By Amanda Kaufman
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in the Worcester Telegram.
BOSTON – Massachusetts students are walking out of their classrooms and lobbying state legislators for stricter gun laws, joining a wave of young people who are demanding safer learning environments and an end to gun violence ahead of nationwide rallies Saturday.
Days of action in Boston, Beverly, Worcester, Ipswich, Plymouth and Ashby are slated to take place in tandem with Saturday’s Washington, D.C., March for Our Lives organized by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after a gunman opened fire and killed 17 people at the school last month.
Charlotte Lowell, 17, a senior at Andover High School and an organizer of the Boston march, stressed the importance of students leading the push for gun reform.
“The fact that students are leading this movement is the most pivotal part of it,” Lowell said. “We’re essentially saying, ‘You have refused to act on things that we believe in and if (adults) aren’t going to do anything about it then we’re going to, and we’re going to do it right.’ ”
Thousands of students across the country participated in a national day of action when they walked out of their classrooms last week and held a 17-minute moment of silence in honor of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. But Massachusetts students took their activism one step further by marching through the Boston Common and descending on the Statehouse to push for additional legislative action on gun control before state lawmakers.
The student lobbyists met with about a dozen legislators and urged them to move forward with H.3610, a bill that would establish “extreme risk protection orders” through which families or law enforcement officials could petition the state court to temporarily restrict a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a significant risk to themselves or others.
Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, Rep. Kevin Honan, D-Boston, and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Education, all pledged their support for the passage of the bill at the meeting, while others withheld judgment. Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, later said he was undecided but concerned about the potential for the “divisive” legislation to infringe on due process.
Jack Torres, 15, a sophomore at Somerville High School, said Somerville and Cambridge students have walked out of their classrooms every Wednesday since Feb. 28 and will continue the weekly demonstrations until April 15, the deadline for lawmakers to move H.3610 out of the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety.
Torres said some student participants have extended the walkouts to full-day protests where they meet in Union Square to contact lawmakers in other states and urge them to follow Massachusetts’ lead on gun legislation.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rated Massachusetts as having the fourth strongest gun laws in the country for its ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and the state’s efforts to restrict the sale of guns to the mentally ill. In 2017, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the sale of bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire.
″(Gun reform) is important, specifically in Massachusetts, because it’s not an issue that’s been talked about,” Torres said. “People sort of look at Massachusetts like ‘Oh, they’ve fixed the problem.’ While Massachusetts is further along in the solution than many other states, there’s still ways to go.”
The students’ next step, Torres said, is to petition Smith & Wesson, the gun manufacturer based in Springfield that made the semi-automatic weapon used in the Parkland shooting, to stop producing assault rifles in the state.
“It’s hypocritical for Massachusetts to allow the manufacturing and export of semi-automatic and assault rifles and not allow the buying and selling of them,” he said. “They should just not allow the manufacturing and exporting as well.”
Their activism has won tempered support among some school administrators.
In response to “Walkout Wednesdays,” Sebastian LaGambina, interim headmaster at Somerville High School, sent an email to parents on Feb. 27 explaining that students who do not return to class after the weekly walkout will not be able to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities for the remainder of the day, while those who only engage in the 17 minutes of advocacy will not face repercussions.
“While we applaud and are supportive of our students’ advocacy and their commitment to civic engagement, we are also aware of the safety and educational challenges that frequent walkouts present,” LaGambina wrote in the email. “We will continue to work with our students in finding alternate forums for them to express their advocacy in ways that will not negatively impact their learning, compromise their safety, or interfere with their ability to honor prior commitments.”
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the organization has endorsed the student-led movement because “it is a moment of moral crisis for our country that we have to address … and that the students are leading us in this is beautiful and critical.”
Madeloni said the MTA has advised its network of more than 110,000 members on the limits of their political speech and offered support should they face retaliation for assisting students who choose to take direct action. Some teachers have expressed concerns over students missing class to participate in the movement, she added.
“There’s a diversity of opinions about this and it is up to educators to talk about these issues, to talk to each other about it.” Madeloni said. “Public education is about preparing people and making a place for people to actively participate in the democratic process and that means talking through differences and deciding how we want to act.”
Michael Martinez, 16, a junior at Weston High School, said he and other students have faced criticism from some who argue their political activism is invalid because they are not yet able to vote.
“The reason we’re having young people do this is because we will be voting in a few years and we’re trying to shape communities the way that we want to see them when we are voters and when we are the ones leading,” he explained.
Martinez also said he hopes students are able to capitalize on the current moment when gun reform, and the initiative young people are taking to incite legislative change, is the focal point of national conversation.
“Issues and where the nation’s attention lies changes very rapidly, and right now we have this very small window of time to speak up while the nation is looking at young people,” Martinez said. “We want to make sure this becomes a movement.”