High school students say they tried to set up a town hall on gun regulations with Utah’s congressional delegation. When they didn’t get one, they held their own, continuing the debate that flared up after a gunman shot and killed 17 people in a Florida high school in February.
Several in a group of about 60 students and teachers called on Utah’s members of Congress to support new gun regulations on Saturday, two weeks after 8,000 people marched through downtown Salt Lake City to the Capitol.
Sen. Orrin Hatch and Utah’s four Republican representatives weren’t in attendance Saturday. Instead, their life-sized cutouts were shielded from the rain by a pop-up canopy, and one by one students wearing emergency rain ponchos and orange bandanas walked up to a microphone, asked them questions and demanded action on guns.
“I’m begging you,” Carter Morrison, 16, said to the lineup of cardboard congressmen, “support universal background checks, and get them passed.”
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock emailed a statement saying Hatch couldn’t attend due to travel plans, but that he had recently met with students, school administrators and law enforcement to talk about gun violence.
Regarding background checks, Whitlock referenced the STOP School Violence Act, supported by Hatch and recently signed into law, which looks to bolster school security and intervene before school shootings occur.
Some also called for change and a promise from candidates not to accept money from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading gun rights group.
Meg Flynn, an 18-year-old Brighton High School student, said if lawmakers were going to talk about how mental illness was causing mass shootings in the U.S., she wanted to know what their plan was to improve mental health care.
“If that’s the problem, what are you going to do?” Flynn asked.
Madalena McNeil, an admissions counselor for the University of Utah and adviser for the students, said in the past four years, she’s experienced four active shooter situations as she toured dozens of high schools nationwide.
“We never had them” when she was in school, McNeil said, “and now they treat them like fire drills.”
Sen. Mike Lee was the only member of the Utah delegation not invited to the Saturday town hall, organizers said. That’s because his seat isn’t up for re-election this year, said Elizabeth Love, a West High School student.
The students placed cutouts of outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch and Reps. John Curtis, Chris Stewart, Mia Love and Rob Bishop amid a few dozen empty seats in front of the Wallace F. Bennett Building downtown.
To start the makeshift town hall, the students lay on the ground in silence for 6 minutes and 20 seconds — the duration of the Parkland shooting — holding a paper with a quote from a recent opinion piece Love wrote in which she said she was listening to students calling for gun reform and school safety.
Ermiya Fanaeian, an organizer and 17-year-old student at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, said Love, like the others, couldn’t make it to the town hall but was willing to meet privately. Love, Curtis and Bishop didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Stewart said he was out of the country.
The group is calling on national lawmakers to require background checks for all gun purchases — including at gun shows and online. It also wants lawmakers to ban assault weapons, which generally include high-capacity guns, and require a waiting period for gun purchases, Elizabeth Love said.
They plan to write postcards to the delegation and begin training other students to register each other to vote. They said Saturday they planned on “pestering them into action,” or attempting to replace them with candidates who support their effort.
“I and many others will vote you out,” said Jolie Martin, a Woods Cross High School student. “Enough is enough.”