Town Hall for Our Lives
Candidate panelists were:
› Jean-Marie Lawrence, state House candidate for District 26
› David Jones, state House candidate for District 26
› Brent Morris, state House candidate for District 27
› Yusuf Hakeem, state House candidate for District 28
› Brandon Woodruff, state House candidate for District 28
› Melody Shekari, state House candidate for District 28
› Tammy Magouirk, state House candidate for District 29
› Joda Thongnopnua, state House candidate for District 30
› Randy Price, candidate for state Senate District 11
Local candidates for state offices voiced their opinions on gun violence, gun laws and school safety at a town hall organized by Chattanooga Students Leading Change, the group formed last month after the Parkland, Fla., shooting.
Leaders of the group, which consists mostly of public and private middle and high school students in Hamilton County, originally reached out to U.S. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., to attend the town hall, but when the lawmakers declined, the group invited candidates for local office to sit on a panel instead.
"We are disappointed that Mr. Corker, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Fleischmann couldn't make it, but we hope to start a productive conversation on the issues," said Allen Liu, a senior at the McCallie School and one of the student leaders who organized the town hall. "We hope we can set the right tone to starting this conversation with federal legislators and our community."
The general consensus during Saturday's conversation was that stricter gun laws are needed to ensure student safety and curb gun violence in the United States, as well as the need for more resources in schools such as more mental health counselors.
Some attendees were concerned with the partisan viewpoint they said was presented at the event.
Griffin Ball, Scott Hill and Will Fuss, McCallie students and members of the Young Libertarians Club, said they felt the event was more of a campaign event than a town hall about the issue.
"Sitting lawmakers would have been better," Fuss said. "I think part of the reason some people are here is for their campaign."
Ball and Hill were also concerned by the cardboard cutouts of Corker, Alexander and Fleischmann attendees addressed during the first part of the program in an apparent attempt to highlight their absence. Community members were invited to ask questions of the lawmakers — ranging from contributions they had received from the National Rifle Association to why mass shootings in schools weren't labeled terrorist attacks. Those questions were recorded and will be presented to the lawmakers when Chattanooga Students Leading Change representatives visit Washington, D.C., later this month, they said.
CSLC acknowledged the lack of diverse voices, but noted organizers had reached out to all candidates to attend the event.
Sileas Balthrop, a seventh-grader at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and one of the organizers, said she was proud of the work the student group had done to get the town hall organized and of the couple hundred community members in attendance.
Balthrop was one of nine students who traveled to Nashville last week to speak with Gov. Bill Haslam's staff about the group's policy points, which include enacting universal background checks, enacting red flag gun laws that empower judges to issue orders to confiscate guns from people deemed to be a risk to the public or themselves, funding gun violence research, and voting against proposals to arm teachers. They also delivered more than 600 handwritten letters from students and adults in Chattanooga.
Anika Iqbal, a sophomore at the Baylor School, also traveled to Nashville — she was excited about the shared commitment to talk about gun violence seen at the town hall.
"Everyone here shares the same feeling," she said. Iqbal agreed that it would be helpful to hear from current lawmakers about what they were doing or could do to ensure safety in schools.
Chattanooga Students Leading Change has been supported by a variety of local activist groups, including Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice and Moms Demand Action - Tennessee, since the group formed with the help of local clergy members. The group — which created an online petition requesting Corker, Alexander and Fleischmann's presence at the town hall, helped organize local student walkouts and the March for Our Lives rally last month — plans on traveling to Washington, D.C., on April 19 in hopes of speaking with Tennessee lawmakers. The group also continues to hold meetings with students from the community and is organizing the local April 20 walkouts that are being planned across the nation.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.