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Can gun-control advocates translate post-Parkland passion into results at Minnesota polls?

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Students speaking at the Town Hall For Our Lives in a Brooklyn Park high school auditorium on Saturday.

Sydney Lewis used to be just another theater kid at Eden Prairie High School.

That changed February 14, when 17 students were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Now, Lewis is an activist, leading her fellow students on marches out of the classroom and meeting with her local congressman to talk about gun issues.

Frustrated with lack of progress on the issue, the high school sophomore is also now a campaign organizer, working to vote out lawmakers this fall who don’t support changing the state and nation’s gun laws — a group that includes her congressman, Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.

“Adults, we took to the streets, now it’s your turn to take to the polls,” Lewis told a group of more than 300 people gathered in a Brooklyn Park high school auditorium on Saturday.

The event was a part of Town Hall For Our Lives, a series of meetings held in cities across Minnesota and the nation on Saturday where students aimed to take their frustrations on the gun control debate and use it to increase turnout at the polls this fall.

The size and sustained momentum of the movement in the wake of the Parkland shooting has surprised some political pundits, but many are wondering if the sense of urgency can continue for another eight months, when Minnesota will have an open governor’s race on the ballot, all eight congressional seats, two U.S. Senate seats and more.

“I think that’s the million dollar question,” said University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Andrew Karch. “Historically there has been overwhelming support for a lot of these actions but these supporters tend not to vote on the gun issue.”

“I think that the attention that the Parkland survivors have been able to maintain has been unusual from the perspective of previous events, which seemed to have a moment of salience but not much of a lingering impact,” Karch added. “It seems like the high school students in particular are very savvy and seem to be quite skilled at organizing events that keep the issue front and center.”

Turning apathy into energy

For years, lawmaker’s decisions on guns were often influenced by an assumed apathy, at least on one side of the issue. While there was often a majority of voters who supported gun-control measures, people didn’t necessarily get out and vote on them. That was countered by a smaller but much more politically active group of gun owners who came out consistently to vote on the issue of preserving gun rights.

Rob Doar, the political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee, said supporters of gun control measures spent at least $900,000 in the 2016 election compared to $60,000 from his group and the National Rifle Association. He expects that number will only increase this fall. “Even with that much spent, they only flipped two seats,” Doar said. “We expect that we will continue to have success engaging Minnesota’s law abiding gun owners at the polls in 2018.”

The students, and members of the local chapter of Indivisible

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The students, and members of the local chapter of Indivisible, were cognizant of the hurdles on Saturday as the met at the town hall.

Past movements to change gun laws haven’t led to big changes. In 2000, activists organized the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. and in 70 other locations across the country after a shooting in a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California. But that didn’t necessarily translate to more activity at the polls that year — or in the cycles that followed.

The youthfulness of the Parkland movement has also lead some to dismiss how much of an impact they can have on the ballot in the fall. Many the most motivated activists not yet old enough to vote, even if they’ve come of age during one of the most politically divided moments in the nation’s history, in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. Still, in past elections, the youth vote has been consistently low compared to older voters, who tend to hold more conservative views on gun ownership.

“I think for a long time young people were seen as this slumbering giant,” said Ian Feagler, a student at Hopkins High School who spoke at the town hall. “But now we’re waking up.”

‘Thoughts and prayers don’t save lives’

The students, and members of the local chapter of Indivisible, a Trump resistance group that cropped up in chapters across the country, were cognizant of the hurdles on Saturday as the met at the town hall.

The groups coordinated to put on the town hall, and there were booths set up to register voters for the upcoming midterm election in Minnesota. Candidates for office were on hand to answer questions about gun control legislation. Groups like Moms Demand Action said they were flexing their political muscles and making endorsements for candidates in some of the major races in Minnesota. Paulsen was invited to the event but had a scheduling conflict, organizers said, so they propped up a cardboard cutout of him where attendees stuck Post-it notes with comments for him.

“It seems like there is a stronger attempt to create an infrastructure that is more lasting,” said Karch. “The goal, of course, is to make it so that these events are not one time affairs.”

Richard Carlbom, who is working with Democrat Dean Phillips’ campaign against Paulsen in the 3rd District, said their campaign went from 25-30 student volunteers to nearly 100 after the Parkland shooting, calling themselves the #DeansList. Both Phillips and another DFL candidate, Adam Jennings, were on hand to answer questions from the audience about the issue.

“That cardboard cutout of Erik Paulsen is the closest I’ve come to seeing the man,” Phillips said. “Thoughts and prayers don’t save lives; actions save lives.”

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
CD3 candidate Dean Phillips: “That cardboard cutout of Erik Paulsen is the closest I’ve come to seeing the man. Thoughts and prayers don’t save lives; actions save lives.”

Lewis knows that turning protest energy into success at the polls isn’t going to be easy, but she pushed back on the notion that teenagers like herself can’t make a lasting impact on the system. Many of the young activists coming out of the Parkland shooting will be eligible to vote this year, or in the 2020 presidential race.

“Anyone who tries to silence or disregard our action because we are teenagers, look at this history books,” Lewis said. “Every movement has started with young people. Look in the history book again in 15 years, and you will see us, we are the upcoming voters.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 04/09/2018 - 11:30 am.

    I found it interesting

    That although Erik Paulsen rejected an invitation to this event, he did find the time to tweet from a hockey game he was attending at the time.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 04/09/2018 - 11:54 am.

    The focus needs to widen

    Much of what I have seen recently drills in on the GOP as the main problem in getting anything moving legislatively. In the past there have been a number of votes on the DFL side of the isle that have consistently been against any attempts to change. The folks who are serious about getting some changes in the law and policy need to get beyond the party labels and look at the voting records to see which nameplates need changing.

