The Institute of Politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill held a "reverse" town hall on gun violence Sunday to give influential lawmakers the opportunity to ask young people what they thought about the issue.
A week after the shooting Parkland, Florida, Americans watched students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School question their legislators in a town hall debate, televised on CNN. Sunday’s event at the UNC Stone Center looked very similar, with a crowd of students on the left and several lawmakers to the right. However in this case, their roles were reversed.
UNC sophomore Lucy Russell hatched the idea for the event.
"We would turn the table and elected officials would have an opportunity to ask direct questions to their constituents," Russell explains.
Russell said she and her fellow committee members at the new student-led, non-partisan UNC Institute of Politics wanted to harness the energy of recent student activism.
"Looking at the news and seeing the faces of your peers, that it could’ve been you. That sets a fire in you. It sparks something that I think we haven’t seen before," Russell said.
The students running the Institute of Politics wanted to connect fired up young people to lawmakers, so legislators could hear their solutions and perspectives on gun violence.
The town hall was led by 16 panelists including college students and high schoolers from urban and rural schools. There was a member from the UNC Young Democrats and the UNC College Republicans, and students from the Tar Heel Rifle and Pistol Club, Triangle People Power, and the UNC Black Student Movement.
The four lawmakers invited to ask questions were Republican Representatives John Torbett and John Faircloth and Democratic Representative Cynthia Ball and Democratic Senator Jay Chaudhuri. Torbett and Faircloth co-chair the House Select Committee on School Safety.
Torbett kicked off the questioning, asking if North Carolina laws are stern enough to deter the illegal use of a firearm. That might sound like a tough question for teens, but they had all been briefed on state firearm laws earlier that day, and had opinions.
"The North Carolina statutes that are governing firearms, right now, is 77 pages long. I think the biggest concern is not whether the laws are stiff enough, or if there are enough of them," said UNC Senior Alan Cat, a member of the Safe, Fun, Educational Shooters Association. "It's whether or not they're getting enforced."
"While we do have existing laws, I think one thing that we can do is raise the age that we can buy an AR-15. You have to be 18 years old and I think that is way too young," responded Kari Degraffenreid, a senior at Raleigh Charter High School who considers herself politically independent.
Students weighed in on police officers serving in their schools. They shared both positive and negative experiences. Joshua Walker is a member of the Tar Heel Rifle and Pistol Club. He said he knew two school resource officers. One, he said, served as a good role model, while the other was removed after assaulting a student. Walker said he thought that made some students fear police and be more likely to want to carry a gun later in life as protection.
Representative Faircloth asked students about putting more security cameras in schools. One student said she wouldn’t mind hallway monitoring and another said she didn’t think adding more surveillance was the kind of environment she wants in school. Yet another said it would be better to spend money on school nurses and counselors. That’s an effort the House School Safety Committee is also recommending.
Green Hope High School Sophomore Raina Lee got cheers when she said mental health services, school resource officers and surveillance were bypassing the true issue.
"I think the problem legislators have right now is that they're not attacking the heart of the issue, which is guns," said Lee.
But Lee's opinion wasn't shared by all. And the exercise was about finding common ground.
One Young Democrat called universal background checks for gun purchases a possible moderate compromise. Representative Torbett said in an interview after the event that might be a heavier lift for a later date. Alan Cat of the pro-gun clubs suggested that giving private gun sellers access to federal databases could make it easier for sellers to voluntarily do more background checks.
Senator Chaudhuri asked student if they believed that lawmakers will be able to pass bipartisan legislation to address school safety issues.
"I think if there's going to be any sort of bipartisan bridge to gun legislation it's really just going to have to be in baby steps, because the political divide in this country right now is so wide," said Janais Phillips of Lake Norman Charter School. "I think having discussions like these are useful."
Lucy Russell with the Institute of Politics said the event was all about bringing lawmakers and students with different backgrounds face to face to talk and listen.
"I hope that this space demonstrates how if we do have everyone sitting at the same table, compassionately listening to one another, we can find areas of common ground to improve our state and improve our futures," Russell said.
A number of the panelists said after the event that they learned something from someone else that day. And each said they felt that they, too, were heard.