Many gather to protest gun violence

A crowd of enraged educators, legislators, students, etc. protested on Feb. 23 against gun control laws outside Republican U.S. Congressman Rod Blum’s office.

The protest was set up by sophomore Ryan Westhoff, who was motivated by the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The shooting killed 15 children and two staff members. Westhoff said he wanted Iowa voices added to the national conversation surrounding gun control and urged Senators Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley and Rep. Blum to act upon it.

Westhoff worked with Olivia Habinck, a Cedar Falls High School alum, who is now a student at Des Moines Area Community College and vice president of the College and Young Democrats of Iowa club. Westhoff also collaborated with Chris Schwartz, Black Hawk Community Supervisor, to organize the protest. “I worked with Olivia Habinck; she brought it up, and I thought it would be a good idea. I contacted Eric Schwartz, who organizes a lot of the protests here locally. It was students’ ideas, but we just asked him to help get the message out,” Westhoff said.

Students and other community members showed up with signs and loud voices to share their opinions on Iowa’s and the United States’ current gun laws. UNI student Angela Speltz said, “My goal here is to have my voice be heard, to drive the message that this should not be happening anymore. My little brother has told me that he is afraid to go to school now because he is scared that someone is going to come in and shoot him, and he is only 11. This is the only America he knows, and he should not have to know this anymore.”

Cedar Falls student, Devin O’Loughlin, who helped form the Democrats’ club, along with Westhoff and other sophomores voiced her opinion at the protest. O’Loughlin said he is optimistic that Iowa will see a change regarding gun control. “I hope in the future Iowa becomes a leader in gun control and in legislation.”

Protesters not only voiced their anger through signs displaying phrases like “protect children not guns” and “fund my education not the NRA,” but to the whole crowd through a bullhorn. UNI College student and activist Emily Paw shared her viewpoint about Iowa’s senators and gun control laws to the protestors. “As the state of Iowa we should  feel angry,” Paw said. “Right now we have two senators to represent us that are feeding the problem. Republican Joni Ernst was recently paid three million dollars by the NRA. Paying for the funerals between the two of them for these children (students from Florida shooting) would be pocket change, and our other senator, he is the reason we should be angry as Panthers of UNI. Republican Chuck Grassley graduated from our own University of Northern Iowa in 1956 and founded the bill recently passed by Trump. This was a bill that made it so simple to buy and possess firearms with virtually no background check. This means that the government is putting tools in the hands of people who are likely to kill.”

Education major and former CFHS student Sydney See also spoke out at the protest and expressed her fear for the future of education. “I’m a future educator, and I love kids,”  See said, “but the fact that I have to think about someday that I have to have a gun in my classroom to protect against future AR-15s is bull crap. I should not have to be trained to use a gun just because I want be an educator. I want to teach kids. I don’t want to scare them.”

George Ramsey, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids who is running for congress in the first district, came from Cedar Rapids to show his support at the protest and for young people in action who are speaking out about current issues. “I just want to express how proud I am of you all for the stance that you are taking to really push the envelope,”  Ramsey said. “To really get those legislators that are in Washington and all across Des Moines to really have a hard talk and to start to have some conversations about what we need to do to be able to change gun laws in this country. We need you, so don’t want you to stop. I don’t want you to take it easy on our legislators. Certainly keep putting pressure on Rod Blum to own up to his responsibility to represent all of us here in this district. People are listening, and it’s going to take people like you, young people to really push our congressmen and women in Washington, and our senators so we can ensure that we have common sense guns laws that make sure every American and every citizen who walks across this country from coast to coast feels safe in our schools, feels safe in our churches and feels safe in every environment and everywhere they go.”

Schwartz, who helped organize the event and is very passionate about activism in the society, shared his story and support at the protest. “I was a freshman at UNI when Columbine happened. My generation of students, we failed. We didn’t do anything,” Schwartz said.

But Schwartz said he has faith in this generation and it’s abilities. “I hope that this is the generation that finally can take on the NRA and help politicians grow a backbone so they can stand up to them. We have to take it on, and I am encouraged that we have a generation of folks emerging that are willing to do that,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz, Ramsey and other older adults rely on this generation to be the change in America that they may not be able to make. To see these changes occur, more students like Westhoff need to emerge from the classrooms.

Westhoff also said he has hopes that this generation can address the current laws and make a change. “Every time a tragedy like this occurs, we call for gun control and get nothing, but this time, things feel different because young people across the nation have finally put their feet down and made a comprehensive, definitive action on the issue of gun control, and because we are tired of legislatures who refuse to act themselves,” Westhoff said.

Westhoff urges students to join in on the movement for stricter gun control laws and take part in the next national day of action. Students are walking out of school on March 24 to show their support, and there will also be a march in front of Representative Rod Blum’s office at 4 p.m. on that day.

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