Omaha is one of those communities that get mythologized as “the real America,” the heartland that sits smack-dab in the middle of the country.
So a national tour focusing on the effects of gun violence, registering young voters and lobbying for stricter gun control had to make a stop in Nebraska, said Alfonso Calderon, a student from Parkland, Florida.
Calderon helped moderate a panel featuring young people from Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis and Parkland, part of a “March for Our Lives: Road to Change” tour led by Parkland students that stopped in Omaha on Tuesday.
The speakers talked about how gun violence has touched their lives, advocated for gun laws like universal background checks and urged attendees at a crowded hotel ballroom downtown to register to vote and make their voices heard at the polls during the midterm elections this November.
The panel featured one current and one former student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the site of a school shooting in February that killed 17 people.
They were joined on stage by six other young people — Alex King and Kirstin Sanders from Chicago, brothers Lyric and Camo Smith from St. Louis and Nyaruot Teng and Ariyah Green, two Omaha teens who attend Burke and North. Calderon, a high school junior, and Sydney Rogers-Morrell, a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, moderated the discussion.
Questions posed to the panel touched on the lack of opportunity for teens in Chicago, recent shootings in Omaha, views on guns in red state Nebraska and the role of the NRA in the fierce debate over gun control.
Jaclyn Corin, who will be senior class president at Stoneman Douglas next school year, said the “March for Our Lives” movement is not about trying to take everyone’s guns.
“We just want to make sure guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong people,” she said Tuesday.
“The right to live ... exceeds someone’s easy access to guns,” said Matt Deitsch, a recent Parkland graduate.
The town hall-style event, at the Hilton Omaha at 10th and Cass Streets, drew more than 250 people, a diverse crowd of teens, adults and parents with kids. The tour has made stops in Chicago and Kansas City and has stops planned in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after Omaha. More than 50 stops are planned in 20-plus states.
Corin said the movement isn’t partisan. “We endorse policy, not people,” she said.
Green, 15, said she learned “a whole lot” during Tuesday’s discussion. Green’s family has been scarred by gun violence — her uncle was paralyzed after being shot.
The same group of students from Parkland helped spur “March for Our Lives” events that took place worldwide on March 24, including an Omaha rally that drew a crowd of 2,500.
Following the Parkland shooting, middle and high school students from across the Omaha metro area staged walkouts in February, March and April to mourn the students and staff killed and demand action on gun control.
There have been counterprotests, too. In May, more than 200 Kearney High School students walked out of school, part of a nationwide show of support for Second Amendment rights.
Echoing the bitter divide on gun control, even Parkland students and parents have differed in their responses to the shooting, with some advocating for stronger school security or more funding for mental health treatment instead of more stringent background checks for gun purchases or a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
At an audience Q&A after the panel, recent Creighton Prep graduate Peter Owens described himself as a conservative. He asked what else could be done in Chicago to reduce gun violence, outside of gun control legislation.
Afterward, Owens said he agreed with some of what he had heard, like digitizing gun-sale records, and disagreed with other parts, like bans on semi-automatic weapons.
As he spoke to a reporter, recent Stoneman Douglas graduate Ryan Deitsch (Matt’s brother) approached him. Seventeen people were killed at my school, he said quietly.
The two went back-and-forth on gun laws in Kansas and Florida and the lack of clarity surrounding the definition of an assault weapon.
Then they took a breath.
“I think we can work together, find some common ground on other stuff,” Owens offered. What are you doing next year, now that you’ve graduated?
Deitsch said he was probably taking a gap semester. Owens is headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The two, who had just exchanged tense words about gun control, pulled out their phones and exchanged numbers.
Let’s keep in touch, Owens said.