'We are planning the future': Local students reflect on gun-control activism

Tuesday , April 03, 2018 - 5:15 AM11 comments

WEBER COUNTY — They say they are not giving up.

The Northern Utah Student Coalition has organized marches, voting registration drives and meetings with state politicians as part of their effort to keep schools safer.

After March for Our Lives on March 24 and National School Walkout Day on March 14, they have momentum — and they are cognizant of it.

Among their demands for gun control are universal background checks and a two- to three-day waiting period for gun purchases. They also want to raise the minimum age to 21 and ban bump stocks — devices that are meant to be attached to a semi-automatic gun to make it shoot faster, like an automatic one.

Jaden Priest, an 18-year-old Bonneville High School student, is one of the coalition co-chairs. He, along with other student organizers, created the Northern Utah March for Our Lives, which took place Saturday, March 31, in downtown Ogden. Students marched around 25th Street, from the Municipal Building.

He said that he and the other organizers were intent on separating their event from the others.

“We discussed it early on … and we decided it can be written off as a liberal march in Salt Lake,” Priest said about the March for Our Lives in Salt Lake City — which drew about 8,000 people, according to tweets from the local police department. “If we bring everyone down here, which, I mean we can do both, now we can show that Northern Utah students also want change.”

RELATED: 'Never again': Thousands of students demand gun control in Salt Lake City march

RELATED: Local students protest gun violence, honor victims of Parkland shooting

Their approach to gun and school safety issues is also somewhat different from that of the national organizers.

At the March for Our Lives in Salt Lake City, only student organizers spoke. At the Northern Utah March for Our Lives, the students invited Kathie Darby, a 65-year-old community leader from West Haven, to speak.

“A lot of people have been actually angry at us for allowing adults speak at our march,” Priest said. “What I tell them is, ‘You know, in order to get stuff to actually change it needs to be not a student-only movement, but a student-led movement.’”

FINDING COMMON GROUND

The group of high schoolers said the most common misconception of their movement is that they want to take away people’s guns. For them, it’s about “responsible” ownership, making sure those allowed to have guns are emotionally and mentally fit to do so.

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“Even gun owners — I plan to be a gun owner myself one day — I think that we can all really agree on the change we want because it’s not (about) taking away guns,” Priest said. “It’s (about) not letting guns get in the hands of those who are going to kill people.”

That’s the reason they are asking for universal background checks. But even if their request became law, it still would not guarantee that guns won’t land in the wrong hands.

According to a Standard-Examiner investigation, the lack of a domestic abuse database in Utah puts many at risk of being shot, as some domestic abusers might be able to pass the required background check and purchase a gun.

RELATED: Lack of Utah domestic abuse database means guns can fall into wrong hands

Raylynn Fernandez, 18, said talking to some of the detractors might help them understand where they are coming from and what they want.

“There’s always going to be people that aren’t gonna listen, that are gonna stick to their sides,” Fernandez said. “But there is a lot of people that, if you explain it to them and have a civil conversation, you can turn them to understand you.”

DEALING WITH BACKLASH

From the moment they got involved, student organizers knew they would receive backlash — threats, too, especially from social media. Their stories were going to be public and some internet users, commonly referred as trolls, were going to take advantage of that.

Han Johnson, 17, was one of the student organizers for the Salt Lake City March for Our Lives. She is also one of the co-chairs of the Northern Utah Student Coalition and also an organizer of Ben Lomond High School’s #Standfor214, a student- led movement that started Feb. 26 to protest gun violence. Students who participate stand for three minutes every Monday starting a 2:14 p.m. in honor of the 17 people killed in Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, shooting.

“The main focus of the coalition is to make sure student voices are being heard politically in Northern Utah,” Johnson said. “Too often students are just told to stay in school and that we are too young to have an opinion, but we all have opinions that are just as valid as anybody else’s.”

RELATED: Students at Ben Lomond High standing against gun violence in schools

Johnson said she has been called “leftist power slut,” “communist,” “enemy of the state” and “feminazi.” Since she began voicing her opinions, she said she’s received insults like this through Facebook, email and even in person.

Her work managers, Johnson said, would not talk to her anymore.

“I personally find these empowering because, if somebody feels the need to hate on you, then you are doing something right,” Johnson said. “They are afraid of you.”

Some of them have also been accused of receiving money from the Democratic Party. Priest, Johnson and Zach Thomas, 17, all said those claims are false, although they admitted to volunteer for the Democratic Party. Some people who do not support them also say they just want to miss school.

“Somebody commented on our march (Facebook page) and said, ‘You guys should quit missing school’ ... It’s literally a Saturday!” Johnson said. “And then they tell us we are the uneducated ones and, honestly, the irony there feeds my soul.”

Thomas, the student at Weber High School who organized the school’s walkout, said those who say they are being paid by a political party do not understand that they “are here because we are passionate.” He said some of his peers and teachers have stopped talking to him.

“I think those people needed to talk to me, or talk to the leaders of our movement,” Thomas said.

But a different approach might be needed when dealing with online attacks.

“What I try to do with online threats and insults is to sit back and try to analyze what they are saying and why are they coming from this viewpoint,” Johnson said. “Obviously they have a reason to care as much as I have a reason to care.”

VOTING AS THE TOOL OF CHANGE

At the Ogden march, there was a table for people to register to vote. People 16 and older were asked to register.

When asked why it was important to register 16-year-old teenagers, even when they won’t be able to vote for at least two more years, Priest said that will keep the students involved in politics and will also keep them alert.

“We really think that we really have a shot to make a difference this election cycle,” Priest said.

And they are going for those who don’t support their movement.

“We are planning for the future through voting, through volunteering in campaigns, through getting people in office,” Priest said. “If you are going to have a dialogue with our group as a (state) representative, that’s fantastic; we are not going to exclude you from that. If you are not going to do that, follow our lead and help vote for the right people that are going to influence that change or get out of the way.”

Contact education reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán at [email protected] or 801-625-4274. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/STANDARDEXSergio.

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