WASHINGTON — Inspired by the teens from Parkland, Fla., Buffalo-area high schoolers are organizing a forum on gun violence on April 7, and they've already lined up Rep. Brian Higgins and two other Democratic congressional candidates to attend.
But Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and strong gun rights supporter, will not be there, his spokeswoman, Sarah Minkel, said Wednesday.
“Sadly, radical partisans have co-opted the Parkland tragedy in an effort to score cheap political points," Minkel explained in an email.
Hearing that, one of the organizers of the April 7 forum, Andy Kowalczyk, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
"He kind of closed himself off by calling us radical partisans," said Kowalczyk, a 17-year-old senior at Clarence High School. "We're just trying to look for solutions."
Kowalczyk said the event would go forward without Collins, although the time and place has not yet been set.
Local students who attended Saturday's March for Our Lives events in Washington and Buffalo decided to organize the forum after seeing a tweet from David Hogg, one of the leaders of the student group at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a 19-year-old man with an assault rifle murdered 17 people on Valentine's Day.
"Everyone should call for a town hall with their representative on April 7th," Hogg tweeted on Sunday. "Your town hall should be 2hrs and start between 8am and 4 pm call your rep today to organize it and if they refuse to show up just invite their opponent. LET'S GO!!"
The Buffalo-area teens began planning the event with Collins in mind, calling it a student forum rather than a town hall.
"It's kind of because Chris Collins has said he would never do a town hall," said Erin Byers, a 17-year-old senior at Pioneer Central High School in Arcade who is also involved in organizing the event. "So we're calling it a student forum. We thought that might make him react more positively."
The students had no such luck.
"While his opponents are grandstanding, Chris Collins has already voted to pass the FIX NICS Act (a bill modernizing the background check system for gun purchases) and the Stop School Violence Act, both of which directly address the shortcomings of law enforcement that led to the Parkland tragedy," Minkel said. "Collins just last week met for nearly an hour with his Democratic opponent and had a thoughtful discussion on this issue, as he has and will continue to do with countless constituents throughout the district.”
Minkel was referring to a meeting Collins had with Nicholas Stankevich, a Genesee County businessman who is one of two Democrats vying to take on Collins.
Stankevich will be at the student forum, as will Nathan McMurray, the Grand Island supervisor and congressional candidate who who won the endorsement of Democratic leaders in the district.
So will Higgins, a Democrat who has refused to hold his own town halls in his Buffalo-based district, but who regularly attends similar events when invited.
"These mass shootings disproportionately affect young people, so it's appropriate and I think inspiring that young people are organizing things like this like never before," Higgins said.
Asked to react to the statement from Collins' office, Higgins — who has a cordial relationship with his congressional neighbor — said: "To make this a political football is not helpful to anybody. It's immature."
Earlier in the day, Collins' campaign issued a statement noting that retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens this week called for a repeal of the Second Amendment, which guarantees a right to gun ownership.
"We are looking forward to see where our radical extremist opponents Nate McMurray and Nick Stankevich stand on this issue," said Collins spokesperson Bryan Piligra.
Asked about their thoughts on the Second Amendment, both Stankevich and McMurray said they support it — and that it is compatible with reasonable gun restrictions that they favor, such as universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
"What I'm for is making sure madmen can't get their hands on military-grade weapons and kill kids," McMurray said.
Both Stankevich and McMurray also said Collins should attend the event the students are organizing.
"Those are the future voters," Stankevich said. "They'll be voting in the next election, if not in the election this fall. Chris Collins is sort of choosing his own adventure on that one."
Meantime, McMurray said: "It's an open forum. Let's see if he can face it."
Kowalczyk, the student organizer, stressed that the forum is intended to be a positive experience where lawmakers and students can interact.
"It can be beneficial, not just to for us to hear what our legislators are thinking, but because of what we want our legislators to hear," he said.