Young people are the new front line in the latest push for stronger gun-safety laws across the country, spurred by the spate of school shootings, lockdowns and threats that have become a dismayingly regular feature of their lives. Some, like Damon Brown of North High School in Minneapolis, have been personally touched by gun violence. He lost a cousin in a recent shooting. Carianna Spencer used to feel sheltered at Orono High School — until an hourslong, campuswide lockdown after a gun threat. Eva Hadjiyanis, after so many shootings, has became acutely aware of the glass-walled classrooms that provide few places to hide at her high school in Edina. Walter Treat, a trapshooter on his high school’s team, strongly supports Second Amendment rights but has given serious thought to what reasonable changes might make sense. At 16, Adrian Ali-­Caccamo has already started working to pass gun-safety laws at the State Capitol because “it’s our duty to change this. I have some responsibility to change this for the future.” The Star Tribune Editorial Board, together with WCCO-AM, selected these five students from high schools across the metro area to share their concerns and perspectives with one another and with readers and listeners. What resulted was a thoughtful, moving and singularly respectful discussion that could give a pointer or two to their elders on how to approach controversial topics. Below are condensed and edited excerpts from that discussion. You can also view the embedded video in full.

Safe, but wary

Students feel safe at their schools, for the most part, but each shooting seems to nibble away at that sense of security. Some rely on a belief that adults at their school will do their utmost to protect them. Others want more precautions.

Carianna SpencerCari: I remember the first shooting that really made an imprint on me was the [2012] Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. Since then I’ve always been aware of what’s near me and what I could use to protect myself. I go to a very sheltered high school [Orono]. We’ve always felt safe there. Any time you hear a story on the news you think, that’s not going to be me. So when there was [a recent lockdown], it made us all realize this is a problem that could happen anywhere in the nation. A few days after … I looked at everyone’s eyes. There was fear there.

Eva HadjiyanisEva: I feel safe at my school most of the time, but especially after the Parkland [Florida] shooting, I’ve really come to terms with the fact that we are not completely safe. I know there’s more we can do to make every student feel safer.

Walter TreatWalter: When stuff like this happens you can’t help but think about what you would do. It’s generally a good idea to have escape plans in general. We have drills sometimes. Our school’s not super-easy to get into. But there’s a limit to how much stuff you want to put in place to maintain security. You can’t ever make a situation 100 percent safe 100 percent of the time. There has to be a point where you decide, OK, this is safe enough.

Damon BrownDamon: I do feel comfortable at my school, because the staff actually cares about us and they are willing to protect and they know how to take precautions. We have one main entrance that’s locked. We could always take more precautions. We should have more scheduled drills.

Adrian Ali-CaccamoAdrian: I do not feel unsafe at my school. I support increasing legislation, but it doesn’t come from a place of fear. I’m conflicted on [drills]. I think drills are important, but I also think school is supposed to be a safe learning environment where students feel comfortable. Drills [can] hinder that and end up leading to just more fear and paranoia.

 

Arming teachers?

Adrian: I’m very much against the idea of arming teachers. Even though the vast majority of teachers are trustworthy adults and it is unlikely something bad would happen, just having the teacher have a weapon in the classroom changes the dynamic of a classroom drastically. For a lot of people, guns are scary. Knowing your teacher has a weapon — even if they’re someone you trust — suddenly changes how you feel in that classroom setting.

Cari: When a teacher is standing at the front of the room and they know they have a gun with them and they know there’s a chance they’ll have to use it, that’s always going to be a block in their mind, something they have to be thinking about. Teachers already do so much for us, to expect them to have to be our protectors just doesn’t seem very fair to me. Our school resource officer does make me feel safer. He makes an effort to get to know all the students. He has an accurate picture of what certain students are like. So if there is suspicious activity, he would have a clue about that.

Walter: School districts buying guns and giving them to teachers, that’s obviously not a wise use of resources. But teachers who already have gone through training to get concealed-carry permits, I don’t see that leading to any big issues.

Damon: Our school resource officer is also the football head coach. That helps a lot. They build relationships with students, so they can have someone to trust, which is very important. The [school resource officer’s] one gun, that’s enough. But the teachers should have some type of physical enforcement. I got this idea from my history teacher … something less harsh, like pepper spray. Not to be a weapon, but something they could use to be safe.

Adrian: I don’t think having that sort of harmful device is necessary. What happens when two students get in a minor scuffle? It could lead to situations where it gets inappropriately used or accidentally used. I feel it [pepper spray and similar nonlethal devices] would cause more harm than potential good.

