Students urge lawmakers to find ways to reduce gun violence

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Hoping their call for stricter guns laws will reach decision-makers in Washington, D.C., Bay State students on Wednesday implored state lawmakers to curb gun violence. The message clearly resonated for those in power on Beacon Hill, according to reports from the State House News Service.

Matt Mogavero, an Emerson College student, helped lead a chant Wednesday as students rallied against gun violence at the State House. "The lack of gun control is killing our young people," said Evelyn Reyes, a 16-year-old from Boston before a room of her peers and TV cameras. She said, "We are the next generation of voters."

"We have a voice," said Eloise Botka, a 17-year-old from Cambridge, who said she wants the message for stricter laws to be heard outside of Massachusetts. Nahaira Morales said elected officials need to listen. "It doesn't matter what age we are," said Morales, 19, an Emerson College student from Orlando, Fla.

Students trudged across the snow-lined pathways of Boston Common, crowded marbled hallways waiting to speak to lawmakers, and rallied in the Gardner Auditorium in the basement of the State House.

"It is so good to see you here," said Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and member of House leadership. Advising students that "it is not an easy task that you have taken on," Rushing said, "We have to change the culture. We have always had that problem in our country on major issues."

Recent efforts to clamp down on access to guns were spurred by the school massacre in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead, and by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students' subsequent outspoken appeals for changes following the tragedy.

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that his office said would create risk protection orders, allowing courts to disallow risky people from possessing firearms and requiring that people be 21 years or older to purchase firearms among other provisions.

"The students walking out in Massachusetts and across the country today are the best of our future. This is a historic moment - they are transforming voice into action, and I think we could all do well to heed their words," said Senate President Harriette Chandler in a statement. "Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. But that doesn’t mean we can simply rely on those laws and rest on our laurels. The students are right: we need to do more. I believe extreme risk protection order legislation is an important next step, and we look forward to moving forward with our partners in the House to get this done."

Speaking to students mostly from Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts, Somerville Democrat Sen. Patricia Jehlen became emotional praising the nation's youth writ large for mobilizing around the issue of gun violence.

"I am overcome. You're part of something that is nationwide," Jehlen said. She said, "People all over the country are being led by you. It's not just this room. It's across the country."

It was not just Democrats in the Gardner Auditorium who commended the students for their lobbying on gun control and claimed common cause with their goals.

"I do support your efforts," said Republican Sen. Dean Tran, of Fitchburg. He said, "I'll be the first one in line to make sure the schools that you attend are safe for you to learn in." Saahil Raina, a 15-year-old who lives in Newton and attends private school, said he was inspired by the Parkland students and has "not really" been involved in any other political issues. "There needs to be change," Raina told the News Service.

Elizabeth Pine, 19, an Emerson College student, said she was inspired to attend after learning that her brother Carl, an eighth grader, had participated in a similar event in their hometown of Bellingham, Washington.

Saying she looked forward to voting, Pine added that a college friend had discussed knowing someone affected by the mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida, high school. "That was really personally impactful," she told the News Service.

Young people around the country planned to walk out of school on Wednesday, including students in Springfield who intended to confront the gun-maker Smith & Wesson. Plans to hold a "walkout" were foiled by the weather for some Bay State students as Tuesday's massive snow meant that there was no class Wednesday to walk out of for many students.

"We didn't have school today," said 17-year-old Josh Levine, of Sharon, who said there will be a walkout at his school on Thursday.

The Gun Owners Action League, the local affiliate of the National Rifle Association, generally opposes efforts to restrict access to guns in Massachusetts and the advocacy group urged parents to videotape speeches and signage at walkouts.

"Are these kids actually being educated about the subject or are they being indoctrinated about the subject?" asked GOAL Executive Director Jim Wallace in an interview. On social media, GOAL wrote, "If you see anything indicating that these walkouts are pushing an anti civil rights agenda, please email us information."

The U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from infringing on "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms," and there has been vociferous debate in legislative chambers and appellate courts in recent years over efforts to restrain or expand access to rifles and handguns.

In the auditorium, as lawmakers praised and encouraged the students – many of whom are not yet old enough to vote – the crowd snapped their fingers in approval creating a sound like that of hail falling on a roof. "Feel this energy. Capture that," said Foxborough Democrat Sen. Paul Feeney.

Echoing statements made by Gov. Charlie Baker, a fellow Republican, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said he was "proud" of the relatively strict gun laws passed in Massachusetts and thinks Congress should follow the example. "We need to see the same in Washington, D.C.," Tarr said. The Gloucester Republican spoke after roughly a dozen other lawmakers, and after he finished, 16-year-old Vikiana Petit-Homme of Boston asked lawmakers to "keep things a little brief."

"Strict gun laws lead to less death," Petit-Homme told the crowd, urging Bay State officials to compare the state's gun deaths with those of other countries, not just other states. After additional remarks, 17-year-old Andover student Charlotte Lowell asked lawmakers to clearly state whether they agree with the students in favor of passing stricter gun laws, including legislation that would allow courts to prohibit dangerous people from possessing firearms.

"I'm with you 100 percent of the way," said Cambridge Democrat Mike Connolly.