The three Austin high school seniors organizing one of dozens of pro-gun control rallies across the country this Saturday want to make sure the impact of their event lingers long after the crowds are gone. That’s why they are planning for stations at both Austin City Hall and the Texas Capitol – the march’s starting and end points – for people to register to vote.
“The stereotype of a lot of young people and a lot of people who normally advocate for gun control is that they don't come out and vote,” said Conor Heffernan, a student at Liberal Arts and Science Academy and one of the rally organizers. “So we really want to just shift that stereotype to say, ‘Oh man, they really do mean business.’”
Supporters of strengthening gun control measures are planning March for Our Lives rallies Saturday in Dallas, San Antonio and other Texas cities in hopes of encouraging Congress to take decisive action on the issue.
The national debate over gun control reignited in mid-February, when a 19-year-old opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, leaving 17 people dead.
Two weeks after that tragedy, Florida lawmakers passed a new gun control law that would raise the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21. The measure would also set up a program that allows school employees and some teachers to carry handguns if certain conditions are met. In Texas, roughly 170 state public school districts already allow teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons on school grounds.
In recent weeks, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Gov. Greg Abbott have pushed for revamping the national background check system for purchasing firearms. Abbott also wrote a letter to the Texas Education Agency, outlining steps state education leaders should take to prevent similar tragedies. And U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, recently advocated for funding metal detectors in schools.
Cornyn’s bill has gained the most traction in Congress of late. The measure would hold government agencies accountable for failing to properly document individuals’ criminal histories in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
But some Texas lawmakers have yet to take a stance on the measure.
"Senator Cruz agrees that we need to find solutions to prevent further mass shootings and he believes it can be done without stripping law-abiding citizens of their constitutional liberties," Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, told NBC News earlier this month. "He is closely reviewing the various legislative proposals that are being debated."
Others argue the proposed measures don’t go far enough.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said students are being killed because lawmakers both in Austin and Washington, D.C., aren’t doing their jobs.
“We've replaced discussion with winner-take-all politics, we've replaced compromise and an assertion for common ground with dogma,” he said. “I believe very clearly that it's time for us to hear with the ears of the young people, it's time for us to see with their eyes, it's time for us to feel with their hearts.”
Students get organized
Whether they're working behind the scenes or leading local marches, many Texas students are speaking more adamantly about gun control following years of school shootings.
“First and foremost, something must be done. I think that we need more gun regulation paired with increased awareness for, and support for mental health issues,” said Chad Trim, a student at the University of Texas at Austin who will be attending Saturday’s Austin march. “These two should not be mutually exclusive as they relate to the debate on how to reduce gun violence in America. ... I will also be actively campaigning for pro-gun control candidates up and down the ballot until something changes.”
Trim isn’t alone. Across the state, students are asking for a range of legislative actions including banning automatic or semi-automatic weapons, performing mental health evaluations on those who want to purchase firearms and having more law enforcement officials in their schools.
“We need to strengthen regulations, demand frequent reassessments of individual's eligibility to possess firearms, place metal detectors in every school [and] have more security officials on campus,” said Jocelyn Tello, a student at Brewer High School who plans to attend a March For Our Lives rally in Fort Worth. “We need to reinvent the regulations revolving gun safety.”
Of the marches in Texas planned for Saturday, the one in Austin is expected to be the largest. But as the city struggles with a recent series of bombings, prompting schools and other facilities to change various routines out of an abundance of caution, it’s unclear if the current plans for the march will hold.
“We are in direct communication with [Austin Police] and are keeping all options open,” Jack Kappelman, another of the march’s student organizers, told the Tribune on Tuesday. “There will be a strong security presence. Other than that, I can’t provide any official information.”
Kari Siegenthaler, the third student leader for the Austin march, said the plan is to have attendees make their way from Austin City Hall to the Texas Capitol, chanting, holding signs and talking about their passion for reform.
While at the Capitol, speakers — including politicians like Watson and Austin Mayor Steve Adler and mass shooting survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre — will take the stage. But despite a heavy Democratic presence at Saturday’s event, student leaders say stricter gun laws are a nonpartisan issue.
“It’s important to get [students involved] all across the state just to show that it’s not a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative thing,” Heffernan said. “It’s just simply an American thing.”
Though more than 100 people have volunteered to help keep the peace, distribute resources and pick-up trash at Saturday’s rally, organizers said they need a total of $25,000 to pay for accommodations like water bottles, portable restrooms and an increased Austin Police Department presence. As of Tuesday, the students had raised around $18,000.
Despite concerns about last-minute logistics, adult volunteer Kristine Garaña has faith the event will succeed.
“I really think it makes a difference when you hear kids express how unhappy and how fearful and how tired they are with the situation,” Garaña said. “It's difficult to motivate people to push for change. And I think the students are really able to do that. They've really captured the imagination of a lot of people and their sympathies.”
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.