AP National Writer
BOSTON (AP) -- On a Friday afternoon in December, Lee Pelton was driving home with his 13-year-old daughter in the passenger seat when radio reports of the Newtown school massacre forced him over to the side of the road.
"I held her hand as we listened ... and we both cried," said Pelton, the president of Boston's Emerson College. "We're both struggling with how could this have happened, why it happened? Those are the things we talked about. We didn't have answers. But I knew at that moment I was going to do something."
Overnight, the answer of just what to do began to crystallize. The next day, Pelton sent a long email to all of the college's 4,500 students and 1,500 faculty and staff. Together they would "seek to make sense of the senseless," he wrote, by launching a probing discussion of gun violence in which all sides would listen to one another and search for solutions. The unresolved question: Given the fierce divide and raw emotions that surround the debate over guns, is that kind of conversation even possible?
Pelton decided it wasn't enough to search for the answer at his college alone. He wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama and more than 280 other university and college presidents signed on, pledging to launch debate about the issues surrounding guns on their own campuses.
That discussion in higher education had already begun, and has only grown. Pelton's letter went out about the same time as another, penned by the president of Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and signed by leaders of more than 370 colleges. That letter urges lawmakers to oppose legislation allowing guns on campuses, close a loophole allowing some gun sales without a background check, reinstate a ban on military-style weapons and require safety standards for guns.
Institutions including Bethany College in West Virginia, whose president signed both letters, and Brown University in Rhode Island, which is acting on its own, say they are planning forums on gun violence later this semester. Oglethorpe President Lawrence Schall said he plans to deliver a speech on his campus this month about the need for college presidents to speak out on important issues, highlighted by the focus on combatting gun violence.
Pelton, who acknowledges his own strong views on gun control, says he expected skepticism.
Many American colleges and universities are regarded, particularly by conservative critics, as centers of left-leaning views. And students and professors at Emerson, facing Boston Common and just down the hill from the gold dome of Massachusetts' capitol, routinely describe it as a decidedly liberal institution. It sits in a strongly left-leaning city, in the state that gave the nation the Kennedys, was the only one of 50 whose voters backed George McGovern's quixotic 1972 run for president, and already is home to some of the nation's strictest gun laws.
"I've had some detractors," Pelton said, describing a note he received from a gun owner "taking me to task for using my First Amendment rights to undermine his Second Amendment rights."
But when students returned to the Emerson campus in mid-January following the holiday recess, Pelton's call to discuss arms found supporters.
Gregory Payne, a professor who years ago worked as a speechwriter for Los Angeles Mayor and Democrat Tom Bradley, assigned students in his classes to talk about gun policy and create public service announcements that would address the issue. A political communications instructor, Spencer Kimball, a political consultant who worked with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, lead Emerson's polling club in taking a scientific survey of U.S. voters' attitudes about gun legislation. Benny Ambush, a performing arts faculty member, began making plans to stage a reading of a play about the role of guns in American society.
By last week, though, when Emerson hosted the first of four panel discussions on gun policy, the issue's complexity and the difficult terrain it covers were reconfirmed.
With about 130 students and professors gathered in a small campus theater, four panelists took the stage. A veteran gun industry lobbyist was seated next to an activist whose billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike once warned "the cost of handguns keeps going up," alongside photos of children killed with guns. A director of the state's National Rifle Association affiliate took a chair to the right of an expert on urban crime. The moderator set the evening's objective as a quest for common ground.
But the four men had trouble even agreeing on a diagnosis of the problem.