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Gun bill demise angers students in 'fight for our lives'

Young people try to negotiate obstacles as they lobby hard for changes to make their schools safe from gun violence.

OREGON CAPITAL BUREAU: CLAIRE WITHYCOMBE - Students from March For Our Lives, a group advocating for tighter gun laws to prevent school violence, were at the Capitol Thursday to voice their disappointment over the failure of SB 978, which would have increased state restrictions on guns.SALEM — One recent Monday, phones of students from Portland to Salem lit up.

The news came through a Slack channel of student activists: a bill to tighten the state's gun laws had been nixed, the result of a political deal hashed out over Mother's Day weekend.

There was disappointment. Students, organizing to advocate for tighter gun laws through their activist group March For Our Lives, had spent several days this year lobbying lawmakers to pass the new restrictions.

Then Parkrose happened.

A few days after the deal was struck, on Friday, May 17, Parkrose High School football coach Keanon Lowe tackled an armed student in the building. The student had a shotgun.

March For Our Lives reacted, with students planning to return to the Capitol to convey their displeasure.

Deal angers students

PMG/EO MEDIA/SRA Florida high school shooting has played a part in motivating a new generation of student activists to seek state policy changes. And last week's incident at Parkrose kept the Oregon students going.

March For Our Lives, a national group, formed last year, after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Students from across the country have joined the movement. Shootings at schools claimed 114 lives in 2018, according to Education Week, which tracked incidents where people have been injured or killed by guns on school campuses.

"We hope to send a strong message to legislators that we are not naïve to what they're doing, that we see their hollow promises, and that words are not enough. They must be fueled by actions."

Senate Bill 978 would have made sweeping changes to the state's gun laws, including setting standards for gun storage and allowing retailers to raise the minimum purchase age to 21.

But it got squashed after Gov. Kate Brown and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, hammered out a deal with Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., of Grants Pass during the weekend of May 11 and 12. The deal was intended to get Republican senators back in the Senate chamber so legislation could move.

Opponents of the gun bill had appeared angered about the proposed restrictions on gun ownership, lining up in droves to testify against the bill.

Proponents were equally motivated to stop what they feel is an epidemic of gun violence. Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum testified for the bill, which never made it to the floor of either the House or Senate.

March For Our Lives students, who returned to the Capitol Thursday, May 23, thought the bill could save lives. Brown and Courtney "bargained with our lives like chess pieces," said Nabila Hersi, a Beaverton School District student.

Finn Jacobson, a student in the North Clackamas School District, said students are taking note. "We hope to send a strong message to legislators that we are not naïve to what they're doing, that we see their hollow promises, and that words are not enough," Jacobson said. "They must be fueled by actions."

Hersi said that they were told by Brown's office that she was "too busy" to meet with the March For Our Lives students. "We fought for the governor when she was up for re-election," said Sadie, a middle school student from Portland who declined to give her last name. "We stood with the governor at fundraising events, we canvassed, and she told us that she was behind us."

Sadie said she understood that lawmakers needed to come to common ground to pass the school tax bill, known as the Student Success Act. But, she said, "We cannot and will not succeed if we are dead."

Brown: making progress

In response to a request for comment from the Oregon Capital Bureau, a spokeswoman for Brown said the invitation was declined, but denied that the words "too busy" were used. "Our team unfortunately did send regrets to the invitation, which came in close to the time of the event," said Kate Kondayen, a spokeswoman for Brown, in an email Thursday, May 23. "Governor Brown was disappointed not to be able to attend and as she mentioned this morning, she was pleased the students were here using their voices for a cause they believe strongly in, and she hopes they will continue to speak out in favor of commonsense gun legislation."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown said she still plans to work on gun violence bills this session.Brown spoke to reporters Thursday morning, before March For Our Lives students held their own press conference. "We have been able to make incremental progress since I have been governor and we will continue to do so in a strategic and thoughtful manner," Brown told reporters. "But I think it's so important that these kids stay engaged and understand that their voices really do make a difference."

Brown said she looks forward to signing House Bill 2013, which restricts domestic abusers' gun ownership. That bill breezed through the Senate May 23 and heads to the governor's desk.

"I think there are a handful of priorities out there," Brown said when asked about her top priority for gun legislation. "I think we'll be having conversations over the next few days and weeks, frankly, about how we can focus those in a way that will continue to garner support from gun owners and folks who support common sense firearms safety."

Failure of the system

The students from March for Our Lives had a full agenda May 23, talking to reporters in between scheduled meetings with 10 legislators or their staffers. They also met with Rosenblum's staff.

PMG FILE PHOTO - State Sen. Ginny Burdick said she was frustrated by a deal that squashed a gun violence bill. Local students also were angered by the decision.Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick of Portland, a leading proponent of the gun legislation, said the bill had the votes to pass in the Senate. "They have a right to be angry," Burdick said of the students.

Burdick was disappointed in the bill's demise, but she thinks the session has been a "learning experience" for the students, who have learned about the political process and the culture of the Capitol.

Burdick said she encouraged them to keep active and join other groups advocating for gun control, and that there is power in numbers. Students say they plan to revive the gun reforms, but aren't ready to reveal the specifics yet. They say they want to promote responsible gun ownership.

Wylie Thompson, a student in the Salem-Keizer School District, said some lawmakers treat their activism as a civics lesson instead of a serious quest to prevent violence in schools. "Oftentimes, we're looked at, as … almost zoo animals as we're coming through here," Thompson said. "It will be kind of condescending in some of the ways that people will speak to us and they'll act like, 'Oh, it's so good that you guys are here.'

"But in reality," Thompson continued, "It's really a failure of our system that we have to be here working for something like this."

Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.