Silent in action, but loud in meaning, students from across Rhode Island gathered at the State House Wednesday to protest for better gun laws that could protect schools.
The students, about 50, were rallying in favor of the Safe Schools Act, which aims to remove a loophole from current law that allows those with a concealed carry permit to carry guns into schools. If the Safe Schools Act is passed concealed carry would no longer be allowed in schools, except for those given permission by school administration, be that for teaching, sport, or theatrical reasons.
Right now the Safe Schools Act is sitting in committee, with the aim of the rally to bring the legislation to a vote on the House and Senate floors.
The rally was organized by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, with help from students across the state. Each activist wore a t-shirt with a red target on the back, and when legislators entered the House chamber, the protesters turned their backs. Legislators were met with rows of targets.
Jenna Carmichael, a junior at Toll Gate High School, wrote a letter to the Beacon outlining her concerns about gun violence in schools and why she thinks it’s important that the Safe Schools Act gets passed.
“As a student who is well aware of the laws that are in place, I can attest to the fact that your stomach tightens, your palms sweat, and you feel afraid when you see someone approach the school with a heavy jacket or large bag. Students are tired of living in fear of being next,” Carmichael wrote. “No matter what side someone is on people can agree that a classroom should not be the last room you see. People can also agree that no matter who a person is, or what they did that day, they deserve to walk out of a school the way they walked in.”
“Great bill,” said House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, on the House floor. “We are in the middle of a budget right now. Whether or not a bill comes to the floor or not is dependent on how well it does in committee. If the bill does come to the floor, I will vote yes.”
He also spoke about how impressed he is with the young student protesters, saying, “I’m thrilled that the young people are involved in government.”
Carmichael is just one of a number of different Toll Gate students who attended the rally. She became involved with issues of gun violence and school protection after the Parkland shooting in Florida, where a school shooter killed 17.
“My school started a student action coalition where students can learn to get involved in government,” said Carmichael. “We learned there’s always something you can do to make a difference and let your voice be heard. Right now anyone in Rhode Island with a concealed carry permit can walk into a school. Anything can happen and it creates a system where we can no longer trust who walks into school.”
Carmichael was one of the “captains” of the rally, along with Grace Reed, who graduated from Toll Gate last Tuesday as class valedictorian.
Reed helped start the Toll Gate Civic Action Coalition, the school group that Carmichael mentioned in her letter, to fight for better gun protection in schools among other causes. Along with help from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, the Toll Gate students involved with the Civic Action Coalition planned a school walk-out during National Walkout Day on April 20. Both Reed and Carmichael aim to intern with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence this summer.
“The Safe Schools Act we are pushing because the session is ending soon,” said Reed. “Right now people can bring concealed carry weapons into school. We don’t want to put students in danger. Even if this law has the potential to save one life, it means something.”
“Having students in this movement is instrumental in having this work,” said Sara Hathaway, another Toll Gate graduate from last Tuesday and an active participant in rallies for a variety of causes. “We’re one of four states in the country that allow concealed carry on school grounds, so it’s strange to me why we can’t pass a concealed carry bill.”
People from all over Rhode Island were at the rally.
“People keep dying and it’s not right,” said Adam Yau of Warwick, a recent graduate of Providence Country Day in East Providence.
“Even though it hasn’t directly affected my life, it’s affected many other people around the country,” said Lauren Campbell, also of Warwick and a student at La Salle Academy.
“I don’t like the idea of getting shot,” said Maxon Quas of Barrington, a rising sophomore at University of Vermont.
Greg Pare, the director of communications for the Rhode Island Senate, said that, “this bill is heard in committee and is under a number of bills still being considered.”
Already this session two bills tied to gun violence have been passed. One banned bump stocks, devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, and another initiated a “red flag” procedure by which law enforcement can gather evidence and then petition a judge for the right to take weapons away from those deemed a danger to the public.
Those bills passed easily, and Pare said that “there was broad agreement on those bills.”
Larry Berman, director of communications for the Rhode Island House of Representatives said much the same. Berman said the Safe Schools Act “is held for further study in the House Judiciary Committee.”
“They were low-hanging fruit that all sides could get behind,” said Katherine Kerwin, the director of communications for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence about the two other gun control bills. “This bill has been tougher for more conservative legislators because they’re concerned about rights and the Second Amendment. We’re trying to work with legislators to make them understand the concerns.”
Kerwin said that the legislative session is due to end soon, so the coalition is aiming to put maximum pressure on leadership to try and get their bill passed.
The Rhode Island State Police and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association both support the bill, as well as a number of other Rhode Island institutions and figures, such as Rhode Island Association of School Principals, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Governor Gina Raimondo.
Timothy Duffy, the lobbyist for the School Committees’ of Rhode Island, questioned whether a bill needed to be passed at all to allow schools to ban concealed carry weapons on campus.
“We are convinced that school committees have authority to control the usage of concealed carry weapons on their campuses,” he said.
The only other states that allow concealed firearms on K-12 school grounds are Utah, Oregon and New Hampshire.