Meet the Minnesota students taking the lead on state gun-control legislation

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Students walked out of St. Paul's Central Senior High on Wednesday.

Shortly before 10 Wednesday morning, students poured out of St. Paul’s Central Senior High School to take part in the national school walkout event inspired by the recent school shooting in Florida.  

Gathered in front of their school, students honored the 17 lives lost to gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day. Student organizers broadcast the names of each victim — along with a few of their talents, passions and finals acts of bravery — across the crowd, asking their peers to observe 17 seconds of silence between each tribute.

Then the mood shifted.

Adrian Ali-Caccamo, 16, a junior at Central, encouraged his classmates to continue to “be mobile” and to “put pressure on politicians.” He asked them to consider signing a petition he’d created just a few days ago as a way to build momentum behind a piece of gun-control legislation he and other students have been working to advance through the Minnesota Legislature.

Then he invited his childhood friend Ben Jaeger, a 16-year-old junior at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School who’s currently serving as his school board’s student representative, to speak about the bill he’d authored and brought to state lawmakers. In keeping with the national school walkout movement demanding stricter gun-control laws, Jaeger and his peer supporters across the state are pushing for expanded background checks.  

“I’m very happy to announce that, two days ago, Sen. Matt Little introduced a bill that has everything we asked for,” Jaeger said, prompting a round of applause from the crowd. “Now Republicans control the House and Senate in Minnesota, and they’re going to take a lot of convincing if we want this to pass. That means that we need to take action and remind them who the future is. We need to call our legislators. We need to go to meetings. We need to send emails.”

Ben Jaeger
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Ben Jaeger

Jaeger also encouraged his peers to exercise their right to vote, noting it’s an essential part of holding elected officials accountable for creating tougher gun-control laws. To help facilitate this, student organizers announced they would be hosting a voter registration table during the lunch periods.

“Our voices — and I’m being completely real here — do not mean anything if we do not vote,” he said, before the walkout promptly came to an end at 10:17 a.m.

‘We can’t miss this opportunity’

In many ways, the local student-led movement around gun-control reforms that’s materialized in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting is difficult to define. That’s largely because the various walkouts and marches that have taken place across Minnesota may be inspired by like events taking place across the nation, but Minnesota students don’t have a template. Rather, they’re using social media to organize.

For instance, the student-led demonstration that took place outside of the state Capitol last week could be traced back to a handful of student organizers from Central High School and Cretin-Derham Hall High School. The purpose, organizers said, was to put pressure on state lawmakers to address gun safety.  

Jaeger and Ali-Caccamo have committed themselves to pursuing a similar agenda through a different route. They’ve been going straight to legislators’ offices, where they’re working to gauge and build bipartisan support for Little’s student-led bill (Senate File 3279), which would mandate criminal background checks for firearm transfers.

Meeting with Sen. Ron Latz
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
From right, high schoolers Ben Jaeger, Adrian Ali-Caccamo, Eli Curran-Moore and Ryan Lee meeting with state Sen. Ron Latz, left, on Wednesday.

And they’re working on a tight timeline. They need to secure a legislative hearing for the bill by March 22, the committee deadline; otherwise lawmakers won’t vote on it this session.

In Florida, state lawmakers swiftly passed a number of measures, including adding a waiting period for firearms purchases and raising the minimum age requirement for buying guns to age 21.

In response, the National Rifle Association filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida seeking to overturn the new minimum age requirement, claiming it’s unconstitutional.

In Minnesota, however, even Little’s bill — which is only asking for criminal background checks — faces steep opposition. Gov. Mark Dayton listed this measure as one of many on his wish list, at a press conference where he announced his school safety plan last week. But even he won’t pose any gun-control reforms as a must-have this session, because he doesn’t see any appetite for such legislation among leadership in either the Republican-controlled House or Senate, he told reporters. And he doesn’t want anything to derail his plans to earmark $21 million for student mental health services and school building safety improvements.

“The gesture is great, but it’s not enough,” Jaeger said of Dayton’s proposal. “We need something that’s going to do more. It won’t cost money. You just have to enact some common sense legislation.”

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray greeting students in her Capitol office.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray greeting students in her Capitol office.

He and Ali-Caccamo have the benefit of having participated in Youth in Government, a mock legislature program run through the YMCA. As a part of that group, Jaeger had initially written a more extensive gun-control bill that ended up passing with support from students across the state and across the political spectrum, he said.  

Jaeger says he first brought this bill to Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, who suggested he cut it back from four elements to just one to increase the likelihood of getting something passed. Then he brought it to Little, who agreed to author the single-item bill that would mandate criminal background checks.

Equipped with a pared-down version of that bill that they think warrants a hearing — at the very least — they are now looking to galvanize students who are impassioned by the recent shooting in Florida to demand legislative action.

“The time right now is clearly right. We can’t miss this opportunity,” Ali-Caccamo said. “We feel it’s our responsibility to not just talk about this, but to work to organize our peers to actually accomplish something.”

