Staff Columnist

Welcome rain along the 'Road To Change'

March for Our Lives youth bring gun control message to Iowa

Panel including students from Marion, Chicago and Parkland, Florida answer questions from the audience about preventing gun violence during a townhall meeting at Linn-Mar High School in Marion on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The event was a stop on March for Our Lives: Road to Change tour organized by students from Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Panel including students from Marion, Chicago and Parkland, Florida answer questions from the audience about preventing gun violence during a townhall meeting at Linn-Mar High School in Marion on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The event was a stop on March for Our Lives: Road to Change tour organized by students from Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Young adults who organized the “March For Our Lives: Road To Change” tour asked the more than 1,000 people gathered in the Linn-Mar High School gym Thursday night to snap instead of applaud. It sounded like periodic bursts of rain from an unexpected, but not unwelcome, summer storm.

“When someone comes at you with hate,” Ryan Dietsch, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. during the Feb. 14 mass shooting, told those gathered in Marion, “respond with love.”

Dietsch and his fellow classmates at MSDHS unfortunately know quite a bit about verbal attacks. After 17 students and staff members at their school were murdered by a former student in a shooting rampage, 20 survivors formed an organization, “Never Again,” that has advocated for tighter gun regulations in an effort to prevent similar violence. It was this group that organized rallies at the Florida Statehouse, inspired local teenagers across the nation to stage school walk outs and, in March, hosted the nationwide March for Our Lives demonstration.

Perhaps most notably, these young people (and those who have since joined them) have minced no words when addressing the political influence of the National Rifle Association, which led to the loss of several national NRA corporate sponsorships.

After the NRA announced no guns would be allowed at its annual meeting in Dallas two months ago because Vice President Mike Pence would be appearing, Ryan’s brother, Matt Deitsch, who is also a survivor of the Parkland shooting, tweeted: “Wait wait wait wait wait wait you’re telling me to make the VP safe there aren’t any weapons around but when it comes to children they want guns everywhere? Can someone explain this to me? Because it sounds like the NRA wants to protect people who help them sell guns, not kids.”

This particular type of activism — undermining the influence of the NRA on multiple fronts — brought a previously unfathomable backlash onto the shoulders of young Americans who had already suffered from gun violence. The students were accused of being actors (and worse), and subjected to wholly disgusting personal attacks. Yet, Never Again hasn’t slowed or faltered.

In fact, stops on the Road To Change tour are purposefully scheduled in Congressional Districts held by lawmakers who have accepted NRA funding. At the Marion event, organizers called out U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

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Earlier in the week the group demonstrated in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, hoping to meet with U.S. Rep. Steve King. The Congressman, who had previously launched a racist social media attack directed at MSDHS graduate Emma Gonzalez, was a no-show.

Nonetheless, in Marion, all the Parkland students on the town hall panel cautioned against “the echo chamber,” or surrounding yourself with people with whom you agree.

“From experience, I can tell you that the list of things on which we all agree is longer than our list of disagreements,” Deitsch said.

And, no, this wasn’t merely happy talk. Pictures circulated on social media after the Marion event showed Matt Deitsch engaged in a one-on-one conversation with an NRA member. Parkland graduate Cameron Kasky told Gazette reporter Molly Duffy he engaged with counter demonstrators earlier in the day when the group held a public appearance at Raygun in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo district.

Again and again, youth panelists from Parkland, Chicago and Marion encouraged those gathered to keep talking — and vote in November.

“If this conversation about gun violence and what we can do about it ends when you leave this room,” Kasky warned, “we have failed you, and you have failed us.”

No signs of impending failure were evident in the Linn-Mar gym. Local high school and middle school students sat, phones idle, as the panelists answered audience questions ranging from misconceptions about the Never Again movement to their personal experiences with gun violence. Recent high school graduates made succinct connections between violence, gang activity and poverty — connections that too often, and to society’s detriment, go unexpressed or misunderstood by adults debating public policy.

They took their own experiences, combined them with lessons from the classroom, and “told their truths” with an air of authenticity that made it difficult to look away.

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So grandparents and parents, like me, listened, and tried not to think too much about the nightmare these young people lived through, or how it could have just as easily been our kids — or still could be our kids.

Throughout it all — calls to register to vote, to cast ballots in November, to talk about gun violence — snaps of rain fell, bringing with them the promise of a better tomorrow.

l Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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