I don't think anybody's mind was changed. It never is in these kinds of debates," he said. "Unfortunately tonight we didn't talk about what to do with your outrage."
The divisions seemed to catch some in the audience off-guard.
"I don't know if I was looking for agreement or for people to come to terms of mutual understanding," said Hena Rizvi, a senior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., recalling a childhood spent around families who treated gun ownership as a sober responsibility. "But I was just really frustrated about not coming to (agreement that) ... there is an issue in America. We need to address that people are dying."
Others, though, said the debate fuels a larger discussion, forcing ordinary people to confront hard issues and points of view different from their own.
A few hours before the forum, Payne asked 21 students in his advocacy and argument class to pull their desks into a wide circle and used questions from the polling club's recent survey as the starting point for an exchange of views. All but two students raised their hands to back universal background checks. A few more signaled their opposition to a ban on military-style weapons, but they were in the clear minority.
"I just don't think anyone needs an assault weapon. I think the bigger problem, overall, is not gun control. It's American paranoia," student Andrea Negovan said.
But Julian Cohen, a film major from Tenafly, N.J., disagreed. "If they (criminals) get guns either way, then we're going to need them to protect ourselves, you know what I'm saying?" he said. A classmate, Maggie Morlath, rolled her eyes skeptically.
The conversation didn't end there, though.
Juliet Albin, a student from Cypress, Texas, talked about how her own family has struggled with mental illness, explaining the challenges of committing someone to an institution for care.
"I think that took a lot of courage," Morlath said. "You could tell she was coming from an emotional place."
Sophomore Donovan Birch talked about growing up in a high-crime neighborhood in Boston where gun violence was linked to gang activity, joblessness and other deep-seated problems. Later, he recalled attending the funeral of a cousin who died of gunshot wounds.
"I think all of this, the assault weapons ban, is just a facade for other issues that we refuse to address," he told his fellow students. Next to him, sophomore Becca Rybczyk, from a small town in northwest Connecticut, nodded in agreement.
"I definitely think talking about this is eye opening because it shows, even if we pride ourselves on having knowledge about it, we're still sort of ignorant of what's going on," she said.
By the end of the two-hour class, the conversation was no closer to resolution and a long way from Pelton's original call to move toward "positive action" by challenging the status quo. But he sees it as a step.
"I think the conversation has already begun. There will be different points of view. There will be disputes," the college president says. "My obligation ... is to keep that conversation alive on behalf of those young people, so I can go to bed every night believing that they did not die in vain."
Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller .