By Troy Hudson
In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, shooting that left 17 people dead, a national discussion around gun violence has ignited passionate debate in this country. This debate is playing out in social media, television and newspapers — and on Thursday, March 22, in Jewett Auditorium on the SMCC South Portland Campus. Students and faculty came together there to share their opinions at a forum hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center Student Group as part of their “Real Talk” series. SPLC members Dorcas Ngaliema and David Plouffe moderated the event.
The forum presented two questions, “What problems does America face regarding gun violence?” and “Do you have any suggestions for how to fix it?” before opening the floor to those in attendance. The conversation mostly centered around legislation, although a few students shared more personal perspectives.
While a variety of opinions were expressed, the tone of the event remained respectful. Some argued that legislation was ultimately an ineffective means of reducing gun violence, while others pointed out that focusing on guns doesn’t address the larger problem of violence and abuse in our culture. Others expressed frustration at the ease of access to guns and talked about the need for universal
The final speaker at the forum, an instructor, who prefers to remain anonymous, shared a personal story about a shooting that took place at Montana State University in 1990. A 19-year-old student who was demonstrating clear signs of mental distress ended up murdering two fellow freshmen in their dorm rooms with a shotgun. “There is an immediate, incredibly intimate, personal level that wreaks havoc when that happens,” s/he said. “Three families in Montana were ripped apart by that murder.” The instructor emphasized that the real-world, human impacts of gun violence must not be forgotten as we seek for a solution to this contentious issue.
Victims of the recent Parkland shooting and their supporters are fighting to bring that personal experience to the forefront of national politics. On March 24, the March for Our Lives protest drew thousands of students and teachers to Washington, D.C., to demand tougher gun laws from lawmakers, and was supported by rallies in hundreds of other cities, including our own Portland, Maine.
Communications major Oğuzhan Özkan was present at the Portland rally, which drew as many as 5,000 supporters to an eight-block section of Congress Street in front of City Hall. Özkan was just passing through when he saw a large crowd of people holding anti-Trump signs. “At first I thought it was like Bernie Sanders had posted something on Facebook and people were rallying for that, but then I thought that it must be something good and I should go and blend in.” He said the participants ranged from small children to the elderly. “There were a lot of senior citizens. That’s something that caught my attention. I guess they want to leave a better place for their [grandchildren].”
According to Özkan, law enforcement was present to block off the street but otherwise kept a low profile. Rather than an atmosphere of anger or hostility, he described an uplifting mood. “It was really positive. People were really hopeful, and they were nice to each other.”
The willingness to engage in debate over issues like gun violence is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. At a time when faith in our politicians seems to be lower than ever, we may take heart in the strength of our communities. Through discussion and mutual understanding, we are getting closer to a solution that will prevent more tragic losses from occurring in the future while honoring the rights of our citizens to safety and security.