Teen organizers from March for Our Lives lobby lawmakers in Harrisburg for ‘red flag’ law

A student organizer from March for Our Lives speaks in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Drue Cappawana has always considered himself an activist.

But it wasn’t until the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, which left 11 people dead in October 2018, that he felt moved to do something more about guns.

That’s when the 17-year-old formed a March for Our Lives chapter at Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School, in suburban Cumberland County.

“As a Jewish American, that hit particularly close to home,” he said Tuesday of the synagogue attack. “When that happened, I said … I cannot sit idly by and not get involved with this organization.”

Cappawana was one of more than a dozen student leaders who came to the Capitol on Tuesday — with a logistical assist from the statewide organization CeaseFirePA — to lobby lawmakers for gun control.

Many of the students said they want the General Assembly to pass a bill that would create extreme risk protection orders in Pennsylvania, giving family members and law enforcement the ability to petition courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person at risk of harming himself or others. “Red flag” laws have been enacted in 15 states plus the District of Columbia, according to the group Everytown for Gun Safety.

March for Our Lives began in March 2018, when students from across the country travelled to D.C. to demand gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. That event has grown into an organization with hundreds of chapters.

Students from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Natrona Heights in Allegheny County, Scranton in the northeast, central Pennsylvania, and Berks and Montgomery counties were represented in Harrisburg this week.

They met with Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Aaron Bernstine, a Second Amendment lawmaker from Beaver County who fiercely opposes red flag legislation.

“Although he didn’t necessarily agree with us, he was able to hear us out and was very respectful,” said Alex Franzino, the 17-year-old director of operations for the Philly chapter. “And later on, he saw one of our supervisors from CeaseFire, and he said that he still remembered us. So being able to get our voices out there and being memorable is really important for us.”

“Every single representative that we met today was in favor of the idea of protecting lives and making sure everyone has the ability to live happily and and safely,” 16-year-old Vince Vento of the Philadelphia chapter added.

During a rally in the Capitol rotunda, Cappawana rejected the idea that gun violence is an urban issue and that extreme risk protection orders won’t help rural communities.

“That’s not true,” he said, citing data from the Auditor General’s office that shows two-thirds of firearm deaths in Pennsylvania were suicides in 2016.

According to the report from the Auditor General, “From 2012 to 2016, the 10 counties with the highest firearm suicide rates were rural counties: Wayne, Elk, Carbon, Clarion, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Clearfield, Somerset, Cambria and Jefferson.”

Other student speakers said they fear violence in their schools and communities.

“In Philadelphia, there are generations upon generations that [live] through this while others sit and watch,” Anissa Wheeler-White, of that city’s chapter, said at the rally. “One of the hardest things was listening to my father speak about his experience in the streets. … He used to come home running from bullets, and unfortunately I find myself sometimes doing the same thing.

“And now it’s not just the streets. It’s schools, too.”

A red flag bill failed to advance in the General Assembly last session, but gun control advocates are hopeful things could be different this year.

“It’s not difficult to solve this issue,” Cappawana said. “Yet, we refuse to do it.

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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