SALT LAKE CITY — They may still be in high school, but the March for Our Lives Utah activists gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to announce they intend to hold state lawmakers responsible for a lack of progress on gun control issues.
“We are here today because gun safety is an issue we care about. And so do our friends, families and our communities. Utah has a gun violence problem,” Skyline High School senior Ainsley Moench, 17, said. “Many of our legislators have stood by and refused to take action, and while they’ve done that, people have continued to die.”
Moench said the students “are fighting back” by grading each member of the Utah Legislature on how they dealt with firearms-related bills during the 2019 session, including failed attempts to pass universal background checks for gun buyers and a “red flag” law to allow guns to be temporarily taken away from someone deemed a danger.
“We are tired of seeing our friends die. We are tired of being scared. We are tired of being ignored,” she said, citing gun violence as one of the leading causes of death for young people. “Our age group has power, and we are not afraid to use it. We want to be safe. We want our communities to be safe. We want to live.”
Meg LeFevre, 17, a senior at Bountiful High School, pointed out a majority of Utah lawmakers earned a “C” or “D” grade.
“As teenagers, we are old enough to die from guns but not old enough to vote. None of us voted for the legislators in office right now. But we will be voting,” LeFevre said, based on the gun safety issue. “We are counting on our legislators to have enough courage to protect us.”
They cited statistics about Utah’s high rate of gun deaths by suicide, especially among young people, as well as polls that have shown support for gun control. Last fall, a UtahPolicy.com poll found that 70% of Utah voters back raising the age to purchase a gun to 21 years old, as well as support for other measures.
The students, members of the Utah chapter of the national student-led organization created in the wake of the deadly Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, warned they should not be underestimated.
“I think it’s dangerous to put a limit on the ability of young people these days,” West High School senior Andoni Telonidis, 17, said. “When we see mass shootings that are impacting people our age, who are on the verge of graduating high school, across the country, I think we all on this team, feel a responsibility.”
Telonidis said he hopes Utah voters of all ages will take a closer look at where their legislators stand on gun safety.
“There’s just a lot voters don’t know about their own representatives,” he said. “I think that’s another big ambition for us, is that constituents will start to speak up more and start contacting their legislators more once they see how they are voting.”
While Telonidis said there’s no consensus yet on what the students hope to see from the 2020 Legislature that begins meeting Jan. 27, he and other students involved in March for Our Lives Utah plan to be involved in the session even if means missing some classes.
“This will be my first year lobbying,” said Timpview High School senior Bethany Raines, 18. “So I’m very excited.”
Raines said she hopes to be taken seriously by lawmakers since she’s a voter.
“I think I speak for a lot of people, especially down in Provo,” she said. “I think there’s misconceptions about what people in those areas believe. I feel that most people that I have spoken to in my neighborhood are totally for common sense reform.”
Provo is also home to “a lot of moms that want to see their kids go to school and they want to see their kids come home from school. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all working toward.”
One of those mothers is Alissa Loftus, of Bountiful, whose daughter, Lydia, was an eighth grader when a classmate brought two guns and ammunition to school and fired one shot into the ceiling of their junior high school. Wearing a “Moms Demand Action” T-shirt, Loftus praised the students’ efforts at the news conference.
“I think it’s fabulous that someone is looking at voting records and really trying to make a correlation between how they’re voting and what people really want. Because I feel a lot of times, that isn’t happening,” she said. “I think it’s awesome that they have a voice that they’re using for good. It’s great.”
Loftus said school violence should be above partisan politics.
“I don’t think it should be really portrayed as a Republican-Democratic issue,” she said. “I feel like it’s a safety issue more than anything. And who doesn’t want our kids to be safe?”