When it comes to expressing their opinions about balancing Second Amendment rights with school safety, I don’t think there’s a more difficult state for students to live in than Wyoming.
That’s true for kids on all sides of the gun controversy that sparked one of the most amazing demonstrations in U.S history, the recent “March for Our Lives.”
Organizers estimate the event drew an estimated 800,000 people to Washington, D.C., and thousands more to about 800 sites around the country. At least five cities in Wyoming held marches – Laramie, Jackson, Pinedale, Cody and Sheridan. Hundreds of other students throughout the state participated in a national school walk-out 10 days before the march.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington in 1963, a turning point in the fight for civil rights, had about 250,000 participants. There were years of struggle and bloodshed ahead before our nation ended segregation, that day truly changed the world.
The students who survived the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 organized the D.C. march in their friends’ honor. Parents, teachers and other adults helped, but the words that will be most remembered from that day were heartfelt tributes by the students themselves and their message that there must be ways to end the madness of such school massacres.
With each new school tragedy — and there is always a new one it seems — it feels like we can’t possibly continue with business as usual. If the slaughter of 20 kindergarten and first-grade students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, can’t prompt Congress to find and implement solutions, what on earth will it take? We’ve been repeating the question for a half-dozen years now as the death-toll of innocents climbs, and still no answers — or action.
The communal outpouring of grief and anger about Parkland feels different. Never have so many people come together to change our future and send our kids to safer schools. Students have seized the opportunity to tell my generation and its elected leaders that we have failed them, that “thoughts and prayers” are inadequate and that they will no longer accept the status quo.
Wyoming has been spared much of the school violence seen in other states but to believe that will last forever is to bury your head in the sand.
That makes Wyoming students’ decisions to participate all the more impressive. Whether they support strong gun rights or more gun control measures, speaking up means running the risk of very publicly alienating families and friends. The young people who participated deserve our admiration, because, let’s face it, they are tackling a life-and-death issue that we have failed to solve without them. If there is hope for untangling this mess it’s in today’s students and their leadership.
One of the students caught between family tradition and generational ethos was 17-year-old Cortney Borer of Laramie, whose story was documented in an excellent Vice News article by Alexa Liautaud.
Borer helped organize her high school’s march, then decided not to participate. She thought having a day of protest was appropriate and as a competitive shooter since she was 10, Borer wanted to express her own opinions.
Like many people she has mixed thoughts about what needs to be done to quell school violence. She told Vice she can support stronger background checks, mandatory gun safety classes, mental health examinations and perhaps even special permits to own semi-automatic weapons such as AR-15s. However, she draws the line at endorsing a ban on all assault-style weapons. Borer said her family carries a semi-automatic firearm during hikes for protection against mountain lions.
The Laramie student said it’s hard for gun users her age to express their opinions. “The majority of people our age are adamantly against guns at this point in time,” she explained, “and I think it’s very intimidating for someone to stand up to their friends and defend what they believe in when they know that their friends don’t agree with them.”
In a state like Wyoming that has the highest per capita gun ownership in the country, students who support what they feel are reasonable gun law reforms can also be reluctant to express their views. It takes a lot of courage to be perceived as anti-gun in a state where open carry is a part of the culture and school districts can — if they so choose — allow teachers and other staff to carry concealed weapons on campus.
In a March 22 article in the Planet Jackson Hole newspaper Pinedale High senior Jamie Rellstab said she opposes teachers being armed. “Teachers aren’t trained to shoot, they’re trained to teach,” she said. “Also, no teacher is going to shoot their own kid, their own student. No teacher wants to do that.”
Rellstab said some people told her the march was “stupid,” but she didn’t let that stop her. She recalled that when U.S. Sen. John Barrasso recently visited her class after the Parkland tragedy he told students he has a duty to vote the way his constituents want him to and most do not favor stricter gun control laws.
The Pinedale march, she related, was a way to show the senator that “Wyoming isn’t as cut and dry or black and white as people may think, and the people he represents DO want gun control … I want to show him that there are people out there who want this and students are asking him to protect their lives.”
To me that exemplifies the primary success of this march —youth recognizing that votes matter, and that the place to accomplish change is at the ballot box. Thousands of new young voters were registered across the country as a result of the March for Our Lives, and they were clear in their demands: politicians must stop taking campaign donations from groups that represent gun manufacturers or they will lose their seats.
I’ve talked to Wyoming politicians over the years who admit to being petrified of the NRA. They fear that a drop in their Second Amendment support rating by the organization dooms their chances of winning election. I can’t think of anyone besides the military industrial lobby who has so much influence in Congress. The hope of the March for Our Lives is that such power is returning where it belongs, to the governed.
The march in D.C. showed that young people are rightfully fed up with seeing their classmates killed and Congress unwilling to even consider gun law changes, no matter how reasonable. National polls show that more than 80 percent of NRA members support stronger gun background checks, so why can’t that be a common position where some positive action can be taken?
It will take a dynamic political shift to make schools safer, and I believe today’s students have the power and will to make it happen. Because if elected officials continue to serve only groups representing corporate interests, in this case gun manufacturers, nothing will change and we’ll keep burying kids and their teachers.