‘Shore these folks up’

After the walkout at Central, Ali-Caccamo went to check himself out at the school’s front office, where a pass noting his parents had already called in was waiting for him. Then he and Jaeger headed over to the state Senate building, where they were scheduled to meet with Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, at noon.

On their way, they joined forces with two of their friends from St. Louis Park High School — both constituents of Latz.

Hale Elementary
MinnPost photo by Annabelle Marcovici
Parents, students, and community members held hands to form a “human chain of love” around Hale Elementary in Minneapolis for 17 minutes.

A staunch advocate of gun violence reduction, Latz — the ranking minority member on the Senate judiciary and public safety finance and policy committee — started their meeting by asking if he could just substitute the group in front of him for the existing Senate.  

The students shared their lobbying strategy: leveraging bipartisan student support by recruiting students from swing districts and from districts currently represented by more moderate Republicans to put pressure on their representatives to follow their lead.  

“What you’re doing is great,” Latz told them. But he speculated that the reason the bill passed overwhelmingly in the youth-led mock legislature was because youth didn’t have to worry about the political ramifications back in their own district. They were also removed from the underlying funding allegiances.

“They hadn’t been lobbied yet by the NRA or the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. Their power, as lobbyists, is that they can exact political revenge against those — like Sen. Jensen — who vote on our side of the issue,” he said, noting that just a few days after Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, had signed onto the student-backed bill a recall effort in his district materialized.

Audrey Back
MinnPost photo by Annabelle Marcovici
Audrey Back, age 8, holding hands with her mother, Nicole Starks, outside Hale Elementary.

Jensen is one of two Senate Republicans the students have persuaded to sign on to the bill. Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, also signed on. So did Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.

Offering some advice, Latz suggested they concentrate their lobbying efforts on suburban Senate Republican districts. And he cautioned that Democratic lawmakers are no sure win on this issue, either — especially when they’d risk being run out of office for voting in support of criminal background checks.

“Not many legislators are willing to put themselves at risk in that way,” Latz told them. “Your job is to shore these folks up.”

No amount of lobbying will pay off, however, if the students aren’t able to persuade Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove — the chair of the Senate judiciary and public safety finance and policy committee — and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, to allow the bill to be heard on the Senate floor, Latz explained.

Gazelka has already responded to Little’s gun-control bill, saying it won’t be heard on the floor, Latz said. So he advised the four students seated in his office to start recruiting students from Gazelka’s district to speak up in support of the bill.

On their way out of Latz’ office, Jaeger and his peers scheduled a quick appointment with Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.

Students from Southwest High in Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Students from Southwest High in Minneapolis observing 17 minutes of silence Wednesday morning.

“I’m very attuned with this movement,” she told them, noting Jaeger had already talked to her about the bill.

Cutting straight to strategy, she asked if they’d had a student meet with Limmer yet. Jaeger said that one of Limmer’s student constituents has been reaching out to arrange a meeting, but hasn’t yet managed to lock in an appointment.

“We need his constituents to talk,” Torres Ray said.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/15/2018 - 01:16 pm.

    Great article, Erin…

    As a former high school teacher, coach, and administrator, I have so much respect for the progressive youth of today and their speaking out in an effort to support sensible gun acquisition and usage laws. They and their messages are powerful; and I do hope that they continue delivering that message locally and Nationally until those adults in voting positions finally realize and accept that fact that life is more important than the money they receive from the weapons manufacturers, the NRA, and the Gun Owners of America.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 03/15/2018 - 01:21 pm.

    Couple of thoughts.

    I think it’s great that students are involved in political activities, it just shouldn’t be during school hours. Teachers are there to teach them how to learn not what to learn. Their parents should be taking their own kids to rallies and protests after school hours, not teachers. One quick question for all the folks who thought this was a great idea. Would you support the same teachers taking students to a rally for pro-life? How about a rally for the kids who want armed teachers or armed security in schools? Would that rally be supported by you?
    Having children getting involved with politics is fantastic, allowing them to lead a movement is silly. Do you allow your 16 year old child to manage your household budget? Why not? Do you allow your 16 year old to determine your work schedule? Why not?
    I have had many youngsters come to multiple work sites to let them see how different businesses work, I never had them in a board room making policy.
    Unless you are willing to support both sides of an issue, don’t let the school get involved in activism. Saying that children are going to lead a movement doesn’t cover the common sense barrier if you think about it.

    • Submitted by kurt nelson on 03/15/2018 - 02:39 pm.

      Sure

      If students from roughly 3000 schools nationwide wanted to protest about pro-life issues, then sure, but they don’t. But, I’d bet there are plenty of students that do protest on the anniversary of Roe every year, however. Do you want 16 year olds directing medical issues now.

      In just the past week, there have been 2 teachers trained in firearm safety discharge their weapons in classrooms accidentally, but those are good guys with guns, so it’s cool – lets get more unstable teachers carrying firearms, it’s clear they are all capable of being responsible – except these two right.

      The schools are not getting involved in activism, and the kids that walked out never whined about potential punishment. Any of the 3000 plus schools can choose to give the students an unexcused absence or not all without incurring your wrath and indignation.