  3. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/09/2018 - 12:02 pm.

    Despite all the protests, repubs still ignore us

    I find it interesting that despite the massive numbers of protests here and around the country…and yet the repubs ignore all the reasons for these protests.
    It’s kind of like town hall meetings that repubs won’t hold any longer because people are mad at them.
    Perhaps…if they were logical…they might understand why and start to listen to the people.
    Naw…that’s too logical for repubs.

  4. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 04/09/2018 - 12:03 pm.


    It is time to change the voting age to 16. To validate the students concerns

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/09/2018 - 12:20 pm.

    How do you measure?

    I don’t know whether it can be determined what drives people to the polls. Dems have seen significant enthusiasm & support in recent special elections. Is that driven by Parkland and student activists? #metoo? Black Lives Matter? Distaste for Trump?

  6. Submitted by Jim Lukaszewaki on 04/09/2018 - 12:26 pm.

    Another pointless, stating the obvious, article on guns and defe

    Why does the media always want to be the first to predict gloom, doom and failure while avoiding the substantive questions? It’s done by asking pointless, killer questions that have no answers. Like this article. You should be much more diligently following the victims and, in this case, clearly the next victims.

    The questions that need asking are:

    1. How many deaths per day will it take to force action for public safety by those responsible.
    2. How many gun deaths and woundings per day in a box on the front page?
    3. Every public official should be on record with the number that will trigger action on their part.
    4. Why are their actual laws on the books preventing the proper monitoring of gun related violence, research regarding causes and effects ands a public roster if those killed or injured. . . who is responsible and why have they not acted?
    5. Who, specifically by name, are the people, groups and contributors who keep this information from us?

    If you are going to cover this issue, deal with the substance, forget all the cheap PR stuff on the periphery. Most of tat has no real value, except to the players who are the obstructers rather than the shooters or the victims.This is a story about crime, death, conspiracy and public malfeasance.

    Develop some real expertise rather than just harvesting the best that PR people are shoveling on this issue. Lives are at stake every day.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/09/2018 - 12:52 pm.


      “1. How many deaths per day will it take to force action for public safety by those responsible?”

      As of the last census, there are 13,506 school districts in the US. Every time there is a school shooting local legislators seem to have an epiphany on actually doing something regardless of previously held views.

      So to answer your question:

      A lot.

      Unless we get proactive and send equivocators like Paulsen and Lewis packing. And if you doubt that, I guarantee that a western suburb school shooting here would have Erik Paulsen right up front saying now is the time to act because our kids are getting killed, not some congressman in Florida’s kids getting killed.

      An inability to serve the public good. And for Paulsen, a failure to learn the single most important lesson Jim Ramstad taught us: you represent us not Paul Ryan or any other political leader.

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/09/2018 - 01:30 pm.


  7. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/09/2018 - 03:17 pm.

    I’m going to register students at an area high school

    After that, it’s up to them.

    Unfortunately, young people’s turnout on election day is often weak, especially during midterm elections like this one. Perhaps this year will be different.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/09/2018 - 03:33 pm.

    Beat the drum

    These kids need to remember:
    Pro gun = be armed 24-7-365 and be prepared to kill or be killed 24-7-365 (This is supported by the NRA’s position of conceal and carry as well as open carry anywhere, every where all the time.

    The common sense folks: There has got to be a better solution than the NRA – Pro gun lobby!
    Sorry some of us baby boomers left such a gun crazy mess. But we are supporting your efforts and actions 100%. Make your mark!

  9. Submitted by john albers on 04/09/2018 - 03:44 pm.

    Why does Paulsen mock his constituents while hiding?”

    Thank you Briana Bierschbach for your thorough article. A couple points: there are many Indivisible groups in Minnesota. IndivisibleMN03, of the Third Congressional District, was a co-organizer for this event.

    Congressman Paulsen received many invitations from the student organizers and others to attend this Town Hall for our Lives event while on his congressional break. He chose not to. Instead he spent Saturday afternoon re-watching highlights of the Congressional Hockey Challenge (CHC) as he noted in his tweet at the same time the town hall was underway.

    Paulsen participated in the March 15, 2018 CHC event so he is undoubtedly familiar with the “highlights”. This makes his re-watching the highlights of his hockey prowess (in leu of engaging students and constituents in a free and public forum) and then tweeting about during the town hall a gross mockery of those he represents. There obviously was no schedule conflict if he was watching reruns.

    This is behavior completely unbecoming of a Congressman. Shame on him.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/12/2018 - 12:27 pm.

    Wrong question

    The question isn’t what kind of momentum these student activists can maintain, the question is what kind of momentum ALL of us can maintain? It’s not just up to these students, although they are succeeding where the rest of us have been failing for decades.

    Another thing that troubles me is the fact that I have twice now heard gun nuts make explicit physical threats to David Hogg and some other students… and we appear to be tolerating this. Threats are NOT protected speech and I don’t know why we’re not responding much more vigorously when we see them.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 04/15/2018 - 09:11 pm.

    We need to encourage

    and support these young adults so that they remain committed to the effort. They have many ‘irons in the fire’ with a full time job as a student, many also working at part time jobs in addition to holding up their end of their families’ structure as well as learning the ropes of a social life. Many of them are more committed to a better world than those who are opposing them and who have been stilted by years of self-centeredness.

    The youth of today are the future of this Country’s tomorrow. We who have ‘been there’ need to put our faith into today’s youth and support them when they need support…and that is now.

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