Mikie Sherrill glanced at the seven or eight West Orange High School students stitting around her and complimented them for standing up to the NRA. In fact, she said she’s never seen a more powerful public force against the NRA than today’s students.
No one was treading on new ground here.
Ever since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February, high school students across the nation have led the fight for more gun laws. Many walked out of school in protest on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Florida shooting, and again on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Today’s “roundtable discussion” featured students, Sherrill, the leading candidate for the Democratic congressional nomination in the 11th District, and national gun control advocates Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly. Giffords is a former congresswoman who was shot in 2011 while holding a meeting with constituents in Arizona. Six people were killed in the attack. Giffords, who was seriously injured, did not seek reelection in 2012.
Kelly, her husband, is a former astronaut and a graduate of West Orange High School.
The students described their protests and displayed art work condemning gun violence. Organizers said the first goal was to protest; the second was to do something to make a difference.
That very common cliche – make a difference – has been bouncing around anti-gun rallies since they began. But how does that happen?
New Jersey, of course, already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the union. But as Sherrill pointed out, that doesn’t prevent someone from buying a powerful weapon elsewhere and illegally bringing it to New Jersey.
The students mentioned their support for better background checks and a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons. These are longstanding aims of today’s gun control movement.
It was Kelly, who remembered taking a Spanish course in the very room where the roundtable was taking place, who got around to the crux of the matter.
He told students they have to vote.
When he asked how many were registered, about three or four hands shot up, but then some quickly came down. It was clear some of the students – assuming they were 18 – didn’t know if they were registered or not.
That’s a problem. Protests and marchers mean little if young people don’t vote.
School officials said that after the initial protest, about 75 eligible students registered.
Kelly told students that young people, or, if you will, millennials, have the lowest voter participation rate in the country. And if that continues, no one is going to listen to their demands for more gun control.
Emphasizing the point from the other end of the spectrum, Kelly said that when his wife ran for Congress, he spent a lot of time campaigning with her in nursing homes, because “that’s where the voters are.” Arizona has an older population, but you can see his point. To get results from public officials, you have to be politically active.
Or as Kelly put it, “Why do you think old people have health care?”
This may be of philosophical concern to Kelly, who isn’t running for anything, but it’s a prime importance to Sherrill.
There is much excitement among Democrats this year, but the 11th District still has more registered Republicans than Democrats. To win, Sherrill needs people who may have never voted in a mid-term election before to come out. That could describe many millennials.
If their issue is guns, Kelly and Giffords are willing to help. Following their West Orange appearance, the pair were scheduled to campaign for Democratic congressional candidate Andy Kim in South Jersey’s District 3.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage,” Giffords said. “We must never stop fighting.”
Explaining his interest in the ongoing battle for a safer America, Kelly offered an understatement to be sure.
“This is an issue that has affected Gabby and I in a lot of different ways,” he said.
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