High school students Anam Hussain (left) and Joey Lopez direct questions to a panel of speakers during the Town Hall For Our Lives at the Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta on Saturday, April 7, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Town halls offer forums in wake of March for Our Lives

About a dozen people attended the first of two town hall meetings in metro Atlanta on Saturday organized by the growing student-led March For Our Lives movement birthed after the Parkland school shooting in February.

The gathering at Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers was titled “Stop School Shootings Now” and drew concerned parents who asked questions of two Democrats, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and state Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson. All wanted to know what could be done not only to keep assault weapons out of schools but out of the hands of the mentally ill and people with histories of violence.

Henson said he felt the the student-led movement has already had a huge impact on the public conversation around guns. He cited the way public pressure changed the culture around smoking as an example of how consistent attention on an issue can affect change.

But Henson said change would be incremental.

“You’ve got to change public opinion,” Henson said. “It’s very hard in Georgia to pass any state laws.”

State Rep. Park Cannon talks as gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams looks on during the Town Hall For Our Lives at the Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta on Saturday, April 7, 2018. Another metro Atlanta town hall was held earlier in the day in Conyers and included invited speaker U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson. Students organized the town halls around the nation on Saturday to spotlight gun violence and school safety. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Johnson also praised the student movement but said the amount of money flowing through politics would ultimately have bearing on whether comprehensive gun control measures would be passed on state and national levels. He called out the NRA specifically and its powerful lobbying as having an intimidating effect on members of both parties in Congress who might want to support tougher gun laws.

“You have to change campaign finance laws, because you’ll never be able to compete with corporate contributions,” Johnson said. “We’re in a conundrum.”

Annabette Vellines, 17, of Druid Hills High School, organized the Conyers event and said she was not disappointed that she was the only student to attend the forum. Her school, like many others, is on spring break.

“I walk into school and I never know if I’m gonna come back out or if my friends are gonna come back out,” Vellines said. “If somebody comes to school with an assault rifle there’s nothing you can do because you can’t outrun a bullet. You just have to hope you don’t die.”

Both Johnson and Henson said they support an assault weapons ban and are proud of their grade of “F” from the NRA. The organization rates lawmakers on their voting records on gun measures the group deems as either pro- or anti- Second Amendment. Johnson and Henson said they don’t want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, though they are against arming teachers, a proposal that has gathered steam in some circles since Parkland.

High school student and event organizer Royce Mann is interviewed in the lobby of the Rialto Center for the Arts before the start of the Town Hall For Our Lives Atlanta Saturday, April 7, 2018. Another metro Atlanta town hall was held earlier in the day in Conyers and included invited speaker U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson. Students organized the town halls across the nation on Saturday to spotlight gun violence and school safety.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel is among many Republican lawmakers who have put a focus on school security in the wake of the gun debate.

“We are focused in Congress on school safety. What we know is that we need to make sure all the schools around the country are hardened,” said Handel in recent comments to the AJC. Handel said she’s already been briefed by officials in Fulton and DeKalb counties about their efforts to strengthen school security. “I have been thoroughly impressed and gained a great deal of confidence in the work and the effort proactively that these school districts have put in to make sure that we have the highest levels of security that we need to keep our schools safe.”

Kathy Seward’s daughter attended Heritage High School in Rockdale County in 2002, when there was a non-fatal school shooting. She said that while she supports an assault weapons ban, she believes in people’s rights to own guns but that they should have to have mandatory gun-safety training to own one.

“They need to have a license test and have to have it renewed every few years,” Seward said. “I cannot understand why that Second Amendment right is so supreme and we can’t make rules about it.”

Another town hall was held Saturday evening in Atlanta at the Rialto Center for the Arts. Several politicians and candidates — including two of Handel’s Democratic opponents in the 6th Congressional District race — agreed to take part in the Atlanta forum.

Like the one in Conyers, it was a student-organized event.

“It is really easy to lose momentum. The marches are really exciting. Then the next week, month, it’s easy for people to not show up,” student Sean King told Channel 2 Action News’ Lauren Pozen at the Rialto event hosted by Concerned Students of Georgia.

Two panels of elected officials and political candidates took questions from students. 

“They are driving the bus and we are guiding and navigating we are their GPS, but they are the drivers,” state Rep. Kim Schofield said.

Congressman John Lewis talks to a small crowd during the Town Hall For Our Lives at the Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta on Saturday, April 7, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer

U.S. Rep. John Lewis pledged his support to tighten gun laws. 

 “It doesn’t make sense for hundreds and thousands of people, especially young people, children, students, to live in fear of gun violence. We have to stop the madness,” Lewis told the audience.

“We are the future. We are what is going to change the world,” King told Channel 2 at the Saturday event.

Last month, March for Our Lives gatherings were held in about 800 cities across the nation. The March for Our Lives in Atlanta attracted an estimated 30,000. At the rallies, speakers — many of them students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the deadly mass shooting claimed 17 lives — demanded tougher gun laws, such as a ban on assault weapons and expanded background checks of all firearms purchasers.

Reports from AJC staff writer Greg Bluestein and Channel 2 Action News reporter Lauren Pozen contributed to this article.

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