How The Parkland Students Are Already Winning The Battle On Gun Control
Nearly a thousand people packed a Utah Expo center last weekend for what was rumored to be a contentious town hall on gun reform. Salt Lake City was a stop on the “Road to Change” bus tour, a nationwide initiative launched by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting survivors and other teen activists. Working in conjunction with local chapters of March for Our Lives, they’ve organized town halls like this one across the nation from Chicago to Denver to Los Angeles.
When the Parkland teens arrived in Salt Lake City, members of the Utah Gun Exchange followed in their footsteps. The Utah Gun Exchange, who are infamous for their confrontational tactics involving an armored vehicle and a mock machine gun, had been haunting and heckling the Road to Change tour all summer. Now on home turf and with the advantage of more significant numbers, their heavily armed presence threatened what was intended to be a peaceful event. Venues, including the Larry H. Miller Megaplex, backed out of contracts to host the town hall citing a contentious and potentially violent situation.
Despite last-minute venue changes and tension from gun advocates, both the national and local March for Our Lives team executed the event Saturday night to the satisfaction of both sides. While the Utah Gun Exchange did attend, they’d already voiced their concerns and been assured of being heard by the organizers. Although there were some tense moments, including when a young man from the Utah Gun Exchange brandished a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to taunt the crowd, the event was peaceful. Gun advocates were vastly outnumbered by the sea of red, orange, and blue shirts of March for Our Lives, Moms Demand, and Everytown.
Inside the panel fielded the same questions they’ve answered hundreds of times before, debunking the talking points frequently used in debates about gun reform. Including this oldie but goodie:
“How do you respond to the argument that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun?”
“That argument is not saying, ‘We need to stay safe. We need to stay protected. We need to save our lives.’ It’s saying, ‘Let’s add more guns to the situation.,” Ryan Deitsch responded. When someone in the crowd booed Ryan’s answer, Kyrah Simon glared down the heckler and grabbed the microphone.
“That argument honestly shows that someone has a far greater attachment to a gun than a human life,” she said with conviction as the crowd jumped to its feet and shook the room with applause.
Salt Lake City’s Road to Change town hall was also a forceful reminder that these teens are NOT children. They are articulate, well-seasoned activists who navigate controversial topics with a deft understanding of their role in promoting change. March for Our Lives is focused on a singular goal and their messaging across the diverse team is remarkably consistent. They want every corner of America to understand that no place is safe from violence. And that we are all responsible for creating a safer environment, starting with our own cities, suburbs, and schools.
Utah’s epidemic of gun violence
While you may think of Utah as a wholesome, small-town atmosphere, it’s seen its fair share of gun violence. While the rate of gun murders is low, the rate of gun deaths is quite high, placing Utah as 19th in the United States for death by firearm. In fact, you are more likely to die from a gunshot than a car crash within the state limits. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah teenagers, and half of all suicides in the state involve a gun.
It would make sense then that Utah might embrace gun control, but it’s done exactly the opposite. While DUI laws here are the strictest in the nation, enforcing one of the lowest blood alcohol thresholds in the United States, you can buy a firearm and carry it concealed in Utah without a permit. And as long as you don’t get it from a licensed dealer, you can also get around having a background check. Something organizations like the Utah Gun Exchange, which promote platforms for gun owners to buy and sell their firearms, make a tidy profit off doing.
“We have to cut the crap. Utah Gun Exchange is following us to increase their sale and notoriety using the media as their tool to destroy the truth that the youth of America are standing up against the gun lobby and corrupt politicians to save our lives because our parents won’t.” – David Hogg
It’s not just teenagers that are at risk from gun deaths and suicide in Utah. It’s also women. Utah has an abnormally high rate of domestic violence-related homicides. While domestic violence situations account for about 30% of the homicide rate nationwide, Utah’s rate hovers around 44%. That means that if you live in the Beehive state and your intimate partner has a gun, you are 500% more likely to die from gun-related violence.
“I think some of our biggest obstacles, one of them in particular, is that perception that Salt Lake doesn’t have a problem, Utah doesn’t have a problem, with gun violence. And that simply is not true.” —Elizabeth Love, Utah high schooler and March for Our Lives SLC activist
Despite living in a red state that has traditionally supported unfettered gun rights, March for Our Lives SLC activists remain convinced that youth engagement and activism is the key to turning the tide and winning legislative battles that will result in common sense gun control. These town halls aren’t just about raising awareness and finding common ground with gun advocacy groups. They’re also about registering voters in key districts like Utah’s CD 4, a seat currently held by Mia Love, who has earned an A rating and hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign support from the NRA.
“I think what the ‘Road to Change’ is doing is teaching the youth that you can hold your politicians accountable and that you can make them do what you want them to do because at the end of the day, we put them in office,” —Ariel Hobbs, March for Our Lives activist
As I drove home from March for Our Lives and their Road to Change town hall, I passed by the spot less than a mile from my home where a mother and her six-year-old were gunned down by her ex-lover. Memorez Rackley and her son Jace had been walking home last fall from the same elementary school my daughter attends when they were pursued and ultimately shot in the middle of the street. She’d called police, tried to get a restraining order, and done everything she could to protect herself and her children. And yet, police were powerless to confiscate the gun that would later end the life of a young mother and her kindergartener.
Senseless deaths like these and countless suicides are the tragedies that the Parkland students are trying to prevent. An epidemic of gun violence that doesn’t necessarily come in the form of an armed shooter terrorizing the halls of your school, but in the quiet violence of a much larger problem that we refuse to acknowledge. America’s obsession with guns isn’t about mass shootings, and it won’t end with armed guards in schools or metal detectors. It’ll be fought by this generation, who are refusing to sacrifice their future for NRA profits. As Saida Dahir, a local organizer with March for Our Lives SLC said,
“Hate will not win. We will rise and the young people will win.”