Ann Colby-Cummings and Peter Alois on how to build relationships for common-sense gun reform

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

 

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Ann Colby-Cumming’s “enough” moment came the morning she opened the paper and read with horror that a child was gunned down in his inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood. Another child who life was snuffed out to senseless violence. Enough. Enough. Enough.

Like many mothers in America today, Ann fears for the safety of her own children. But there was more to her motivation.  “It could be my kids on the front page of the paper tomorrow,” Ann explains, “but these kids who’ve been shot? They belong to each and every one of us.”

“These are all of our children” is the steady drumbeat that propels this white, middle-age, middle-class, suburban, human resources professional to sit her two sons and husband down and tell them: “I’m about to go all in. Things could get really unpleasant for me, and for us. Are you with me?”

With their enthusiastic nods, an activist is born.

After decades in HR, Ann knew how to build relationships, listen with patience, and stay open to opposing points of view. These skills helped her quickly rise to leading Gun Sense Chester County, Pennsylvania an all-volunteer, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reduce gun violence.

Finding common ground means working together to define what those who would never own a gun, and those who enjoy owning them, can all live with.  Non-partisan polls from PEW research and Quinnipiac University have found that there are areas of policy where there is clear agreement between more than 70% of gun owners and non-gun owners alike.  After the 1994 assault weapons ban that included a ten-year expiration date was not renewed in 2004, it became clear to organizations like Gun Sense that any policies need broad support to be sustainable.

Realizing quickly that she needed a better gun literacy and a wider perspective to be effective, Ann sought out a gun owner whose name kept coming up.  Peter Alois is a Vietnam veteran, career diplomat, grandfather, avid sport shooter, and leader at his local gun club.

Over tuna fish sandwiches at the local diner, an unlikely friendship began. After spending hours with Peter and Ann, it’s clear that a big part of why their friendship works is their willingness to be surprised. While neither is trying to change the other’s mind, over the years, they’ve discovered that it has happened anyway.

This clip begins with the two of them recalling one of the many switch-flipping conversations they’ve shared.  What Peter and Ann don’t say is as instructive as what they do. They don’t debate. Or push for agreement. Or force common ground.

Staying in relationship, playfully challenging each other when they disagree, as they tenderly demonstrate in this video, cultivates the possibility for them to understand a new point of view.

Their mutual admiration is never more evident than when they leave their respective comfort zones. For Peter, it was Ann’s courage to accept his invitation to try her hand at target practice at his gun club. For Ann, it was Peter’s willingness to stand alone as the only gun owner (or, as they later discovered, the only one who would admit to ownership) in anti-gun circles.

A new generation of leaders seamlessly weave back together the narratives that have long divided us. Just before The March for Our Lives, leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School visited Washington D.C.’s Thurgood Marshall High School, with a primarily African American student body, where two students were recently killed by guns.  The Parkland students understood the need to use their media spotlight to illuminate the stories and struggles of students of color who face a different—but just as insidious—type of gun violence every day.

Emma Gonzalez showed us that silence is often more powerful than words.  Sam Fuentes taught us that you can vomit on stage and then deliver an unimaginably powerful and heart-breaking poem.  Because she—and her words—aren’t about some false notion of perfection, they’re about something much greater: the transformation it takes to move from loss to redemption to love.

Relationship by relationship, conversation by conversation, grassroots efforts like Ann and Peter’s join together with the brave new leadership by our youth, to strengthens our connective tissue, building our collective muscles to hold the complexity of these issues and each other.

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