Students across the country are preparing for a national walkout Wednesday to show their displeasure with the lack of action taken by government officials to keep them safe.
It’s a movement that started after a 19-year-old opened fire on high school students in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, killing 17 and wounding many others.
While some applaud the students' efforts to encourage government officials to make stricter gun laws and ban semi-automatic weapons from being owned by civilians, others believe the blame is being placed in the wrong spot.
The Observer-Dispatch sat down with eight high school students from Oneida and Madison counties, as well as one Utica College student, to take their pulse on the student-run movement and find out how safe they feel at school.
On one hand, students we spoke with from Thomas R. Proctor High School and Rome Free Academy believe that access to guns is a part of the overall problem and would like to see the government make laws that restrict access to semi-automatic weapons. Those students also would like to see better mental health care and a more comprehensive background check procedure to be able to get a gun in the first place.
“I think as a country we should up our laws on background checks for mental health,” said Allie Grande, 16, a sophomore at RFA. “I mean, honestly, what's a normal person going to do with an AR-15? It's a semi-automatic weapon used for murder. ... I mean you can use it for hunting, but it's not any less effective than a rifle.”
The four students from Stockbridge Valley Central School in Munnsville, on the other hand, believe gun ownership isn’t the issue. Those students all agree that when people are taught to respect firearms and understand the power that those weapons have, they are less likely to harm an individual with them.
They do, however, agree that stronger background checks are important, as is mental health care.
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“I’ve been handling guns for about 10 years now,” said Dylan Curtis, 16, a sophomore at Stockbridge Valley. “Proper training is key to handling a weapon or firearm. You have to treat it with respect; it’s not a toy and that’s what people don’t understand. It’s a great power that comes with responsibility.”
Here, in their own words, is what these students have to say about some of the big issues the #NeverAgain movement is tackling:
• “All we do is lockdowns, but those don’t help all the time always; it’s just hiding away in a classroom. There’s no barricading the door or learning how to do any of that,” said Nicolas Ferretti, 15, sophomore at RFA. “I think we need to learn more about how to protect ourselves while we’re in the classroom or even if we’re in the hallway. If we’re in an open area, what should we do if there’s a lockdown or a threat?”
• “It would be honestly pretty easy for a shooter to walk in (to RFA), especially in the morning, anyone could walk in and no one would notice,” said Grande. “I think our school is more worried about if you’re walking in with an iced coffee than if you’re walking in with an AR-15.”
• “Even though they have security (at Proctor) in the front entrances and (other entrances), you still have all those doors all around that students will let other students in, going to the school or not,” said Mikayla Fraccola, 17, a senior at Proctor.
• “At school, I feel pretty safe because we’re in a rural area and everyone in Munnsville owns a gun, pretty much” said Kaleb Jones, 16, junior at Stockbridge Valley. “So I feel safer with that security.”
• “Everybody has learned about guns since they were little, so they know what to do and what not to do,” said Branden Eastman, 16, sophomore at Stockbridge Valley. “Instead of someone who hasn’t had proper training with a firearm and doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
• “I feel like campus safety should be able to be armed,” said Kaitlyn Tambasco, a junior at Utica College, which had a major possible shooter threat and lockdown last week. “Maybe not all of them, but just the top people. I definitely think that is something that should happen. … There’s so many veterans that maybe are in good shape, don’t have a job; why don’t we train them to be security at our schools?”
The #NeverAgain movement
• “We’re having to step up to the jobs that people who lead us should be taking, and I think that some of that is because of the NRA funding of many politicians,” Grande said. “I don’t think that it should be an expectation for us to die. It’s not surprising anymore; I find that disgusting.”
• “I think it’s cool that kids are taking charge,” said Audrey Eady, 18, a senior at Proctor. “Nothing will change if we just sit around and be inactive. I think it’s funny that there’s this idea that the founding fathers were old, but they were only 18 to 24 years old when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. They’re starting a revolution themselves, so why can the kids of our generation not start a revolution?” (Editor's note: According to multiple sources, including the National Archives website, the youngest signer of the Declaration was 26 and the oldest was 70. The median age of the group was 44.)
Why are there so many shootings now?
• “People aren’t being taught respect as much as they were,” Eastman said. “Mental health is also a big problem. I’m able to access a gun every single day of my life and I’ve never once thought of endangering another person because of it. ... It’s about respecting other people, along with the weapon.”
Gun laws, mental health
• “The only people who are worried about background checks are people who have a bad background and shouldn’t have a gun,” said Eastman. “They don’t hurt the legal gun owners. If you can keep a gun out of the hands of a person who’s going to do wrong with it, that’s a key thing. It’s not the gun; a rifle is just a tool. It’s a hard heart that kills.”
• “If you’re a serious gun owner you won’t mind waiting two more months to get a gun so you can use it,” said Sam Smith, 16, junior at Stockbridge Valley. “And that will save a lot of lives, also.”
• “Owning guns is a right, I believe,” Curtis said. “At the same time, you have to have the knowledge of the weapon itself. You have to be smart about what you’re doing when you’re handling this weapon; you can’t treat it like a toy.”
• “I definitely think that having stronger background checks is essential,” Tambasco said. “One of the things that I’m concerned with is … when you apply to get a gun or a permit, you have to check off if you’ve had a history of mental health (issues) — and they can just lie because those records are just for you and your doctor. I think we should be able to check up on that.”
• “There definitely should be an age restriction,” Fraccola said. “Teenagers are careless, they don’t care what they do and it’s more harmful to society for teenagers to have a weapon because they just think it’s cool.”
• “The founding fathers wrote (the Second Amendment) at a time when people owned people, so you can see that mentality has also evolved from that time,” Eady said. “When you’re talking about guns evolving, you’re talking about ammunition available, speed and accuracy; all of these factors coming together. Shouldn’t your thinking and morals change? … You’re talking about the citizens of America being safe. Shouldn’t those laws evolve, too, with the times?”
Automatic, semi-automatic weapons
• “I feel that an AR is just another gun,” Jones said. “It might look scary, but it’s the same thing as a hunting rifle. … They look scary so (people) are scared of them. They don’t understand how to use them, so they get scared of them.”
• “They blame the guns for harming people in general,” Curtis said. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. … Guns don’t load themselves. Guns don’t grow legs, walk into school or another place and start going off. It’s the people that are psychotic who don’t have respect or in general they’ve just been bullied, and it just doesn’t make any sense why people want to harm other people.”
• “I’m not 100 percent against guns,” said Ferretti. “I just don’t think that it’s necessary to have military-style weapons for civilians. What are you going to use that for? You get the same effectiveness if you’re hunting from a smaller gun, a less deadly gun, even. … People want it to have power. They think they’re stronger if they have that, when in reality, they’re just a danger to society.”
• “No one at all should be able to get access to basically a war weapon,” said Fraccola. “They should only be accessed by our military.”
Contact reporter Samantha Madison at 315-792-5015 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Madison).