      I suppose we could just ban student protests, and let them live in ignorance, and vote Republican like many of you seem to think is the way to go, but an informed society says differently.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/15/2018 - 06:40 pm.

    Not during school hours

    Alas, Mr. Smith has no idea what education is, much less how it’s effectively conducted. What he suggests makes learning how government actually operates essentially an extracurricular activity – a recipe for an ignorant electorate easily manipulated by any demagogue who comes along. For example, any pro-life group that fails to condemn the multiple murders of children in schools and the access to military-style weaponry that made those murders possible should have zero credibility with the general public, since they’re obviously not actually pro-life.

    I would, of course, oppose measures to arm teachers, an occupational group unlikely to volunteer for, or be very skilled at, the military-level training necessary to be an effective deterrent to a deranged but determined assassin with an AR-15 and lots of ammo. Cheaper – and more effective, from the standpoint of preserving life – to make it more difficult for that assassin to acquire an AR-15.

    Mr. Smith is entitled to his viewpoint, but what I see are kids taking the lead on this issue because adults, in the form of political leaders, have utterly failed in their duty as both leaders and citizens to take any meaningful measures to stop the slaughter of the past several years. Politicians of both parties have had multiple opportunities to do so since the Columbine massacre in Colorado nearly 20 years ago, and have done virtually nothing. His examples of household budgets and work schedules are specious and insincere, since those are not the issue(s) at hand. Moreover, he dismisses out of hand the possibility that a teenager might have a useful idea. Mr. Smith seems to think the very possibility of kids sitting in on board meetings is ridiculous, but perhaps if more kids sat in on those meetings more corporations would behave ethically.

    Unless Mr. Smith is willing to defend mass murder, there are instances where “both sides” of an issue don’t exist. This is one of them. I say that as a gun owner and shooter.

    I do agree that schools as institutions ought not to be participants in issue activism as a general rule, but what I’m reading from Mr. Smith suggests both prior censorship rather than education and a general disdain for the possibility that some high school kids might actually know what they’re talking about.

    As for children leading a movement, I agree that such a phenomenon seems against the grain, and I’d guess that lots of kids would rather be doing any number of things instead of marching and carrying signs. That they feel it necessary to do so simply illustrates the moral and ethical bankruptcy of local and national political leaders who have failed – utterly and completely failed – to take even minimal measures to protect the children of our society from being murdered en masse.

  4. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 03/19/2018 - 11:30 am.

    Stuent action

    A way to further listen to these students would be to give them the vote, Senator Sandy Pappas has a bill in to lower the voting age to 16 as it is in Scotland and some other countries. An advantage is that students would be ready to vote as they are studying civics in High School. I have introduced this bill in the past and the arguments against it are identical to the arguments opposing women suffrage at an earlier time.

  5. Submitted by Mitzi Trenz on 03/19/2018 - 02:05 pm.

    My support

    I support the decisions made by many to hold the demonstrations and peaceful protests during school hours for many reasons. I was raised in a home with guns, I married a US Marine who also had guns and made sure I knew how to use them. The biggest difference now, however, is that if I want to hunt game I have to work at finding the game, actually aiming my gun, and then taking care not to hurt and abandon the animal once it’s hurt. These students and staff members are being shot, killed or wounded, at their schools during school hours. The shooter, for the most part, doesn’t have to track or even aim his weapons, he doesn’t stay there to take care of them. One 16 yr old Parkland victim was killed when the shooter broke a small window in the door shooting randomly into the room without even going into the classroom.

    Most hunters don’t shoot sitting ducks, which is what these students and teachers become during active shooter situations. Schools began, not all that long ago, having active shooter drills in schools similar to the air-raid/bomb drills we had in the 50s and early 60s, hiding under our desks at school. Even as a little girl I remember thinking that it was stupid since the bombs weren’t going to miss us no matter where we hid. The fact that these students and teachers, who are the targets of the shooter, are using legal means to defend themselves and change the system says a whole lot about them and the people who are raising them. The schools are listening to them because that’s where you’ll find the largest number of students with lots of opinions and they make a lot of sense — more sense than the NRA or current legislatures, local or federal. If you don’t want them to protest during school hours at school or do what they can to save their own lives, then it’s up to the grownups to take the necessary steps to protect them. Arming teachers isn’t going to be of much help, not when “trained-reserve cop” type teachers accidentally shoot students and even themselves. The police usually care handguns in school (if they carry at all) and are no match for the semi-automatic guns the shooters carry. Heck some don’t even want to try to take out the shooter when they’re not armed in a similar manner.

    Yes, the Second Amendment is an important part of our heritage, but these students are the future of our country and to me are even more important. It seems that there are so many more good reasons to ban assault style weapons than there are to allow them if the adults (including the NRA) would only listen and think. Judging from their actions and words these students are going to be amazing leaders of our country, if we give them the change to finish their education. (They’re already more mature and grownup than when I was in school, but then we weren’t sitting ducks in our schools.)

    Something must change, and these terrific students are making a start. If you don’t want them to protest or march to change the system what exactly do you want to change? What are you, personally, willing to do to make these changes happen? I believe that these are questions we should all ask ourselves, no matter which side we’re on.

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