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Parkland, Newtown quest to end gun violence

August 11, 2018

NEWTOWN - When survivors of the Florida high school Valentine’s Day massacre end their 50-city summer bus tour here on Sunday, it will be more than a symbolic meeting of youth from two of America’s deadliest school shootings.

The afternoon program of speeches and voter registration at the town’s Fairfield Hills campus will be a call to arms for students across the country to speak out at the polls.

“I definitely think the voter turnout will be the highest ever in November,” says Florida high schooler Jaclyn Corin, a 17-year-old co-founder of March for Our Lives, and an organizer of the group’s 20-state Road to Change tour. “We have been going state to state, and everywhere we are seeing an increase in young voters registering.”

The four-hour event, which was coordinated with Newtown-based Sandy Hook Promise, comes six months after the slayings of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — the worst school shooting in the United States since 26 first-graders and educators at Sandy Hook School were killed in 2012.

Sunday’s event also comes three months after the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., to call for gun policy reform. That event not only prompted a series of students walk-outs here and across the country, but elevated youth leaders from the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, who shared the stage in Washington with Parkland high schoolers.

At the same time, Connecticut is preparing for Tuesday’s primaries for governor and competitive midterm races, including the 5th Congressional District. The state has seen a 200 percent jump in young voters who have registered since 2016, compared to the same midterm period four years ago.

“Now that youth are registering in such large numbers and we are becoming more of the voting demographic, what students and younger people have to say is really being taken into consideration more for a lot of candidates,” says Jackson Mittleman, 16, a Newtown High School student and the co-chair of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance. “It seems to me that most kids value safety and most kids don’t have fantasies about guns - at least where we live - so I think most students will vote for gun safety candidates.”

On Sunday, student speakers from Parkland and Newtown are not expected to target Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, the 11,000-member trade association for gun manufacturers, firearms retailers and sportsmen organizations, although at each stop on the Road to Change tour, youth have called for gun safety legislation.

Nor are there plans by the state’s largest gun rights group, the 30,000-member Connecticut Citizens Defense League, to counter-protest Sunday’s event, even though armed members of CCDL have shown up at gun violence prevention rallies by Newtown activists in the past.

“It’s free speech and it’s their right to do this,” said Scott Wilson, president of CCDL. “We would just hope that our youth who are being taught by those who support gun control know that there are numerous defensive uses of firearms across our country, and that guns in the right hands with the proper training and storage save lives.”

Even so, Newtown police say they are prepared to prevent any disruption of Sunday’s event, except perhaps rain. The event is prepared to draw as many as 2,000 people.

“This is Newtown and anything can happen,” said police Lt. Aaron Bahamonde. “We are not going to tolerate any interference with people who want to participate in this event.”

’Heartbreaking and inspiring’

The March for Our Lives tour has made headlines in every state, drawing from several dozen people to crowds of 1,500.

Activists have taken their message from Chicago’s South Side to Sioux City, Iowa, and from the Wisconsin home of GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to a four-day stretch through Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, where Parkland students were met with armed members of a group called Texas Open Carry.

Part of the confrontation has been by design; Parkland students chose tour stops not only where they could stand in solidarity with youth traumatized by mass shootings, but places where the gun industry has a stronghold - such as NRA headquarters in Virginia.

And part of the confrontation has been inevitable; critics have called the Parkland students a front for anti-gun liberals.

Nicole Hockley, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise who lost a 6-year-old boy in the 2012 massacre, said she heard the same criticism of her organization, which has become one of the premier violence prevention groups of its kind in the country.

“They said we were political pawns and tried to dismiss us,” Hockley said. “These Parkland kids are empowering a generation, and you can’t dismiss that.”

Mark Barden, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise who also lost a son in the 2012 massacre, said it was heartbreaking and inspiring to watch students walk into the middle of a national debate and share stories of loss.

His 16-year-daughter, Natalie, is among the student leaders in Newtown coordinating Sunday’s event with peers in Parkland.

Mittleman said he anticipated a positive event that focused on youth organizing under a single purpose - to feel safe - and to direct action in the fall to get results in November.

“Everybody in Washington knows what’s happening - they know what we want and they can hear us clearly,” he said. “Once young people get to the polls and start voting, students are going to vote for candidates that make them feel safe, not candidates who side with the NRA.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342

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