The town hall-style forum Saturday in Buffalo didn’t break any new ground in the conversation over how to prevent gun violence or keep kids safe from mass shootings. It didn’t settle any debates over banning assault rifles.
But the young organizers of the event believe it helped further the dialogue on an issue where their generation is leading the charge.
“I hope this starts something,” said Andy Kowalczyk, a senior at Clarence High School. “I think it will.”
Kowalczyk, 17, is one of the four student founders of Students for Action, which organized Saturday’s forum and drew more than 100 people to St. Paul’s Cathedral to take part in a conversation on ending gun violence.
The audience submitted questions to the two panel members, Rep. Brian Higgins and congressional candidate Nate McMurray, both Democrats.
What do they think about metal detectors in schools?
Do schools need more resource officers?
What can students do to keep the issue of gun violence on the national stage?
“Events like today,” responded McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor. “We need to have more discussions. When we shy away from open dialogue and fear public discussion, good ideas get buried and things become polarized.”
“What I would simply say is, ‘Don’t go away,’” Higgins said. “If somebody says within 24 hours of a mass shooting, ‘Now is not the time to talk about it’ – yes it is.”
“What they’re really saying is, ‘Eventually, they’ll go away or tire,’” Higgins said. “You should defy them and continue this effort, but toward the goal of clarifying what it is you want your elected representatives to respond to.”
Local students who attended last month’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 from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where a 19-year-old former student with an assault rifle killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day.
“Everyone should call for a town hall with their representative on April 7th,” Hogg tweeted.
The town hall in Buffalo lasted more than an hour, with questions covering such topics as school security, the National Rifle Association and what Higgins is doing in Congress to address gun violence.
“I support a ban on assault weapons, for the very reasons I stated previously, and that is they’re designed to do one thing – kill people,” Higgins told the crowd. “I support comprehensive background checks. I support funding for Medicaid that provides significant mental health funding, which is an important part of this.”
The event was organized, in part, to show young people that they can engage in a dialogue with their elected leaders, said Akilesh Ramakrishna, a junior at Clarence High School.
“Politics isn’t something that’s out of our scope,” said Ramakrishna, 16, “and it’s something we need to care about.”
While organizers billed the forum as a non-partisan event, there was a political undertone with the mere absence of Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and strong gun-rights supporter, who turned down an invitation to be on the panel. Collins had painted the town hall as a politically manipulated event by the Democrats and his opponent, McMurray.
Georgia VanDerwater, 17, another organizer, agreed there would have been a more well-rounded perspective on the issue had Collins attended, but she just wanted to provide a good, respectful discussion among people of diverse opinions and backgrounds.
“I think we did that,” said VanDerwater, from East Aurora High School.
Lois Justice, 75, of North Tonawanda, was among those who showed up Saturday. She saw information about the town hall on Facebook and decided two hours before the forum to attend and get more informed about the issue.
"I’m just so impressed with what our young kids are doing,” said Justice. “I’m so proud of them.”
The audience was largely an older, adult crowd, and organizers think the spring break may have been a factor in the lower turnout among students.
“There were some,” said Anna Engle, 17, from East Aurora High School and another organizer of Saturday's forum. “That is a step, because students are not as active as they should be in their government – in their future."
Kowalczyk, Ramakrishna, VanDerwater and Engle all met at a local vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting and knew they wanted to do more. That's when they created Students for Action, to empower students through information and activism.
They already have received a good response from their web site, studentsforaction.org, which includes links to news stories about gun violence and mental health, contact information for local government representatives and a link to help students register to vote.
“Once students see this," said Engle, "once they understand this is for them – it’s for their future – more and more will take part.”