Shifting the Paradigm: A Teen’s Lobbying Experience

By Ella G.

My dad opened a pretty cool envelope on the kitchen counter this morning. It was a letter from the Maryland State House, and it listed all the accomplishments of the legislative session that ran between January 10th and April 9th. In only three months, the Maryland legislature passed comprehensive gun reform, including every item on the Moms Demand Action policy agenda. As my parents rattled off the names of all the bills that had become law, I glanced at my phone and saw that it had been exactly two months since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

On March 1st, two weeks after the Parkland shooting, I was sitting on the floor in the Maryland state legislature in Annapolis, waiting to deliver testimony. Four friends and I were the only high schoolers testifying to the House Judiciary Committee on gun control laws. I was prepared to testify against a bill that would reduce the number of hours required to obtain a handgun permit. Two of my friends were lobbying against a bill that would create programs for the arming of teachers. The latter bill, which was debated for much of the time we were there, brought especially vocal pro-NRA lobbyists to the floor. Using slightly different slogans and statistics, they all argued that students would be safer with gun-toting classroom instructors.

As one of the only students in the room, I was struck by the feeling of watching people who were so removed from the student experience debate policies that would directly affect me, my classmates, and my teachers.

Earlier that day at the State House, we sat in an overflow hearing room with a projector and watched citizens give testimonies from afar. One woman gave a heartbreaking testimony about her abusive boyfriend, who owned a gun and used it to threaten her. She argued that if the laws for gun transfership were looser, she would have been able to procure her own gun for self-defense. My first thought was that had her boyfriend been prevented from obtaining a gun in the first place, she would not have needed to defend herself. I also found myself recalling the often-repeated statistic that guns made domestic violence situations four times more deadly for women. I felt myself tearing up at this woman’s story, but I wanted her to understand that the root of her problem was her partner’s ownership of a lethal weapon, not her inability to obtain one herself.

In that moment, I found myself longing for the ability to see common humanity in the pro-gun activists on the other side of the aisle, whose perspective and life experience differed so drastically from my own.

As the day wore on, I saw that proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee were more like cross-examinations than conversations. Politics at the state level was not much more civil or less partisan than federal politics. And it was not much more accessible, either. When I was told that the bill I wanted to testify against might not come to the floor until midnight, I was frustrated. In the end, I was not able to testify on the floor, but I was still able to speak with multiple legislators from my district. And three of my friends delivered excellent testimony on the arming of teachers. When I learned recently that both the NRA-backed bills we had lobbied against had died in committee, I felt satisfied to be even a small part of such important progress.

However, I knew that it would not be possible for most Americans to participate in these long, disorganized legislative proceedings, and that discouraged me. I believe firmly that youth movements can cause paradigm shifts in our world, but I also think that the structures in which we exist must change their rules to accommodate our leadership. (Sixteen-year-olds should be able to vote in local, state, and national elections. And it shouldn’t be so difficult for anyone to testify at their own state legislature.)

Still, as a high school student who has viewed myself as an activist since before Parkland, it does excite me to see students given a real political platform. I know that some adults were surprised that Parkland teenagers–and the movement-builders to follow– were so smart and so organized. I certainly wasn’t.

I know that this movement’s age demographic mirrors the history of almost every social movement in the United States. I know that teens of color in urban areas have been pushing for gun control measures for many years. I know, too, what my own peers are capable of when it comes to activism.

I’ve seen that they care about debate and journalism and politics and art. And, even better, I’ve seen that they care about intersectionality in all these pursuits. That’s why the Parkland teens have shifted the conversation from their own struggles with a devastating mass shooting to the everyday police and gun violence faced by teens of color in low-income neighborhoods.

Our elected officials can also see what I see, which is that teenagers are and have been a force to be reckoned with. Many of them are listening to and honoring our voices. And yet, it’s not all our voices. I know that despite concerted efforts to the contrary, this movement is still centering the perspectives of privileged students.

I believe it is my responsibility as an upper-middle-class white student to use my voice to amplify the voices of those who are still marginalized.

When a teacher at my school contacted me the evening of March 12 and told me that a small group of students at my school had the opportunity to lobby US Senator Marco Rubio’s legislative staffer on gun control, it would have been easy to say no. I was exhausted enough from school and extracurriculars and family and simply reading the news in the morning.

But I knew how lucky I was to go to a school and to have a teacher that could provide these kinds of opportunities. I knew that if I didn’t take the spot, no one else would speak for me.

My absence would just mean one less chair filled around the conference room in the Florida Senator’s office.

And I wanted his staffer to see chairs, lots of chairs, chairs filled with people, chairs filled with people who cared enough to challenge him. I wanted them to see as many chairs as was humanly possible.

And so I decided that it was my civic duty to go.

At 7:45 am on March 13th, two friends and I met at the Metro stop. We came armed with our pencils and notebooks. We prepared ample questions about Senator Rubio’s policy positions on hot-button gun control issues, including but not limited to: an assault weapons ban, a bump stock ban, a high capacity magazine ban, a red flag bill, an improvement to the background check system, and a mental health test for gun ownership. In the end, the staffer was far less prepared than we; in fact, he seemed confused about why exactly we were meeting with him. When we clarified, he told us in some depth about Rubio’s plan to reform the NICS background check software and the reason Rubio doesn’t co-sponsor more comprehensive gun control legislation. At the end, he restated the empty platitude that people kill people, not guns, and made an off-color joke about his own gun ownership.

We left that meeting feeling that we had learned something, but certainly, we had barely scratched the surface.

On the very same day, I listened to the most prominent Republican students at my school give a talk on what they believe to be their own marginalization at a predominantly liberal school, especially as it related to gun control. I felt watching them the same way I had watching the woman give testimony about her abusive partner, and the same way I had listening to Rubio’s legislative staffer speak about the impossibility of an assault weapons ban. I felt some deep misunderstanding at the core of the conversation, some fundamental divergence. I felt dissatisfied with the way these conversations always seemed to go, as they tended to feel more performative than productive.

I want to engage people at the opposite side of the ideological spectrum in a real conversation, a long conversation, a thorough conversation.

A conversation that would reveal our fundamental differences and the common purpose that lies beneath. The common purpose that must lie beneath. I simply refuse to believe that there is no possibility for bipartisanship to stop the continued murder of American children.

Truthfully, I don’t know exactly how we’ll push through polarization to reach that solution. I don’t know how we’ll find commonalities with the people who don’t agree with us. I don’t know how we’ll compromise–or if we should compromise–on an issue that feels more personal every time a child is gunned down. I don’t pretend to have all the answers to those questions. But the first step is to keep remembering to ask them.

In a few weeks, I know some of the cameras may train their gaze back onto the things they always return to, like Trump and his latest Tweets about Hillary or CNN or Putin.

I’ll still be here. We–students, educators, parents, and all sorts of people in America–will still be here. We’ll still be grieving for all the victims of gun violence everywhere, both in schools and on streets. We’ll still be thanking the MSD movement builders from Florida and around the country for amplifying the voices of teens across the nation. We’ll still be honoring the students who have been speaking up for many years before this, and were met with resentment rather than fame. We’ll still be thinking about what it might look like for American conservatives and liberals to reconcile our differences and realize that the lives of the next generation are more important than any type of gun. We’ll still be planning to reach across the aisle to try to find light in a political climate that grows increasingly polarized.

I’ll still be taking direct action, whether it’s going to a sparsely-attended vigil in front of the White House or meeting with my own school’s administration about how to make our students safer.

I’ll still be writing. I’ll still be speaking my mind.

And maybe most importantly, I’ll still be listening.

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