Weekly Feature



2018-04-11 / Local News

No Republican takers for student-led ‘Town Hall for Our Lives’

Democrats dominate discussion on gun violence
by ALAN RIZZO Reporter


Members of Students For Action, a regional student group focused on curbing gun violence in schools, pose questions during a “Town Hall for Our Lives” meeting with Democratic leaders on Saturday in Buffalo’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. From left are Robert Snekser, Kenmore East High School; Georgia VanDerwater, East Aurora High School; and Andrew Kowalczyk, Clarence High School. 
Photo by Chuck Skipper Members of Students For Action, a regional student group focused on curbing gun violence in schools, pose questions during a “Town Hall for Our Lives” meeting with Democratic leaders on Saturday in Buffalo’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. From left are Robert Snekser, Kenmore East High School; Georgia VanDerwater, East Aurora High School; and Andrew Kowalczyk, Clarence High School. Photo by Chuck Skipper In an effort to continue the conversation on gun control and gun violence in schools following the Parkland, Florida, massacre, high school student activists from across Western New York held a “Town Hall for Our Lives” meeting on Saturday in Buffalo’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, inviting elected officials from both sides of the aisle.

But while the invited Democrats showed up, every Republican legislator contacted by students declined, including Rep. Chris Collins, who dismissed the meeting as a “partisan trap” and told WBEN Radio last week that it would be a “circus” and “anti gun gathering of activists who frankly have co-opted the kids.”

Clarence High School senior Akilesh Ramakrishna, spokesperson for organizing group Students For Action, said that wasn’t his group’s intention.

“We wanted to have a diversity of thought here, not just a conversation reinforcing the same ideas,” he said. “We did reach out to multiple Republican legislators like [Rep. Tom Reed], [state Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer], and they all didn’t respond or declined to attend, just like Mr. Collins.”

Despite no Republican perspective, students and others attending the town hall posed their questions to those who accepted: Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins and Grand Island Supervisor Nathan Mc- Murray, the remaining Democratic candidate who will challenge Collins for his congressional seat in November.

Students and community members asked Higgins and McMurray a range of questions on gun violence, use, and control, generating discussion on topics including the usefulness of school resource officers, the perception of assault weapon use, and whether to ban Americans 21 and younger from owning guns.

Concerning school resource officers, McMurray argued that more SROs are not the solution to preventing gun violence, arguing that they are continually outmatched by the firepower available to citizens.

“There’s a reason why down in Florida, why that SRO, that officer, did not run into [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School]; he didn’t have a chance. It’s like a fireman who’s against a squirt gun,” he said. “You talk to [police officers] frankly, many of them will tell you, they’re scared to go to houses where people have military grade machinery, they’re scared to pull over cars where people have weapons that can put a hole in you the size of a cantaloupe.”

McMurray also questioned the logic of adding more SROs and metal detectors to schools and other public places, “hardening” society while preserving the right of citizens to own assault weapons.

“Do we have to live in a fort as a society?” he asked. “What are we giving up so people can have the rights to have assault weapons?”

Higgins argued that the idea of arming teachers is similarly “ludicrous” and instead called for extensive background checks as a better solution to protecting schools and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

“If you’re on a no-fly list because you pose a danger to the general public, you shouldn’t be able to purchase a firearm,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we can be doing to address the fundamental problem without arming teachers.”

Asked how to sell an assault weapons ban to a gun owner who uses assault weapons for hunting and self-defense, McMurray said he supports gun ownership for those purposes, but not ownership of guns that make mass shootings possible, as well as the bump stock, which does the same.

“I would say to anyone who says, ‘I need that; I need a gun that allows me to kill a large number of people,’ I would tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t,’” said McMurray. “We have a scope of rights and interests in society, we balance different rights, we balance those against other rights. And I believe we also have a right to go to school without having to worry about being mowed down by a crazy person.”

Higgins, who labeled assault weapons “weapons of mass destruction,” argued multiple times during the meeting that there is constitutional support for a ban.

“The United States Supreme Court has upheld, in at least four instances over the last 10 years, states’ rights to ban these weapons because they do disproportionate harm to individuals in churches and schools and other public places,” he said. “It’s as clear as it can be.”

Asked about banning gun ownership for 18- to 21-year-olds, Higgins said he was not in favor, advocating instead for a serious discussion in Congress on controlling assault weapons, replete with homicide statistics, input from mental health and education experts, and perspectives from national law enforcement organizations.

McMurray argued for more support for funding of mental health evaluations of potential gun owners, arguing that Congress is removing limitations that prevent individuals with serious mental health issues from obtaining guns.

Along with responding to questions, McMurray called Collins and other Republicans out for refusing to participate in the meeting, noting that it was not the “circus” Collins claimed it would be.

He also encouraged those attending to join his campaign, in order to force his opponent to publicly discuss solutions to gun violence.

“He thinks there doesn’t have to be an answer because he can wait until the issue dies down,” McMurray said. “He thinks this is a tug of war, and if he holds on long enough, we’re going to fall in the mud. The reality is we need to keep pulling.”

Students who posed questions during the meeting said they were satisfied with the answers they received and hope to plan further discussions to get more of their peers involved in activism.

“There were definitely a few times where we had to push for a little bit more of a specific response, which is to be expected, but I think overall we were pretty happy with the conversation,” said Students For Action co-founder Georgia VanDerwater, a senior at East Aurora High School.

Clarence High School senior Andrew Kowalczyk, also a co-founder of SFA, agreed.

“I think we understand what they’re trying to say, what they support, what they don’t, and I think that’s a good way to start a dialogue,” he said.

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