Editor’s Note: This article is part of CNN’s Undivided series, which chronicles how Americans of very different backgrounds have found common ground. In this series, which runs through the midterm elections, we profile unlikely friendships between people of differing ages, races, religions and cultures.
Life can change forever in the space between two heartbeats. It’s a fact Pati Navalta knows all too 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 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 looked 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 her son’s memory.
“I thought if I created something to help the city become safer, then it could literally change the narrative,” Navalta told CNN.
Her foundation has three pillars: a gun buyback program, a vocational apprenticeship program and a creative component, Art of Peace, in which artists create and exhibit sculptures from firearms collected at the buybacks.
While her mission was specifically created to honor Robby’s life and death, it also placed Navalta in the midst of America’s rancorous and divisive gun control debate. She has received death threats before her gun buyback events. She contends regularly with people who oppose or demean her efforts to get illegally obtained firearms, like the one used to kill her son, off the street for good.
“When you talk about gun violence, it automatically becomes political and very charged,” Navalta says.
However, she has found a way to approach the divide, and to extend a hand to those on the other side.
Like Maurice Solis.
They forged a friendship through compassion, and art
Of all the places to find this common ground, Facebook is definitely not the most likely.
And yet that is where Navalta met Solis, an auto glass technician and community leader who is involved with school and law enforcement programs in the Vallejo area. Solis is a prolific gun enthusiast who owns an array of pistols and long guns, including some rare and specialty firearms.
“I love guns because I feel the safety of all of our families lies upon our own hands,” Solis told CNN. “Police are not always readily available in emergency situations, and as a father, I am the first line of defense for my family. I also love the sport of shooting.”
In 2018, Solis responded to one of Navalta’s Facebook posts about her 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 in 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 are taken away from them?
“Her story really spoke to me, especially being a father of a young son. She also made the great point that sometimes unwanted guns are stolen from homes and used in violent crimes. If she could stop one of those crimes then, to her, it was worth it.”
The two became friends, and Solis and his wife even attended two Art of Peace shows.
Whatever someone’s views on gun control, the poetry of these sculptures – created from tools of violence – speaks to them in way that political arguments do not, Navalta says. Rifle stocks twist around each other in upward-reaching branches. A pistol becomes a preening bird, the slide of a handgun a butterfly.
“As a lover of guns, the incredible art made from the guns collected had me in awe. You would have to witness it for yourself and know her story to really place this art into perspective,” Solis says. “It was some of the most inspirational and imaginable art I have seen with my own eyes.”
Her key to finding common ground? Empathy
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-centered than head-centered,” she says.
Solis says gun owners in America are misunderstood because the public can sometimes see them as “crazy.”
“They may say ‘Why do you need all those different weapons?’ I am a peaceful person and most gun enthusiasts I know are some of the most stable people I have met,” he says. “They just feel the second amendment was in place so that law abiding citizens can feel safe and enjoy a classic American recreation in shooting, hunting, and sportsmanship.”
Navalta says she makes of point of telling gun owners like Solis that she still believes in their right to protect themselves. In fact, her son Robby was a gun owner himself.
“What we lack on both sides is empathy. There is no effort to try to understand someone’s point of view,” she says. “While on one hand, it is hard to express to people why we want more gun control, there is typically no effort to understand why people are so fearful of taking their guns away.”
She once got an apology from a stranger
Such empathy is not easy. Navalta still has to live without her son, to carry the weight of what-ifs and might-haves.
In 2019, she met a formerly incarcerated man in San Francisco through one of the organizations her foundation works with. He had been convicted of homicide using a gun. When the man learned Navalta had lost her 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.
“I knew I was never going to get an apology from the person who took my son’s life. So I accepted an apology from a stranger, on behalf of a woman I didn’t know.”
What words could possibly describe such a moment?
“Powerful,” 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 trust.
“I think the best way to make sense of both sides of the gun debate is to have an open heart, open mind,” Solis says. “It is not a simple topic to discuss. We as a country need to come together as Pati and I did, and listen more than speak. Really listen, not just wait for a pause in 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. Grief is a common thread. Love is a common thread,” she says. “If you pull on these threads, you can bring people closer to each other.”