Instead of talking at the heads of 100 teenagers in blue auditorium seats, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., was more interested in having a conversation with the students at James Hillhouse High School Wednesday during a forum on school safety and gun violence.
Murphy said he has been talking about gun violence for five years — ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — but now that students all around the country have stood up, he said the country is finally paying attention. For him, he said, the heart of this issue comes down to gun control, despite all the overwhelming noise coming from both sides of the aisle.
“Yes, we should be doing more for kids, we should be helping law enforcement, we should be solving mental illness problems, but the problem in this country is our gun laws. We have illegal guns, powerful guns in the wrong hands, and we need to fix that sooner than later,” Murphy said.
Zoe James, a senior at Hillhouse, said, “I think we have to keep pressuring our local government as teenagers because we’re the most heavily affect group by violence. The more we keep protesting and resisting peacefully and doing everything we need to, I think change will happen.”
James said her fellow students should take a cue from Murphy and use this opportunity to become leaders within their community.
“I’ve never seen this country more focused on the issues of guns than right now because young people are speaking, because of the walkouts, because of the rallies,” Murphy said. “It’s just more evidence that if you choose to speak up now, when you’re young, you’re going to be able to make change. If you choose to speak up, if you choose to get involved in elections, if you choose to talk to politicians and demand they do something, you will have a bigger impact than I will.”
With the loose gun laws in the nation, Murphy said by making a couple of “commonsense” changes, such as banning assault weapons and implementing universal background checks, lawmakers could dramatically change the reality for people in this country.
One change Makayla Dawkins, a junior at Hillhouse, who organized the March 14 walkout for her school, and sits on the Board of Education as a student representative, said she would like to see is increased safety protocols in school. While Dawkins said she does feel safe going to school, she understands that in today’s society anything can happen.
When another student then asked if one of those changes should include arming teachers, Murphy first had the students raise their hands if they thought that was a bad idea, before giving his opinion. Every single hand in the auditorium shot into the air, his included.
“If you were safer in places with more guns, then the United States would be the safest country in the world. It’s not,” Murphy said.
With more people dying every year from accidental shootings than school shootings, Murphy said arming teachers with weapons would only increase the number of shootings. However, that doesn’t mean Murphy is against having more secure schools with locked doors and trained security guards.
What he’s worried about is schools going too far and in the name of “school safety” arresting too many kids — most of them black — for behavior that used to be taken care of within the school, he said.
While not being able to speak about the specifics at Hillhouse, Murphy said the evidence shows “that it’s black kids who are getting arrested at a rate totally different than white kids. In most states, if you are a black kid that commits the same offense in school as a white kid, you are twice as likely to get arrested or get suspended or get expelled.”
Murphy said schools doubling down on suspending or expelling anyone who looks or seems like he or she may be trouble may have the opposite effect. By isolating some of these students, it could actually compound the problem, he said.
Murphy’s candor, which was met with a round of applause from the students, surprised Principal Glen Worth.
“To come in and have an honest conversation about gun control, not only about gun control, but how it affects our students, especially when we talk about race and gun control,” Worthy said. “Our kids face this every single day…. For him to acknowledge that, I think it was very good for our kids to have here him and have a chance to ask those difficult questions.”