Drawn by Utah’s gun-friendly culture and politicians, survivors of Florida’s Parkland shooting are visiting to register young voters

(Photo courtesy of Abena Bakenra and Liz Love) Abena Bakenra, left, and Liz Love, right, pinned the names of students who died in a deadly Florida school shooting to their gowns when they graduated from West High School on June 6, 2018.

Ten survivors of the deadly February mass shooting at a Florida high school will visit Utah this summer as one stop on their nationwide road trip to register young voters, challenge members of Congress and continue the political momentum behind their grassroots movement calling for stricter gun laws.

In Salt Lake City, the Parkland students will find thousands of teenagers who have particularly embraced their message, who led a massive march on the state capitol and who have outlined their own legislative requests for background checks and assault-style weapons bans. But they selected the state less for the support than the antagonism.

The “Road to Change” bus tour organizers chose Utah — a pro-gun stronghold — as a destination because of its all-Republican federal delegation and hearty support of the National Rifle Association, according to its website. They’ve singled out Rep. Mia Love, who faces a tough midterm bid for re-election and whom they hope to unseat, said Elizabeth Love, 18, who graduated from Salt Lake City’s West High School this month and helped lead March for Our Lives SLC.

“We have some very important congressional races that are pivotal to the movement going on here,” Love added. “We are advocating for common-sense reform, and we want our politicians to do the same.”

The road trip, funded through donations, kicks off Friday in Chicago. After that, half of the 20 student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, some recently graduated, will visit every congressional district in their state. The second group will tour through 20 states with 50 planned stops.

They are slated to roll into Salt Lake City on July 14 (a time and venue have not yet been determined).

In some cities, the students intend to meet with NRA members. Madalena McNeil, who advises the group of teens involved with the Utah movement and is helping to organize the visit from the Florida students, said she hasn’t gotten that request yet but wouldn’t be surprised if she did. Plenty of people here, including many students outside of the liberal-leaning capital, have condemned the movement. Second Amendment advocates held their own rally before the student-led one in March.

“I think they’re trying to bridge that gap in a lot of areas,” she said. “But it’s a harder sell here than it would be in like Vermont or some other blue state.”

The tour comes four months after the Feb. 14 shooting where 17 died. Since then, there have been walkouts and marches and demonstrations across the country.

About 30 West High School students, including Elizabeth Love, wore the names of the seniors killed in Florida and elsewhere pinned to their graduation gowns when they got their diplomas last week.

(Photo courtesy of Abena Bakenra and Liz Love) Students at West High School pinned the names of students who died in deadly school shootings to their gowns when they graduated on June 6, 2018.

“We wanted to honor the people who didn’t get to graduate,” said Love, whose orange name tag said, “Today I walk for Carmen Schentrup.”

Abena Bakenra, also a graduating senior at West High, wore a sign for Meadow Pollack that also said, “#enough.”

“The threat of having a gun in school or these mass shootings in school, I think about constantly,” Bakenra said. “There are changes that need to be made so this doesn’t happen again.”

Students at East High School and Highland High School, also in Salt Lake City School District, honored the Florida victims, too, at their graduations. The more conservative areas in the county and across the state did not see the same kind of activism at their ceremonies, according to several district spokespersons.

Love and Bakenra, who will both be attending college out of state next year, said they still plan to be involved with the movement that has resonated with them. They will be at the July event, too, with the Florida students they’ve stood in solidarity with.

“They have a platform now, and people are listening to them,” Love said. “It will help to activate some teenagers here.”