Survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting paid a visit to Rep. Paul Ryan’s Janesville office Friday, demanding the House speaker push for universal background checks on gun purchases.
David Hogg, a national figure in the gun safety movement and a founder of the group March For Our Lives, was among more than a dozen students who huddled around a small window to speak with Ryan’s staffers.
“Here’s the deal: Did you know that 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks?” Hogg asked the staffers on the opposite side of the window.
“If that’s the case, why didn’t Paul Ryan allow the vote on House Resolution 4240 for universal background checks?” he asked.
Twelve of the students who stopped by Ryan’s office, including Hogg, survived the Feb. 14 high school shooting that left 17 dead. They formed March For Our Lives, a group that advocates for gun safety legislation and has led rallies nationwide out of frustration with current gun laws.
Emma González, a Parkland student who has spoken at numerous rallies, said they visited Janesville on their national “Road to Change” tour to discuss a universal background check bill with Ryan.
They also held a youth meetup event at the Pontiac Convention Center to register young voters and harness momentum after millions of people participated in 800 March For Our Lives events across the country on March 24.
Ryan was not available Friday, which disappointed González.
“Thank you, Paul Ryan, for making it as difficult as possible for your constituents to have a conversation with you but not making it as difficult as possible to see your workout pictures,” González said. “That’s why we’re here today … to talk to Paul Ryan. But I guess if we can’t talk to him, we’ll talk at him.”
Jordan Dunn, a Ryan spokesman, issued this statement after Friday’s rally:
“The speaker has had the privilege to meet with several Parkland students in the past, and appreciates their contributions to the discussion on how to keep our kids and schools safe. He takes this issue very seriously, which is why the House enacted laws that take concrete action to create safer environments for students.”
Dunn did not comment on the students’ request that Ryan introduce a bill requiring universal background checks.
After stopping at Ryan’s office, the Parkland students held the youth meetup event, where they met with about 40 students from across the state.
Two Craig High School graduates, Lauren Sherman and Rachel Wente, said the group’s stop in Janesville marked a moment in history.
Both said they felt energized and inspired by González’s passion about gun safety, and both criticized what they saw as Ryan’s inaction.
“He’s (Ryan) not in the places he needs to be,” said Sherman, who graduated in May. “He has so much power to make these changes happen and to push for the right change to help students out, and he’s not doing it. We want that changed. Paul Ryan should be here, and it’s sad that he’s not.”
Lydia Hester, 16, of Madison said Ryan underestimates students’ knowledge about gun safety legislation. Many students aren’t “clueless on the topic,” she said, noting that several have given Ryan gun safety bills to consider.
González agreed, saying Parkland students have given five bill proposals to the speaker.
State schools Superintendent Tony Evers, who is running for governor as a Democrat, said he supported the Parkland students and their involvement in the school safety conversation.
“Young people can play a huge role in changing our society and doing things positively,” Evers said. “They bring that energy, and it’s going to carry over to our kids, too.”
Outside the convention center, two protesters held pro-gun flags while marching slowly down the sidewalk. One of them, Matt Webb, said he is retired from the military. He said he “took an oath to defend our Constitution, and this is the Constitution.”
“Any infringement is an infringement,” he said. “The National Firearms Act, the Gun Control Act, they are all infringements on the Second Amendment. We can’t just pick and choose what we like. It’s worked for a good long time, and if we could get some heart back in society, I think it could continue to work.”
Inside the convention center, the Parkland activists continued to inspire.
Matthew Gifford, 18, of Waukesha began crying when he spoke with González. In the middle of the crowded room, González hugged Gifford, who had tears streaming down his face.
“I’ve been wanting change to happen for a while,” Gifford said. “It’s just hard to speak with someone who lost a bunch of friends and people in their community.”
For years, voters in some Janesville neighborhoods have visited their local schools to cast ballots in elections.
That arrangement is likely nearing an end.
The Janesville City Council on Monday will consider moving polling places from Edison and Franklin middle schools and Washington Elementary School to three new locations. The move comes after the Janesville School District informed the city May 29 it was no longer willing to host polling places in any schools, according to a city memorandum.
The Rock County Job Center would replace Edison Middle School, St. William Catholic Church would replace Franklin Middle School and Faith Lutheran Church would replace Washington Elementary School, pending council approval.
The change would affect 12 voting wards and approximately 9,400 registered voters. That’s about 30 percent of the city’s registered electorate, according to the memo.
Franklin and Washington still would be used for the August primary. Edison is undergoing construction this summer and is unavailable.
School District assistant communications specialist Donna Klingaman said the proposal is a joint effort by the city and school district. Ensuring school safety was the primary motivator for the change, she said.
A large number of people entering and leaving schools on Election Day creates a potential risk, especially in light of recent school shootings. Canceling school was not an option because it would have forced students to make up academic days, she said.
The city considered 15 sites as replacement options for the schools. City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek toured nine of those locations and created a points-based system to choose which places would be best, according to the memo.
Evaluation metrics included location, available space for voting, parking, disabled accessibility and cost. The Rock County Job Center emerged as an obvious choice, and the city settled on the two churches because of their locations.
Expecting some residents might have concerns about keeping church and state separate, Janesville staff did research and believe there is no issue with using a church as a polling place. The city already uses several other churches as polling locations.
The city will make accommodations for those unwilling to vote at a church. Other peer cities also use churches as voting spots, according to the memo.
The city plans to spend about $6,000 to mail notifications to residents affected by the change despite no legal requirement to do so. It could cause Janesville’s election costs to surpass this year’s budget, according to the memo.
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