At 10 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of students across the nation will walk out of high schools to bring attention to gun violence and the government’s inability to shield schools from killers bent on slaughter.
They are the children born in the shadow of the Columbine massacre. Children who have lived with school shootings all their lives. The students say the aftermath of last month’s Parkland, Fla., shooting will be different — they say they won’t let the memory of the shooting fade.
They’ve had some success. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a gun bill last week, less than a month after a teenager killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. People in Florida can no longer buy a bump stock, must be 21 to buy a rifle, and wait three days to pick up a rifle or handgun. Congress, though, seems to be in no hurry to change federal gun laws.
But how well will such protests and demands fly in the gun loving Deep South?
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On the Mississippi Coast, a group of Jackson County students is trying to organize walkouts at Pascagoula and Ocean Springs.
“If high schools all across the state, all across the nation, are walking out ... we hope that lights a fire,” said Wyatt Miller, an Ocean Springs senior. “And we’re going to continue to make that fire glow.”
The Coast students’ @enough_ms Twitter handle has 32 followers. Their Students Taking Action for Reasonable Reform page on Facebook has 330 members. In Pascagoula, 400 students had signed up by Friday for a school-sanctioned walkout at Pascagoula High.
Caroline Wiygul, a senior at Ocean Springs, said at least 65 students have committed to attending a demonstration in the school’s courtyard.
And what do these student activists want?
“First of all, to listen to our concerns,” said Thomas. “I know a lot of people are quick to think, oh, they’re just teenagers, they don’t know anything. They’re not educated. They’re not in the real world.
“We’re future leaders. We’re going to be voting. We’re going to make decisions. So I think it’s important.
“It’s important that adults start listening to us. School is one of the public space that we have to go to.”
All of them will be voting by the November general election, and they want state and local politicians to know they are aware of what’s going on in Jackson — a vote on a bill that would arm and train some teachers, for example — and Washington.
“Something needs to be done,” Pascagoula senior Kenyatta Thomas said. “Adding guns into a school is not the correct answer or the correct solution to the problem. There needs to be some reasonable gun reform that stops heavy weapons or the wrong weapons from getting into the wrong hands. Something other than what we’ve been doing in the past, which is letting a shooting happen, then saying ‘We’ll send our thoughts and prayers,’ then moving on until the next one happens.”
Active shooter drills, lax gun laws and armed police officers don’t make them feel safer.
“In Mississippi, the gun laws are lax and a lot of them are easy to circumvent if you want,” said Wiygul, who said she doesn’t have a problem with gun collectors who have followed the law and have undergone background checks. They said it would be easy for someone who was a student, or who just looked like one, to gain access to schools.
All four students who met with the Sun Herald — Wiygul, Thomas, Miller and Quintin Harry of Pascagoula — said they do not believe people their age should have access to weapons such as the AR-15 that was used in the Parkland killiings.
“An AR-15 is not something that you just have, or use for hunting or sport,” said Miller. “An AR-15 is built to kill.”
‘Proud of AR-15s’
That’s not a particularly popular stand.
There are students who, with the blessing of their parents, own high-powered weapons.
“We’ve had some feedback from students who are very proud of their AR-15s and their guns,” said Thomas. “They have mentioned a counter-protest of sorts.”
Harry said most of the students he has talked to, though, favor some limits. He expects about 40 percent of his classmates will show up. While all four said their parents are supportive, that’s not always the case.
“Some parents said, ‘I want you to do that walkout,’” Harry said. But when he posted about the walkout on Facebook, “some of my friends’ moms started commenting, ‘This is crazy, this is a terrible thing to do.’ Some said, ‘I talked to my dad about it and he has a different opinion but I think it’s the right thing to do.’”
That walkout is just the beginning. Students will be at the 10 a.m. March 24 March for Our Lives at the Federal Courthouse in Gulfport. And, Harry and the others be talking to students about calling lawmakers on bills such as Senate Bill 1083, which would arm some teachers.
The students registering to vote and they know 2018 is a big year with two U.S. Senate seats open.
“It’s making sure that the people who are running know that if they want to get elected, they’ll have to address gun violence,” said Miller. And those politicians with guns in their ads?
“There’s definitely an audience for that,” said Wiygul. “But we, the younger generation, definitely are helped by the fact the culture of guns is changing and politicians can focus on helping people who are vulnerable than appealing to an audience. That kind of stuff is putting on a show.”