Violence brought them together — two shootings that shocked the country; shootings that tore the innocence from a historic Charleston church and a Florida high school.

On Tuesday, survivors of the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., came to Charleston for a town hall discussion on gun violence at the Sottile Theatre. They also met privately with the loved ones of the nine victims who died during the Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015.

The town hall included representatives of the "Road to Change," a tour featuring survivors of the Parkland shooting, as well as recent graduates of the high school and students across the country advocating for reforms to firearms laws. The tour will visit 75 cities, including Charleston, over the span of two months.

For Matt Deitsch, a graduate of the Florida high school, the tour's core message boils down to three main initiatives: get people to register to vote, educate on common sense gun law reforms and encourage registered voters to turn out to the polls.  

In traveling across the country, Deitsch and his fellow Road to Change members say they've found that most people agree on reforms like universal background checks and other gun laws aimed at improving public safety.

"This is not a polarizing issue in any other place but Congress," he said. "I should not be here today and I never expected to be here, but evil has brought us together in order to stop that evil."

During the sold out town hall, the students spoke about the toll gun violence has on communities across America. They pointed to statistics like the 96 people who die each day as a result of firearms and the fact that roughly half of those deaths are suicides.  

"More guns do not make any situation more safe," Deitsch said.

And Deitsch spoke about U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as an example of politicians who continue to do nothing while the communities they represent are hurt irreversibly by gun violence and said elected officials like Scott have not the right to continue representing the public if they continue to stand idly by.

Several of the speakers on the panel — including former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Jammal Lemy and Bria Smith, a high school student from Milwaukee, Wis., who is involved with the tour — spoke about the disparities in which gun violence is covered in poor, non-white communities. 

Violence in such areas is attributed to gangs and written off, Lemy and Smith said. They encouraged people of all backgrounds to look beyond their own lives and experiences, and to value all human lives, no matter what the background of the victims or the communities the violence happens in. 

In a press conference before the town hall, Deitsch said that as long as elected officials stand by and offer thoughts and prayers, but no action, communities across the country are not safe from gun violence.

The 20-year-old urged anyone eligible to vote to register and to come together in a unified front.

"If you learn something tonight and you fail to educate someone else, you have failed us and we have failed you," Deitsch said. 

He was joined by members of the Charleston community, including Pastor Thomas Dixon and Monica Jefferson, whose son was killed in a shooting in 2013.

Dixon echoed the message to voters and promised that a coalition of motivated citizens would come together and vote any politicians who have accepted money from the National Rifle Association or stood by and not acted to strengthen gun reform laws, out of office. 

For Jefferson, the message was simple: the pain of gun violence is never ending. 

"I don't know how many times I've stood in front of cameras, stood in front of people, and said the same statement," she said. "I don't know what it's going to take ... We have got to stop losing our children to the streets."

And Smith had a message for youth who live in communities impacted by violence and lack of resources across the country:

"It's easier to conform to the gun than it is to conform to the textbook. Don't let that narrative define you."

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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