The day before the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., TT Grants Coordinator Jey Ehrenhalt talked with a student activist who is working to keep schools safe from gun violence by advocating for sensible gun legislation. Find out how she and her peers are taking action.
Will you give us a little bit of the backstory about what you've been up to?
My name is Jenna Bowker. I am an 18-year-old high school senior from Kalamazoo Central in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I'm a part of a group called Students for Gun Legislation. We're based out of Kalamazoo. Right after the Parkland shootings, literally the day after, February 15, we all were in class and we realized this has happened too much. We're done with this gun violence. And so we sat down after that class, and we wrote a petition called Students Fighting Guns Since Adults Won't. It blew up pretty quickly. We have now over 250,000 signatures.
We've been using that as kind of the starting point, and it has allowed us to reach out to media stations and we've reached out to our senators and our representatives, both locally in Michigan and at the national level. It really gave us legitimacy and allowed us to really vocalize our opinion on the issues.
How did it go meeting with the senators and representatives?
We had a phone call with our national senator, Debbie Stabenow (D). She was very supportive. We've had discussions with our house representative, Fred Upton (R). We're going to be speaking to him again next week, so we're looking forward to that. And we've had quite a bit of support from our state legislature, but mostly from the Democratic side. A lot of people that are opposed to this haven't been really responsive, or if we're not in their district, they haven't really responded to us. So we're hoping to continue to reach out to them and make progress in this state as well as national legislature.
What would a positive step forward look like in terms of legislation in your mind?
For Michigan, one thing that we're pushing for is purchasing licenses required for all purchases for both hand guns and long guns. It's only required for hand guns for specific dealers in Michigan. So if we push those to all purchases, it would encompass stricter background checks and also mandatory waiting periods, which is another thing that we're pushing for. If we get the purchasing licenses through, it will encompass the other two that we're really hopeful for.
Can you speak a little bit about the rally held outside the Michigan Capitol building?
About a week after we launched the petition, we went and spoke at our capitol with other representatives and legislators from our area that were in support of gun legislation. ... That was our first big event, and it was really cool to be able to vocalize our opinions on the issue. We got a lot of support.
That's the first time we had people really start to reach out to us and actually get media attention. It was very enlightening. It was also kind of sad to see ... Our capitol is pretty much Republican, so they're not totally in favor of everything that we're pushing for. So the day that we went to the capitol, they actually introduced a bill to make English the official language of Michigan, to kind of distract from the fact that we were there.
Have you been involved in activism in the past, or is this new for you?
I've always been really interested in government and figuring out what I can do. We had a shooting in Kalamazoo over two years ago. It was considered a mass shooting, and two of my relatives died, so I had been pretty vocal about this issue since then. I was involved in a protest in our city after the shooting, and I reached out to our representative before and wrote him a letter and I joined interest groups like Every Town for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. But I've never been as active as I am right now, and I'm very happy that I've found an opportunity to be as active as I am, because this is how active I wanted to be, I just didn't know how to become so vocal about the issue.
Is there anything that teachers need to know or can do to be helpful?
One thing that we're pushing for everyone is to go out and vote 'cause that's the best way for us to get something done is to vote for people who support what we're pushing for. And … teach students that they can be involved, whether they're young or almost 18, that they don't have to wait till they're 18 to be involved in the government, because you don't only have to vote to be involved.
You can work with interest groups and lobby your politicians. They are supposed to be representing you. So that's one thing I really stress and tell everyone, "Listen to the kids. They have valid opinions." We're not all just children. We have opinions on these issues, and we should be allowed to vocalize our opinions because they do directly affect us, especially in terms of mass shootings at schools.
What do you say when you're asked to vocalize your position on the issue?
Our thing is, everyone says, "We have our Second Amendment right," and we're not against the Second Amendment. We're not saying, "Let's get rid of all guns." … A lot of these mass shootings are preventable. Regulations can be put in place to stop these mass shootings. We need to prevent instead of react, 'cause that's all we've been doing when it comes to gun violence. We've been reacting. And it's been in the news for two weeks, and then it's gone again. This time, we're not gonna let it fade away, and we're gonna prevent instead of react.
How has your group's work come together, in terms of organizing?
There are eight of us in our Students for Gun Legislation group, and we've reached out to other students trying to get everyone involved because it's not only our movement—it's everyone's movement who believes in this. So the eight of us have split tasks: We have one person who does social media, one person who does outreach and one person who does event planning. That's really eased up on some of the stress; originally we were all doing everything. So that's really helped us because we have this group of people and we're all working together. And we also have support from teachers and parents, and that also is very helpful.
What does the support from teachers look like?
A lot of teachers are agreeing with what we're doing. We have teachers that also walked out of class and are saying, "We're here for you." And they've just kind of helped us organize in terms of where to get students out of class and how to get everyone else active. We've had teachers that have helped us get other students involved, so allowing us to go on the PA system at school and using the school TVs to advertise for our walkout.
What suggestions do you have for people who want to get involved?
My suggestions would be to reach out to your legislators and to educate yourself, especially to educate yourself on what your state's gun policies are, who your legislators are—reach out to them. You can email them. You can call them. You can write them a letter. You can meet with them. If you can, go out and vote. That's very important.
You can participate and organize your own marches and protests. You can help support other students and people who are fighting for this movement. One thing that we stress is [to] go and educate yourself, because you cannot really be vocal about this issue without educating yourself, because you will be attacked and you have to know what you're talking about. And then voting is extremely important, because that's how change is going to come.
Ehrenhalt is the school-based programming and grants manager with Teaching Tolerance.