On Saturday afternoon, more than 50 high school students, residents and local politicians gathered in Liberty Plaza in downtown Ann Arbor to demand legislative action against gun violence. The Washtenaw Youth Initiative, a local group led by and composed of high school students, organized the rally. They invited U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, to speak at the event, as well as activists from the gun violence advocacy groups Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence.
The Washtenaw Youth Initiative is composed of students from 12 different high schools in Washtenaw County according to the website. The group meets weekly in the Neutral Zone, a teen center in downtown Ann Arbor, and has approximately 50 members.
Claire Robinson, a junior at Pioneer High School and an active WYI member, said the rally was primarily aimed at bringing together high school students.
“No one else has honestly been bringing about change,” Robinson said. “But we’ve been working really hard and still have high schoolers across the country (organizing), like March For Our Lives and Parkland, and I think that that’s starting to bring about change.”
The rally took place in the weeks following the passage of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, a bill proposing new background check requirements prior to the exchange of a firearm between private parties.
“I’m super happy that it passed,” Robinson said. “We’ve been working hard to get people out and vote and everything, and I feel like this is kind of showing that we did it, and they helped elect these people who passed this. So it’s showing that change is coming, which is super encouraging, I think.”
Dingell also addressed the recent passage of the bill, affirming the importance of young people like the rally’s attendees in bringing up the issue of gun violence.
“You thought the House of Representatives would never do anything, (but) they did last week,” Dingell said. “And there’s more that needs to be done.”
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan gun control bill that would require background checks on all firearm sales in the country. Currently, only licensed firearms dealers have to perform background checks on customers. This legislation would extend that mandate to unlicensed sellers as well.
“Young people got a bill passed in the House of Representatives last week,” Dingell said. “Keep your voices coming, know you’re making a difference, and we will save lives.”
Rabhi applauded the young people for their efforts against gun violence. However, he said there will be challenges ahead.
“There will be days that feel disheartening, days that feel like we haven’t made any progress,” Rabhi said. “I want you to remember the progress that we’ve made and I also want you to remember this: Never give up.”
This is not the first rally calling for changes in gun control policy the group has organized. The WYI put together a gun control rally and a “die-in” last March, both taking place in the wake of the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Several WYI members at the event mentioned the significance of the 13 months that have passed since the Parkland shooting — one of those students was Ava Walker, a freshman at Pioneer High School.
“It’s been about a year, and we just want to let everybody know that we haven’t forgotten, and that we’re still here and we’re not going to give up anytime soon,” Walker said.
Walker said she has had a positive experience with how her school has addressed issues of gun violence.
“We’re so lucky to live in Ann Arbor, where the administration will listen to us, and like, allow us to walk out,” Walker said. “A friend of mine said that where he used to live, they didn’t let people walk out last year for Parkland, and so it’s great that we have everybody listening to us and, you know, respecting us.”
WYI member Clara Nuñez-Regueiro, a student at Pioneer High School, also addressed the Parkland shooting.
“It’s been one bleak and bloody year since we stood here in reaction and solidarity with Parkland, and practically nothing has changed,” Nuñez-Regueiro said.
Nuñez-Regueiro emphasized the importance of urging legislators to take action on gun control issues.
“Everybody in the system needs to be held accountable, from legislators to law enforcement to our NRA-supporting neighbors,” Nuñez-Regueiro said. “It’s not enough to do performative things like Walk Up Don’t Walk Out, or whatever it is they’re calling it today.”
Another member of the group read aloud a poem describing an encounter between the narrator’s Black grandfather and a white stranger on a street in Ann Arbor 50 or 60 years ago, highlighting the serious concern of gun violence for marginalized communities. In the poem, the white stranger points a gun at the narrator’s grandfather after stopping him on the street.
“If we carry (guns) or if we don’t, our lives are still at risk,” the poet said.
Sonya Lewis, a psychiatrist and instructor in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, spoke on behalf of Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence. Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence is a Michigan group of physicians advocating against gun violence.
“Doctors are not for, quote, ‘gun control,’” Lewis said. “We support ‘bullet wound elimination.’”
Lewis highlighted the solidarity of physicians taking a stance together against gun violence.
“Doctors will not be silent,” Lewis said. “We are organizing, joining one another, and joining with professional organizations and with groups like the Washtenaw Youth Initiative — raising our voices together, speaking to our patients, and speaking truth to power.”
WYI member Nora Berry, a freshman at Community High School, said the presence of speakers representing Moms Demand Action and Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence was a reminder that not only students are affected by gun violence.
“That just reminds us that there’s a whole other level of people in the actual profession who have to deal with the pain and violence in a physical sense,” Berry said. “It’s a matter of remembering everyone (as) a part of it.”
Berry said she decided to join the WYI after recognizing the hardships emerging from recent events involving gun violence.
“When the two major walkouts in 2018 happened, it was just a matter of switching from somebody in the crowd to somebody behind the actual events,” Berry said. “Being like, here we are, and this is what we need.”