'We're not going to give up': Arizona students' 'die-in' puts focus on gun-safety reform

'We're not going to give up': Arizona students' 'die-in' puts focus on gun-safety reform

Alexis Egeland, Dustin Gardiner, Derek Hall and Angel Mendoza, The Republic | azcentral.com

Students with the March for Our Lives movement occupied several buildings at the Arizona Capitol on Friday to demand Gov. Doug Ducey support stricter gun-control laws.

Hundreds of students staged a "die-in" protest, where they lay on the ground to symbolize deaths from school shootings, in the lobbies of the state House, Senate and Ducey's office.

Students in the Senate and House lobbies left about 10 p.m., after six hours in the buildings. Five remained in the lobby of the Executive Tower, but were removed by Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers about a half-hour later. They weren't arrested.

The students broke down in tears as they left the building, saying they were shocked Ducey wasn’t willing to agree to talk with them about gun-safety legislation.

“We told them we plan to stay until we get the response that we demand from the governor, which really wasn’t even that hard of an ask, to simply acknowledge us,” said Jordan Harb, a 17-year-old organizer with March for our Lives Phoenix.

“Then they came up, grabbed us by the arm and forced us out."

Harb said the students had planned to stay 13 hours to represent the 13 lives lost in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.

Students entered the buildings about 4 p.m. Some quietly lay on the floor. Others chanted “books, not bullets” and “enough is enough" as a small group of counterprotesters swarmed around them.

The buildings officially closed at 5 p.m., but well over a hundred students remained in place at that time.

DPS troopers didn't attempt to remove any students, though they blocked the doors to stop anyone else from entering. Dozens more students protested outside the doors.

Students with March for Our Lives have repeatedly blasted Ducey for refusing to meet with them. The governor was in northern Arizona until Friday evening to observe wildfire preparations.

Ducey's administration responded to the students Friday evening by repeating talking points about the governor's school-safety plan.

"The governor put forward a common sense proposal to make our schools and communities safer," Patrick Ptak, Ducey's spokesman, said in a statement. "We continue to work with the Legislature to get it passed."

Parkland survivors join students

Alongside the students occupying the Capitol were Alfonso Calderón and Charlie Mirsky, two survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed three adults and 14 students on Valentine's Day.

Friday's protest coincides with numerous demonstrations taking place across the country to mark the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School.

Students said the Columbine shooting — which killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 — marked the start of a generation of Americans who've grown up with mass shootings.

Mirsky, 18, watched as students lay on the ground near Ducey's office. He said he's hopeful Arizona students can drive changes. In Florida, Parkland survivors helped pressure Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to adopt new stricter laws.

But as the die-in stretched well past 5 p.m., some of the students wondered if they would ultimately be arrested. Still, they lay on the ground.

“Of course they’re scared," Mirsky said. "But they’re staying.”

Jordan Wiener, a sophomore at the Arizona School for the Arts in downtown Phoenix, was among the protesters occupying the state House. She said she would stay all night, and risk arrest, if it came to it.

The only problem? It’s a school night.

“I actually have rehearsals for a show tomorrow morning so I can’t get arrested,” she said with a laugh. “I would, but I can’t.”

Wiener said she doesn’t expect state officials to do much in response to the die-in, but she hopes they will “do the right thing” and listen to the kids who came out to protest.

“We are the change in this world,” she said. “We are going to change this world.”

Heavy police presence at Capitol on Friday

The protest started Friday morning as a few hundred students, many wearing orange T-shirts, from Metro Tech High School walked out of class and marched almost 3 miles to the Capitol. They gave speeches on the lawn and left letters for lawmakers. 

Yamile Martinez, an 18-year-old student at Metro Tech, carried a megaphone and led her classmates in chants. She held a poster with the Parkland victim's photos, each name and age scrawled in black marker.

"I'll be here until the sun sets," Martinez said. "We're not going to give up. The movement is going to travel, it's going to spread."

As students and their parents arrived at the Capitol in the morning and afternoon, they were met by a heavy police presence, including dozens of troopers and a SWAT team from the state Department of Public Safety.

"The Department of Public Safety's primary concern is the safety of all who gather to exercise their first First Amendment rights and the surrounding public," Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman, said in an email.

Staffers in both the Senate and House were sent home early Friday, but spokespersons said that wasn't necessarily due to the protest.

Outside, the students chanted slogans against the National Rifle Association, the county's most powerful gun-rights lobbying group, which on Thursday endorsed Ducey's plan to prevent mass shootings in Arizona schools.

"No gun reform should be endorsed by the NRA itself," March for Our Lives Phoenix posted on Twitter.

The students were also greeted by a few dozen counter protesters, who waved Trump and "Don't Tread On Me" flags and open carried firearms on their waists

Some heated arguments ensued between groups of protesters, but there were no physical altercations.

Jeff Morrow, 61, a veteran with a handgun and a broken megaphone, said the protesters were wasting time at the Capitol when there are more common sense solutions.

“They’re screaming, ‘We’re so scared we’re in school,’ " he said. "You have a better chance of winning the lottery than the odds of getting shot in school."

Morrow said a better solution would be to arm teachers to provide protection in schools.

What students want, what Ducey proposed

While Ducey has refused to meet with the students, Harb said they are hopeful their emotional pleas will eventually catch his attention. The governor had not responded Friday evening. 

"Whatever policy they pass affects us," Harb said. "They need to hear our stories."

Organizers with March for Our Lives Phoenix have said they want gun-safety legislation that:

  • Closes the "gun show loophole" and requires universal background checks for all gun sales. Current law allows private parties to sell guns without running a background check, as licensed gun dealers are required to do.
  • Bans bump stocks, devices that allow semiautomatic rifles to mimic fully automatic guns. Bump stocks were used by the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 people.
  • $360 million to hire school counselors and psychologists so Arizona has a ratio of 250 students per counselor.

Ducey's proposal doesn't do those things. The governor has instead pushed for legislation to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

His plan, Senate Bill 1519, calls for about 100 more police officers in schools; a new type of restraining order to keep guns out of unstable people's hands; more mental-health counseling in schools; and a school-safety tip hotline.

Governor's plan endorsed by NRA

On Thursday, a committee in the Arizona Senate voted 4-3, along partisan lines with GOP support, to advance the bill. It still faces a long road in the Legislature.

Ducey's plan has received criticism by both parties: Democrats, who say it doesn't go far enough to close loopholes; and Republican lawmakers, who worry it could violate constitutional liberties.

Support from the NRA appears to have assuaged some conservative lawmakers. 

But the NRA's blessing also has intensified opposition from Democrats and gun-control advocates. Students with March for Our Lives also blasted Ducey's proposal, calling it "51 pages of utter BS."

They are especially critical of the governor's push to put more police officers in classrooms.The students said schools need more funding, not more guns. They worry more officers would create stress for minority students who fear deportation or biased discipline.

Friday's die-in follows a wave of student-led demonstrations that have hit Arizona and the country in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

In Arizona, March For Our Lives student organizers led a march for gun-control laws outside the state Capitol last month that drew at least 15,000 people. They also staged a raucous sit-in in the lobby of Gov. Doug Ducey's office in March.

This piece was originally published on azcentral.com.

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