Not every student walked out of school. Not every student joined protests that marched across school campuses and city streets over the past month, as student activists sought tougher gun laws.
Still, students who stayed in class said they want their voices to be heard and their perspectives considered, as emerging student activists gain widespread attention from media and politicians.
“Obviously, everyone’s against violence,” said Ballston Spa High School student Brit Douglas. “Everyone’s against gun violence.”
But Douglas didn’t join his Advanced Placement government classmates who walked out of school on March 14, along with droves of other students in schools across the country. Instead, he sat at his desk and caught up on other classwork with about eight or 10 others who remained. Douglas said, simply put, he didn’t agree with what he felt was the real message of the walkouts: calling for stricter gun laws.
“The Second Amendment is just as important as all of the other amendments, and if we start taking away one of the amendments, then what’s next?” Douglas said last week. “I think we need to stand up for what we believe in, and we can’t let anyone walk all over us and take away what we believe in.”
Douglas, along with seven other members of the group Saratoga County Teenage Republicans, shared their thoughts about recent walkouts and the student-driven push for tighter gun control. Citing family hunting traditions and the importance of protecting one’s self and home, the students offered different perspectives from those dominating the debate in recent weeks.
They said they thought the message of the walkouts was confusing and muddled: Was it a commemoration or a protest? Was it directed at Congress or local officials? Did other students want to limit certain guns or repeal the Second Amendment all together?
Some students participated in the walkout just to get out of of class, they said. Others demonized or questioned why someone wouldn’t join the demonstrations, they recalled.
“If I told people that I wasn’t planning on walking out, they were like: ‘What, are you for gun violence? Do you want more kids to be killed?’” said 16-year-old Ballston Spa student Greta Gottmann. “My response was no, but I’m not for more gun control without having a conversation about what gun control we want as a nation.”
The students also felt the protests isolated students who oppose gun control and cherish their rights to possess guns, whether for hunting, hobby or self-protection.
“It was just enforcing the [partisanship] we have in this country. It was isolating those of us who feel gun control is not necessarily the way to protect our students,” Gottmann said of the protests. “I didn’t feel that was right, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
The conservative students, who expressed heartfelt views about gun rights and school safety, were skeptical that restricting access to guns would limit school shootings. They pointed to school resource officers and mental health resources as the keys to preventing future school massacres.
But the conservative students also share a common purpose with those pushing a gun-control agenda, even if the politics and policy solutions drastically diverge. All say they want safe schools.
“With the conversations we are having, we all have the same goal in mind: We don’t want school shootings, and we want school safety,” said Jonathan Fajans, a 16-year-old Galway student. “It’s just the solutions that are different.”
Making schools safer
Morgan Zegers, a 21-year-old Ballston Spa High School graduate running for state Assembly, sat at the head of a conference table in the Saratoga County Republican headquarters last week, as she and the high school students described how they came to feel so strongly about gun rights.
She mostly struck a conciliatory tone, welcoming conversations and debate with students calling for stricter gun laws. She also challenged conservatives and Republicans to offer actual solutions to safety concerns, instead of just blocking new gun laws, even if those solutions don’t address gun access specifically.
“We can’t let people on our side just say no to gun control and then have no other solution,” Zegers said, adding that it was important to pursue “realistic solutions” to the issue. “We can’t just bring no solution to the table if we are going to reject what everybody else is saying.”
But she was also unyielding in her support of gun rights, rebuffing most proposals for greater gun control. Zegers and the students, though, repeatedly acknowledged a need to compromise.
“It’s a balance. You can’t take everything; you can’t keep everything,” Douglas said.
Many gun control advocates also frame the debate as one of finding a balance in line with the Second Amendment. But it’s unclear where the middle ground is. Douglas said he supported banning bump stocks – devices that increase a gun’s rate of fire. For the gun control advocates, a ban on bump stocks is as basic as it gets. They all like the idea of having more school resource officers.
They said they think the only way to prevent a shooter from perpetrating a massacre is for someone else with a gun to be in a position to take the shooter down. While they preferred the idea of expanding the presence of school resource officers, they also seemed open to certain specially-trained and experienced teachers or administrators possessing guns in schools, too.
They also said the focus should be on mental health rather than gun laws, suggesting schools and communities need to do more to offer services that could identify and treat students struggling with violent tendencies or who are socially isolated.
“We need to make sure we don’t leave any student behind,” said Preston Scagnelli, a 17-year-old Shenendehowa student. “Do we increase the presence of school psychologists just to be sure every student isn’t really thinking about doing something heinous and get the help they need?”
The students were all skeptical that stricter gun laws would actually do much, if anything, to prevent a school shooting.
“You can’t regulate evil,” said Colin McDonough, a 16-year-old Ballston Spa student. “You can’t regulate someone’s desire to hurt somebody.”
Without addressing underlying social and mental health problems, they argued, violence would persist even if guns were more limited and harder to access.
“If we don’t solve this mental health problem, but we take away all of the guns, then we are going to have school stabbings; we are going to have school bombings,” Gottmann said.
In the family
Many of the young Republicans said they grew up in families that hunted; some come from families with parents or grandparents who served in the military. Some of the students didn’t grow up with guns in the house or the family, but they learned about them through the Boy Scouts or in 4-H.
From those traditions, they said, grew a respect for the power and danger of guns.
Zegers, who recently turned 21, said she is applying for a pistol permit and that she regularly practices at the gun range, preparing herself in case she ever needs to defend herself.
“I’m 5 feet tall, I’m 115 pounds, and if somebody comes at me, I would really love to kick their butt, but it’s probably not going to happen,” she said. “That’s why I really respect my right to defend myself, and I’ll always uphold that.”
She joined the NRA as a high school senior and said she proudly wears the gear of the organization much-reviled by gun control advocates.
“I wear my NRA hat a little longer these days -- a little more -- because it’s really important for me that people know I’m a member of the NRA,” she said.
Douglas’ dad serves in the military and has been deployed multiple times over the years. He said his dad has taught him how to defend himself since he was young, starting with hand-to-hand defense and working their way up to safe firearms use. If his dad is away, he is responsible for protecting the household.
“I’ve been taught how to properly clean it, how to load it, how to unload it, safe handling. I know all of the gun rules; when you walk onto a range, what you do what you don’t do,” Douglas said.“I feel that I have the responsibility to protect my mother in the house,” he said. “I feel the necessity to be able to have a firearm that I can defend the house with.”
‘A scary world’
Scagnelli pointed out that the school in recent weeks has faced threats of shootings scrawled on a bathroom wall or shouted on a school bus or passed through social media. Threats affect all students – liberal, conservative and in between.
“Even in my mind, I was a little nervous. You don’t know if whoever wrote it actually meant it,” Scagnelli said. “You feel that fear when you think your life is going to be in danger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean gun control is the answer.”
The students from Ballston Spa and Galway also had recent threats they could reflect on or lockdown drills and visits from police that remind them of the specter of violence that shrouds their school life.
Like their peers – some of whom are planning another walkout April 20 and are working to register young voters – the teenage Republicans hope their generation, a generation born in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting, is the generation to put an end to school shootings.
But first, they have to agree on how to accomplish their shared mission and find a way past one of the country’s trickiest political knots.
“They are also taking the other side and demonizing it,” Gottmann said of classmates organizing protests. “For our generation to be the generation that stops school shootings and make our schools safe again, there has to be that element of bipartisanship. There has to be.”