By Chris Cotillo
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Among the hundreds gathered to rally for gun control in Polk Place on Thursday afternoon, dozens held signs.
“I don’t hate guns, I just like kids more,” one read. Another noted that “math is the only thing students should fear in school.” Some were simple (“Enough.”), some were personal (“I vote in one year. Be ready.”), and some were a bit more radical (“Disarm the police!”).
But one sign, held by a young African-American man who would only identify himself as a UNC Chapel Hill sophomore named Jimmy, got the most attention with his sign. It read, “Gun control equals slavery. F*** that.”
At first, Jimmy stood in the back of a large crowd gathered to listen to local politicians, student leaders and survivors of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Then he realized he wasn’t being seen enough. So about midway through the two-hour speech, he went toward the South Building, turned around, and made his message visible to a crowd that had spent the last hour shifting back and forth between sobbing at emotional testimonies and chanting for change.
As it turned out, Jimmy’s sign served as a provocative prop designed to cause discussions and arguments with other rallygoers. And as Jimmy soon proved with the dozen or so gun control advocates who approached him, it worked.
“Honestly, I don’t care about the sign,” Jimmy said. “I don’t even care about the argument on the sign. The thing that I came here to do is to let people know that most gun owners don’t value bullets more than people’s lives. We want to find a solution as well.”
Curiosity over sign creates thought-provoking conversations
Andrew Bryant and Connor Schorer, two freshmen at UNC-CH, attended the rally for the same reason as almost everyone else in attendance: to advocate for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Parkland shooting. They were surprised to see someone holding a sign like Jimmy’s and decided to approach him.
“The sign did its job,” Parker said. “It was provocative and encouraged me to go over and ask him what the hell he was talking about.”
Parker and Schorer were among a group of seven arguing with Jimmy, who had by that point gained a couple of supporters himself. Both said that their conversation was intellectually stimulating, but criticized Jimmy for not being able to support his claims.
“He went back on himself a lot,” Schorer said. “At one point he said opposing stricter gun control laws would save lives but that it wouldn’t stop anything. Later he said that if it saved any lives, he’d give his gun up.”
Jimmy set up shop to the left of the speakers at the South Building, with rallygoers confronting him every couple of minutes. While he said some protestors had gotten “heated” during their conversations, he said that the arguments were generally productive.
“Not everyone is going to agree all the time,” Jimmy said. “There are going to be situations where some people just don’t see a potential solution until after it’s enacted and works. I do think that, in an age where people are becoming more and more isolated and separated, it’s valuable to have one-on-one conversations. It can break down a lot of things you wouldn’t be able to break down on YouTube or Twitter.”
Bryant seemed to find the conversations helpful as well.
“It’s very hard to think of an answer [about guns] because it requires so much knowledge and research that not all of us have the time to devote to that,” Bryant said. “I like that I actually got to talk it out with someone I disagreed with. I think that’s a productive way to deal with this problem.”
Shootings in America far too common in comparison to some countries
For students like Jimmy, Bryant and Schorer, the debate on gun control has always been a part of life in America. College students today have been alive for seven of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, with current seniors at the school having been in college for five shootings that have killed a total of 163 people over the last four years.
But for UNC-CH senior Shubhang Mehta, who was raised in Melbourne, Australia, the thought of a school shooter never crossed his mind.
“Never, mate. Never,” Mehta said. “You come to a country like America and come to a university and hear these other shooters at different universities and different high schools. It’s scary to think that any one day, someone could come shoot up where you go to school.”
Australia has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, largely due to legislation introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre that restricted the private ownership of semi-automatic and pump-action weapons. Some have suggested that the U.S. enact similar strict legislation, an argument that Mehta agrees with despite the large difference in population size between the two nations.
“I think there’s truth in the argument that gun control works,” Mehta said. “To any Australian, it’s second nature to say you shouldn’t have guns.”
Now in his third year at UNC-CH, Mehta is subject to the ongoing gun debate just like those who grew up in the U.S. He said his friends at home would be shocked to see how much of a hot-button issue guns are here.
“They’d honestly react the same way as me,” Mehta said. The fact that people have to have this discussion and that it’s such a lively discussion with such equal sides…it’s just ridiculous.”
As school shootings continue to increase throughout the years, so do the amount of people standing up for stricter gun control, creating a movement for change.
“You are making a difference,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger told the gathered crowd Thursday. “Now keep going.”
Edited by Brittney Robinson