Changing laws and the right to bear arms

Adrian: I’ve been co-coordinating a group of students across the state, pressuring legislators to pass a universal-background-checks bill. Right now background checks are not required on sales that are online or through gun shows, and I see no reason why we should not require a background check on a weapon that could so easily kill people. It’s almost universally supported by the public. It’s ridiculous that [such bills at the Legislature] didn’t even get a hearing. They at least deserved the chance to be debated publicly.

Walter: There are definitely some laws that could be changed. Gun violence prevention orders, where a court can upon request of somebody, following due process, take away somebody’s guns, if they’ve been shown to be a threat. I think that’s fair. Somebody who can reasonably be shown in court to be incompetent with firearms shouldn’t be allowed to have them. But other laws don’t really work, like the so-called assault weapon bans. People who haven’t done anything wrong, their ability to buy guns should not be restricted by that.

Eva: I would actually disagree with Walter. There is almost no reason someone would need an assault-style weapon. It’s not a weapon used in hunting. I don’t see why it would be a bad thing to have harsher laws, at least having the age higher for that kind of weapon.

Cari: To me gun control is not about necessarily taking away guns from those people, taking away the right to bear an arm. It’s more about making stronger regulations to even getting access to a gun.

Walter: I’d say there’s some merit to that, like the people who’ve been shown they shouldn’t be able to have a gun. Background checks, you already need one to buy from a firearms dealer. Extending those universally, that would be fine. As long as there were steps in place to make sure it’s not overly intrusive. There are a lot of different reasons people have guns. I’m not super-big into guns. I just have my one shotgun that I use for trapshooting clay targets. It’s a fun sport. I do it for my school. Other people use guns for many different reasons: self-defense, hunting, collecting or just exercising your Second Amendment rights as part of the armed citizenry. The vast majority of people who have guns aren’t going to do anything wrong with them. There might be some measures we could take that might be reasonable, but on the whole, regulation to restrict gun rights should be viewed critically.

Adrian: I don’t have any issue with people responsibly bearing arms. I recognize the Second Amendment is part of our Constitution. But we all have a right to life, and that right is being taken away by weapons. An important part of the Second Amendment is “a well-regulated militia.” I see no issue with regulating so we can protect everyone’s right to live.

‘Our lives are at stake’

Adrian: I was born post-Columbine shooting. All my life I’ve lived in a country where this has become the norm. That is not how it needs to be. I feel as though it’s all of our duties to change this. My entire life has been this era of this country. I feel I have some responsibility to change that for future people.

Cari: The amount of gun violence we have is not normal compared to other countries. We’re such an anomaly. It’s definitely something we need to change.

Eva: Our lives are at stake. It seems it’s such a small number of people who die, but it could be any of us. At my school we have glass classrooms and we don’t really know how to hide if there were an actual situation. It’s really awesome that teenagers have been able to say what they want to say and be heard, but we haven’t seen much concrete action. One reason we’ve been given is it’s an election year. I just want to say most of us are going to vote next year. We’re here to see action, to reduce the number of people who die from gun violence. We can’t let them [lawmakers] just forget about it and let the news go on, because it’s going to keep happening unless we do something. It’s time for us to step up.

The conversation was moderated by editorial writer Denise Johnson and WCCO-AM personality Adam Carter. Editorial writer Patricia Lopez edited and excerpted the discussion.

 

MORE ABOUT THE STUDENTS

Damon Brown, 17, is a senior at Minneapolis’ North High School. He is a North Side Achievement Zone scholar who plans to attend college for business and marketing and is interested in photography and sports. Brown was moved to write his senior paper on gun violence after a cousin was shot and killed. He says he is committed to working to end such violence.

Eva Hadjiyanis, 17, is a junior at Edina High School. A youth leader in her church and student leader at a youth juggling company, Hadjiyanis is an avid reader and pianist and has lobbied at the State Capitol with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She said she felt unsafe due to what she considered lax security until improvements were made.

Carianna Spencer, 17, is a junior at Orono High School. She is editor of her school newspaper and runs track for her school. After last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, Spencer wrote a story for her school newspaper. She said the issue struck closer to home earlier this year when Orono schools were on lockdown over a gun threat.

Walter Treat, 18, is a senior at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria. Treat is on his school’s fencing and trapshooting teams and participates in the Knowledge Bowl. An Eagle Scout, he will attend Washington University in St. Louis this fall and is interested in writing, public speaking and economics. His letter in support of Second Amendment rights was recently published in the Star Tribune.

Adrian Ali-Caccamo, 16, is a junior at St. Paul’s Central High School and is active in student government and the gun-safety movement. He helped organize a 17-minute walkout at his school, attended a youth march to the State Capitol and is working with other students on state gun legislation, including universal background checks.