A Loaded Debate

By on April 25, 2018

Wyomingites disagree about how to keep students safe from gun violence

Student protesters on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. (Anushka Olvera)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – About 50 high school students gathered in Jackson’s town square on Friday, April 20—a date that holds increasing significance for young people. It was the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting which left 15 people dead and marked the beginning of an enduring period of school violence in America.

They marched to town hall chanting “Protect kids, not guns” and “What do you want? Safe schools! When do you want them? Now!”

The chants, said Aaron Trauner, a senior at Jackson Hole High School, weren’t necessarily anti-gun. But the rhetoric surrounding school safety incorrectly conflates the two. “When kids ask for safe schools, they’re not chanting to take away guns,” Trauner said. “They’re chanting for common sense.”

Just a week earlier another demonstration made headlines: dozens of people gathered at the state capitol in Cheyenne for a pro-gun demonstration. Wesley Williams was there donned in a tactical vest with his AR-15.

“I have the ability to do this, and I’m gonna exercise it,” he said. “That’s just part of freedom.”

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people on February 14, “left-wing” rhetoric has worked especially hard to “attack the Second Amendment,” he said.

“After that, there was this whole snowball effect that I think was blown out of proportion,” Williams said. In other words, more attention is on guns than ever and unfairly so.

The Parkland shooting at Stoneman-Douglas High School has compelled young people to action in a way school shootings of the past did not. Friday’s demonstration was part of a national walkout and the fourth such event since Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, gun-related deaths have not slowed down. On Saturday, April 21, a 29-year-old gunman killed four people in a Tennessee Waffle House. He was a legal gun owner with a history of confrontations with law enforcement. He was arrested last summer for trespassing near the White House, and the FBI seized his weapons, including the AR-15 he used last weekend.

He got them back.

But that’s the price of freedom, Williams said. The right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution, and if a fraction of people abuse it, so be it. “I’d rather live dangerously as a free man than safely as a slave.”

Williams isn’t too worried about his rights as a gun-owner in Wyoming, which he recognizes as “safer” than some states. Wyoming, with more registered guns per capita than any other state, has some of the laxest laws in the nation.

A few school boards agreed that a solution to gun violence is more guns. Last week, Park County School District 6 voted to allow teachers and school staff to carry guns, provided they are licensed and trained. Last month, Uinta County District 1 voted the same way.

Maggie Russell is a senior at Evanston High School in Uinta County. She’s also student body president and was invited to weigh in on school safety at the meetings. Her feelings about the school board’s vote came as a surprise even to her.

“Especially towards the beginning, I did not want to have guns in school, especially my school,” Russell said. “It’s really disheartening to think that this is what our world is coming to.”

She still doesn’t love guns, but she said the more she talked to people in her community, the more she understood their pro-gun stance. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in our community, it’s part of what we need to do.” It’s not the best or the only solution, she said, but it’s part of it.

Williams said he feels “extraordinarily” safe around guns and gun-wielding people. Most gun owners, he said, are responsible, and know their guns inside and out. Williams has young kids, and would feel comfortable sending them to school knowing their teachers were armed—but he’d also want to chat with those teachers, and make sure they really knew their stuff.

“I can’t tell you how many videos I’ve watched of cops demonstrating gun safety in schools and shooting themselves in the leg,” he said. But again, Williams said that’s just the price of freedom.

Seventeen-year-old Anushka Olvera, meanwhile, not only wouldn’t feel safe knowing her teachers were armed—she’d worry about them, too. “It’s not fair of us to put that weight on our teachers,” she said.

She’s a sophomore at Journeys School, where she’s been a student since fourth grade. Many of her teachers have known her since she was a young girl. “I don’t think they would have the psychological capacity to shoot a student with whom they’ve built a relationship,” Olvera said. Besides, she added, they’re already underpaid (average teacher salary in Wyoming is between $27,000 and $60,000), and asking them to arm themselves is an unnecessary burden.

To Williams, none of that really matters compared to individual liberty. The government, he said, exists “to work for us, not tell us what we can or can’t do with everything in our lives.” And the Constitution, in his opinion, is not a “living document” as he’s heard people try to argue.

“It was forged in our ancestors’ blood,” he said. “The founding fathers realized the importance of being able to own a firearm … the whole point of the Second Amendment is a ‘well-regulated militia’ being able to fight against a tyrannical government.”

When pressed on his interpretation of “well-regulated,” he paused. “That’s kind of a tough one.” To him, it means citizen-based regulation—checks and balances among communities and each citizen. The government isn’t doing the regulating; the people are.

Trauner, meanwhile, sees a “pretty obvious” middle ground between folks like him and Williams. The conversation he wants to have isn’t about taking guns away, he said.

“I know some conservative kids who say there are ‘really hardcore liberals’ out there that want to take away your guns. I don’t know any of them,” Trauner said. He calls himself a liberal, but is also part of a gun-owning family. “I don’t know anybody that wants to take away your guns.”

The conversation he wants to have is about safety. “The question is, should kids be safe in school?” That might look like stricter background checks to make it “harder for bad people” to get their hands on an assault weapon. But if the conversation centers on student safety instead of gun ownership, Trauner thinks it will go a lot further.

“We were chanting, ‘Protect kids, not guns,’ and ‘What do you want? Safe schools…’” Trauner said. “To disagree with any of those statements is ridiculous.”

So far, Teton County School Board has shown no interest in allowing firearms on campus.

“Teachers have a tremendous professional responsibility to facilitate classrooms where each individual child can learn and reach their full potential,” school board member Betsy Carlin told PJH in March, a few weeks after the Parkland shooting.  “We should not expect or ask them to take on the responsibility of firearms training and security. That is the role of other specific and important professions.”

But until Trauner and Olvera see change, they will continue to make their voices heard.

For Olvera, demonstrations are the easiest way for her to participate in democracy, especially since she’s not old enough to vote. “I think it’s important to show up with current issues and take stances when one has the opportunity.” And, she added, “I can still make more of a difference than some people who are already over 18.”

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