How a gun control advocate and a gun rights advocate overcame their differences and became best friends


Editor’s note: This article is part of CNN undivided series that tells the story of how Americans from very different backgrounds find harmony. In this series, which includes the midterm elections, we explore the unlikely friendships between people of different ages, races, religions and cultures.



CNN

In the space between two heartbeats life can change forever. It is true that Pati Navalta knows him well.

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

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

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

“I thought if I could create something to help make the city safer, it could literally change the narrative,” Navalta told CNN.

His foundation has three pillars: a gun buyback program, a vocational training program, and a creative component, Art of Peace, where artists create and display sculptures of firearms collected from purchases.

Although his mission was created specifically to honor Robby’s life and death, it also placed Navalta at the center of America’s gun control debate. He has received death threats before buying the weapons. He struggles with people who oppose or disparage his efforts to get an illegally obtained firearm, like the one used to kill his son, off the streets for good.

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

However, he has found a way to approach the divide, and to reach out to those on the other side.

Like Maurice Solis.

Of all the places to find that common ground, Facebook is probably not.

And yet, that’s where 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 gunsmith with a large number of pistols and long guns, including some rare and unique firearms.

“I love guns because I feel like the safety of all our families is in our hands,” Solis told CNN. “The police are not always present in emergency situations, and as a father, I am the first line of defense for my family. I also love the sport of shooting.’

Navalta with some of the weapons he has collected through his acquisition program.

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

Navalta could ignore the message, but he saw that he was from Vallejo and that he was at a social club where he knew his wife. He offered to meet her personally to explain his position.

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

“His story really spoke to me, especially being the father of a young son. He pointed out that sometimes unwanted weapons are stolen from homes and used in violent crimes. If he stopped one of these crimes, for him, it was worth it.”

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

Regardless of one’s views on gun control, The poetry of these sculptures – created from the instruments of violence – speaks to them in a way that political arguments do not, says Navalta. The creatures of the rifle revolve around each other on their upward reaching branches. A gun turns into a gray bird, the slide of a gun into a butterfly.

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

“As a gun lover, I was blown away by the incredible art made out of collected weapons. You’d have to see it for yourself and learn its story to really put this art into perspective,” says Solis. “It was the most inspiring and imaginative art I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.”

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

“When you enter the conversation through art, it’s much more focused on the heart than on the heart,” she says.

Solis says gun owners in America are misunderstood because the public can sometimes see them as “crazy.”

“Why do you need all these different weapons?” I’m a peaceful person and most of the gun lovers I know are some of the most stable people I’ve ever met,” he says. “They believe that the Second Amendment was in place so that law-abiding citizens could feel safe and enjoy a classic American sport of shooting, hunting and sportsmanship.”

Navalta says it’s important to tell gun owners like Solis that he still believes in the right to protect themselves. In fact, his son Robby was a gun owner.

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

“What we lack from both sides is empathy. There is no effort to try to understand someone’s point of view,” he says. “On the one hand, while it’s hard to tell people we want more gun control, there’s usually no effort to understand why people fear getting rid of guns.”

Such empathy is not easy. Navalta still has to live without a son, he has to bear the weight of what and what might happen.

In 2019, he met a formerly incarcerated man in San Francisco through one of the organizations his foundation works with. He was accused of murder with a gun. When the man learned that Navalta had lost his son to gun violence, he made a shocking plea.

“He told me he could never apologize to the woman who took his son, so he wanted to apologize to me,” she says.

Pati Navalta:

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

What words can describe such a moment?

“Strong,” Navalta says. “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 confidence.

“I think the best way to make sense of both sides of the gun debate is to have an open heart,” Solis says. “It is not a simple matter to discuss. We need to come together as a people like Pati and I, and listen more than talk. Really listen, don’t just wait for a break in the conversation to give our opinion or answer.’

Navalta says that his experience has shown him that even if two people seem divided on an issue, there is always a common thread that can be found to connect them.

“Losing is a common thread. Grief is a common thread. Love is the common thread,” he says. “If you pull on those strings, you can bring people together.”