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Photos by Angela Matua/QNS
Photos by Angela Matua/QNS
Jackson Heights students called for stricter gun control legislation in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

A day before the national walkout planned at schools around the country to acknowledge the 17 people who died in a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, students from The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights met with Congressman Joseph Crowley to discuss gun control.

The National Student Walkout will take place on March 14, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting, at 10 a.m. It will last 17 minutes, with each minute representing a life lost. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida organized the event to call for stricter gun control laws after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 to gun down students. Prosecutors announced on March 13 that they will seek the death penalty against Cruz.

According to Renaissance Charter School Principal Stacey Gauthier, several students approached her after the shooting to ask if they could also advocate for gun control legislation.

“It came out of a smaller group who were really impressed by the Parkland kids and they were like, ‘Wow, we need to do something.’ So the first thing they did is ask, ‘Are you going to basically try to stop a walk out?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely not.'”

They also scheduled a conversation with Crowley before holding a press conference on March 13 to ask him questions about what Congress was doing to prevent these mass shootings from occurring.

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“Today I stand with these students and teachers and their parents who are no longer going to tolerate inaction by Washington,” he said. “Tragedy after tragedy has left our fellow Americans dead in classrooms, in churches and in their communities and quite frankly, enough is enough. An overwhelming majority of Americans support bi-partisan common sense proposals that will protect our children.”

This legislation includes banning bump stocks, strengthening background checks and closing the gun show loophole, which allows people to purchase guns without a background check from private sellers. Crowley also supports the Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004.

“When rational gun legislation is passed, it won’t be the Congress,” Crowley said. “It won’t even be the parents. It will be the young people who make a difference.” 

Crowley also signed a No NRA Money Pledge presented to him by Nadia Hussain, the maternal justice campaign director for MomsRising. The group is asking politicians to promise that they will not accept donations from the National Rifle Association. 

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Loren Francione, a junior at The Renaissance Charter School, argued that legislation should have passed after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 where 15 students died, including the two gunmen.

“After all the lives lost in Columbine there should have been stronger gun control legislation passed but with every choice comes consequences,” she said. “When the government chose not to pass stronger gun control legislation the consequences were the lives of students and teachers lost across America.”

She also encouraged students to “participate in something larger than themselves.”

“People have attempted to hush the youth into submission, but as the next generation of voters in this country, we refuse to back down,” she said. “Our power lies in our unity and our willpower to push for change. It may not come quickly, but the way it will affect our nation is beyond what anyone thinks the youth are capable of. ” 

According to Gauthier, the students have held several meetings in advance of the walkout tomorrow and will come to school early to decorate posters and plan to walk around the block.

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Nico Cortez-Alvarez, a student at the charter school, argued arming teachers is not the answer to school safety. After the shooting, President Donald Trump proposed allowing teachers to carry guns as a solution. On March 9, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which in addition to raising the age to buy firearms to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases, allows trained school employees to carry handguns. 

“Many people in the country view the epidemic of school shootings with the perspective that we should fight fire with fire and arm our educators,” he said. “However, I believe that this simply creates more room for violence rather than preventing mass shootings from ever happening again. I’ve had the privilege of not being directly affected by gun violence but I am sick and tired of people suffering over these easily preventable deaths.

Odalys Garete, 16, said she was nervous to speak to the congressman but felt “relieved” to find out that he is “listening to us.”

“I was definitely devastated [when I heard about Parkland],” she said. “I was really disappointed because in my head I was just like, ‘Really? Another one?’ At some points when I was hearing these things going on, out of anger, I would cry.”

Garete said the number of lock-down drills her school has conducted this year has increased.

“Years prior, we wouldn’t really do it,” she said. “It would happen like once a year, but this year specifically, we’ve had three, I believe.”

Gauthier said the school participates in a number of drills including fire drills, lock-downs, shelter in place and cardiac arrest drills and that the school has reevaluated its safety procedures.

“Schools should be safe places,” she said. “I think my job first and foremost is to keep the students safe. While we can do these things here, the important thing is to figure out how to prevent [shootings] because all these things are just band-aids. Let’s get some legislation to stop getting guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

Gauthier added that the students don’t want to end their advocacy tomorrow after they participate in the walkout: “Their hope is to go to Albany and now they’re asking for D.C. so we’re going to try to support them. Our motto is ‘Developing Leaders for a Renaissance in New York’ and the country as a whole so this is exactly what we want them to be doing. I’m glowing. I’m so proud of them.”

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