BOSTON -- 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 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 combating 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.
The place to start, said Stop Handgun Violence founder John Rosenthal, is by requiring background checks for all gun purchases and banning sales of military-style rifles. But Steve Moysey of the NRA-affiliated Gun Owners' Action League, said such proposals mistakenly focus on guns as the cause of mass murders, rather than underlying problems. And Richard Feldman, the lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, shook his head at descriptions of so-called assault weapons.
"I'm going to take up your challenge here and find some common ground if I can, and actually, it shouldn't be very hard," Feldman said. He endorsed some broadening of background checks, but rejected any ban on weapons or caps on the size of ammunition magazines.
"Quite frankly, any gun that goes on the ban list goes on Richie Feldman's buy list," he said.
The discussion stayed civil, but as body language tensed and rhetoric hardened, it took on an unmistakable edge.
A military-style rifle "was used to kill babies in Newtown and now everybody wants it," Rosenthal said, admonishing Feldman when he interrupted. A few minutes later, Moysey did the same to Rosenthal.
"This issue is complex. It's not simple. So we need to have a thoughtful conversation about it. I think that's what we're trying to do," said the criminologist, Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University.
The mood grew testier still during a question-and-answer period. One woman with a heavy Russian accent who wouldn't give her name warned that any restrictions on guns risked sending the U.S. down the same path as Nazi Germany. An Emerson senior, Maria Warith, who said she supports the right to own guns, asked why they were getting so much attention after Newtown when the media seemed to largely overlook hundreds of killings in Chicago's black neighborhoods.
After nearly two hours, Rosenthal, the gun control activist, couldn't hide his frustration.
"I don't think anybody's mind was changed. It never is in these kinds of debates," he said. "Unfortunately tonight we didn't talk about what to do with your outrage."
The divisions seemed to catch some in the audience off-guard.
"I don't know if I was looking for agreement or for people to come to terms of mutual understanding," said Hena Rizvi, a senior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., recalling a childhood spent around families who treated gun ownership as a sober responsibility. "But I was just really frustrated about not coming to (agreement that) ... there is an issue in America. We need to address that people are dying."
Others, though, said the debate fuels a larger discussion, forcing ordinary people to confront hard issues and points of view different from their own.
A few hours before the forum, Payne asked 21 students in his advocacy and argument class to pull their desks into a wide circle and used questions from the polling club's recent survey as the starting point for an exchange of views. All but two students raised their hands to back universal background checks. A few more signaled their opposition to a ban on military-style weapons, but they were in the clear minority.
"I just don't think anyone needs an assault weapon. I think the bigger problem, overall, is not gun control. It's American paranoia," student Andrea Negovan said.
But Julian Cohen, a film major from Tenafly, N.J., disagreed. "If they (criminals) get guns either way, then we're going to need them to protect ourselves, you know what I'm saying?" he said. A classmate, Maggie Morlath, rolled her eyes skeptically.
The conversation didn't end there, though.
Juliet Albin, a student from Cypress, Texas, talked about how her own family has struggled with mental illness, explaining the challenges of committing someone to an institution for care.
"I think that took a lot of courage," Morlath said. "You could tell she was coming from an emotional place."
Sophomore Donovan Birch talked about growing up in a high-crime neighborhood in Boston where gun violence was linked to gang activity, joblessness and other deep-seated problems. Later, he recalled attending the funeral of a cousin who died of gunshot wounds.
"I think all of this, the assault weapons ban, is just a facade for other issues that we refuse to address," he told his fellow students. Next to him, sophomore Becca Rybczyk, from a small town in northwest Connecticut, nodded in agreement.
"I definitely think talking about this is eye opening because it shows, even if we pride ourselves on having knowledge about it, we're still sort of ignorant of what's going on," she said.
By the end of the two-hour class, the conversation was no closer to resolution and a long way from Pelton's original call to move toward "positive action" by challenging the status quo. But he sees it as a step.
"I think the conversation has already begun. There will be different points of view. There will be disputes," the college president says. "My obligation ... is to keep that conversation alive on behalf of those young people, so I can go to bed every night believing that they did not die in vain."
Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features (at) ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller.