Dallas Anne Duncan
Gun laws in Georgia are simple.
Aside from a couple of hunting, fishing and parental permission-related exceptions, Georgians can’t own handguns until they’re 18. No weapons or long guns while on the premises of one of the state’s nuclear power facilities. Sawed-off shotguns and rifles, machine guns and silencers — with few exceptions — are illegal. If you have a concealed carry permit, it’s advisable to have it on you at all times. If you’ve been convicted of certain crimes, you’ve lost your privilege to own firearms.
Other than the provision of being a minor, there’s not much codified about who is able to purchase or own a gun in Georgia, and how dealers and private sellers make sure who they’re selling to isn’t going to commit a crime or use their new weaponry for nefarious purposes.
But after years of seeing gun violence, mass shootings and school shootings hit headlines, youth activists across the country decided it’s worth a shot to take a stand and demand commonsense gun control legislation, and a movement was born.
NOW WALK IT OUT
“I think I have grown up in a generation where every day I looked at the news and I see a tragedy or shooting, specifically with schools. I am a high schooler. I go to school every day. Kids who are exactly the same as me are not coming home in the afternoon because someone shot up the school, and that scares me a lot,” said 16-year-old Eli Hughes, a sophomore at Etowah High School in Woodstock.
Hughes, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the singular “they” pronoun, heard about the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and decided enough was enough. They heard about the March for Our Lives planned for Atlanta on March 24, and figured out how to get involved.
“Stepping into the role I did as peace marshal, I was not able to be inside the crowd but I could still witness everything that was happening, and it was truly stunning to see the amount and the range of people. I expected to see the vast majority as young kids who were liberal in nature, but I saw people who were as old as 72,” Hughes said.
The particular 72-year-old Hughes recalled said he had been a Republican his whole life, was still a Republican, but was there to support the cause.
“This is one of the issues that makes us so divided as a country, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about it. I think we need to be communicating with each other instead of always yelling at each other, and never being able to look at the other side,” said Savannah Nemeth, 18, a student at Collinsville High School in Lawrenceville.
Nemeth’s primary role in the march was creating fliers, but at the event was asked to speak and read a poem written for the occasion.
“I ended up being the first person to speak. It was really amazing and I got so many people coming up to me afterwards,” Nemeth told Georgia Voice. “I’ve been to a lot of different marches for Black Lives Matter, and a lot of LGBT events, but I’ve never been someone who actually planned it and that’s what I think is so amazing about this movement. It’s giving so many kids a chance to step up and do amazing things.”
The march brought an estimated 30,000 to Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Police Department. It was preceded in many school districts by walk-outs, which was where Hughes first got involved.
The Georgia Alliance for Social Justice served as a fiscal sponsor and adult advisers for the younger organizers, but executive director Janel Green said the organization tried to hang back as much as possible.
“The objective was really to demonstrate that the youth were going to take charge. The kids really wanted to make a statement that adults were failing them and failing to implement commonsense gun laws and practices that would protect them in their schools. This was their opportunity to take the helm,” she said.
‘YOU HAVE TO BREAK THE RULES’
The March for Our Lives in Atlanta spawned a new organization, the Georgia Student Alliance for Social Justice.
Elias Green (no relation to Janel), 18, a community advocate and senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Lawrenceville, had the role of being the march’s press contact.
“I was standing on the press bleachers that we had in the back … and people just kept coming and coming and coming. It was like, wow, a bunch of teenagers put this together,” he said. “Not only were we getting support for something that we all genuinely care about, but it was something that showed all of us that we were capable.”
Bentley Hudgins, an Atlanta LGBTQ activist and adult adviser for the march and walk-outs, wasn’t surprised that it was students taking the lead on this issue.
“Young people have been the voices of speaking truth into power for the longest time,” Hudgins said. “You have to break the rules in order to show how ludicrous they are.”
He acknowledged that this does ask activists to risk something — in the gun control discussion, that risk included detention or suspension for participating in a walk-out, for example — which he knows many parents have valid concerns about.
“If you play by the rules, but the rules weren’t set up for you to win, sometimes you have to break the rules, and sometimes breaking the rules comes with consequences. … The schools have a right to discipline you, but they can’t do it any more harshly than they would if you were walking out of school to go get McDonald’s or something,” Hudgins said. “I understand their concerns about safety, but one of the things I say back to them is, ‘Are you sure that you’re just worried about their safety, or are you concerned that they are protesting gun violence?’”
He said people tend to speak up against movements when they don’t like or agree with what the movement’s goals are.
Hudgins also said that though March for Our Lives is a movement sparked by school violence, it’s important to remember that there are other victims of gun violence as well, including, disproportionately, transgender women of color, more than 20 of whom were murdered in 2017.
A CHANCE AT COMPROMISE
Though some sources claim those who want gun law reform want to repeal the Second Amendment, the activists who spoke with Georgia Voice say this isn’t the case for them.
“Obviously an entire removal of guns is just impractical. What I think would be ideal would be the removal of assault weapons for sale to normal citizens. Those should be reserved to people in the military, as well as high-capacity magazines shouldn’t be able to be distributed,” Hughes said.
Hughes added that they believe some other gun modifications need to be less readily available, and there should be additional screenings to ensure those who purchase guns are fit to own them. Though their immediate family are not gun owners, Hughes believes most Americans have the right to own firearms.
One of the biggest groups to oppose proposed legislation is the National Rifle Association. The NRA and Georgia Gun Owners did not respond to interview requests for this story. Janel Green said the NRA’s position is frustrating.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, the NRA made a transition from being kind of a sportsmen organization that advocated for gun safety, and turned into a lobby for gun manufacturers. They can spin fear and they can spin all these other narratives. It creates profits for their other funders,” she said. “My husband owns a gun. I grew up hunting. I started hunting when I was my son’s age, so maybe 11 or 12. I see guns as tools and should be used as such. Some of these guns are really not tools for the average American and have really crossed the line into being more military-type equipment that’s sole purpose is for killing human beings.”
Hughes believes much of the policy discussion is based on fear, for both sides of the debate.
“It’s fear that’s causing us to finally do something because we’re scared to get killed in school. [The opposing view] is scared that basic human rights are going to be taken away,” Hughes said. “It’s important to recognize their points as valid because by disregarding them, there’s no way a compromise can be reached.”
Hughes said one reason they believe this issue became so partisan is that a group of people believe those who want commonsense gun control want to take away Americans’ right to own firearms, which in Hughes’ case at least is not true.
“They’re taking it as a personal attack on themselves or their ideals,” Hughes said. “People try to make it partisan because it makes it easier to deal with — this politician agrees, disagrees because of party. Trying to force gun control or gun issues into a partisan two-party system makes it so nothing that actually needs to be accomplished actually gets there.” Nemeth’s immediate family does not own firearms, but the extended family members who do also support commonsense gun legislation. Nemeth sees compromise in the future.
“I hope that we can find some sort of compromise and some sort of agreement where we can be helping protect people form gun violence in a peaceful manner, and then also we need to take measures to be sure that whatever ends up being done to limit gun violence isn’t targeting communities of color,” Nemeth said.
Elias supports expanded background checks.
“I’ve had people criticize me, saying I know nothing about guns, but I’ve known how to shoot guns since I was 9,” he said, adding it’s more likely to see federal legislation pass than state. “The state Legislature is very polarized toward conservative issues, because the majority of the state of Georgia is conservative.”
Janel Green said it’s amazing to see students take an active role in this issue, especially given that many don’t have the power of voting to express their opinion.
“The thing that has really struck me the most of having youth leadership is they have nothing to lose. They don’t have political relationships they’re concerned about maintaining, so they’re far less inhibited. They’re unfiltered. They’re willing to put themselves out there, put everything on the line and ask in a no-nonsense way for what they want. But they’re still kind and still working to be inclusive and hear one another,” she said. “It’s really impressive. I think they’re going to get it right.”