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NEWARK — Security was tight outside the Newark Memorial High School gym on Monday, and no backpacks were allowed in as hundreds of high school students from around Silicon Valley gathered to discuss gun violence with two congressmen and one local celebrity — Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
The town hall-style meeting comes nearly a month after the high school massacre in Parkland, Fla., and two days before scores of Bay Area schools plan to join Wednesday’s walkout to protest gun violence. If Monday’s gathering in Newark was intended to recognize and unleash the emerging power of teenagers almost old enough to vote, the students came ready to ask questions about the future of school safety and federal gun control legislation.
But even 15-year-olds can be cynical.
“I don’t think it’s making any difference,” Anna Flores, a sophomore at Newark Memorial, said of the activism of her Florida compatriots who watched 17 of their classmates die at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month, victims of a 19-year-old former student with an AR-15. Elected officials, Anna said before the meeting began, “make it a big deal for a while, and then they just move on.”
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U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, who organized the gathering in his district, and Rep. Mike Thompson of Napa — both Democrats — were hoping Monday’s event might inspire the students instead. It’s a tall order for students who routinely go through “active shooter drills” at school, like the Newark students did twice last week.
“Right now, they’re giving the students attention and acting like they’re going to make a change, but no one really knows,” Gianna Carauta, 15, also from Newark Memorial, said before the meeting began. “I’m really disappointed and kind of scared. You never know when it could happen or who it could happen to.”
Kerr was slated to speak. He has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun control and a critic of President Donald Trump and his policies affecting race, immigration and guns. Kerr was 18 when his father, the former president of American University of Beirut, was assassinated in 1984 by Islamic terrorists. “I feel his full impact on my whole life,” the coach has said.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have taken the lead in launching their generation into activism. Their emotional pleas for tougher gun laws landed them a meeting with Trump last month. They will be at the front of Wednesday’s “March for Our Lives” on Washington.
But how effective teenagers can be where adults have failed remains to be seen. Legislation to ban so-called “bump stocks” — that effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic ones — never went anywhere in Congress even after a Las Vegas gunman in October opened fire on outdoor concertgoers, killing 58.
Legislation introduced after the Florida shooting to require universal background checks for gun purchases and raise the minimum age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21 appear stalled. And the only sponsors for laws to ban assault rifles are Democrats.
In a recent meeting, Trump supported the idea of raising the age of gun purchases to 21 and called out a Republican congressman as being “afraid of the NRA.” After meeting with NRA officials, however, Trump backed off any suggestion of increasing the gun-buying age and instead is focusing on “rigorous firearms training” for school teachers.
Khanna’s district encompasses much of Silicon Valley, from Campbell and Cupertino to Fremont. Thompson’s district includes Napa and much of the wine country.
Khanna said he understands the sense of futility, but wants this young generation to be undaunted. “Kids in the civil rights era thought it was hard, and they won. Kids during Vietnam thought it was hard, and they won. If these kids stick with it, they are the ones who will succeed, not us politicians.”