School shootings inspire Maryland students to write — or text — first letters to lawmakers

WASHINGTON — The letters and emails keep arriving in lawmakers’ offices, filled with worry, passion and exclamation points.

Some appear on traditional lined notebook paper, conveying a sense of innocence that belies the gravity of their authors’ purpose.

“Dear Senator Ben Cardin. Hi, I’m Diego Arancibia,” one Frederick middle schooler began. The boy asked the Maryland Democrat for better screening for guns at his school, “in case someone sneaks one in.”

Katheryne Dwyer, a Potomac eighth-grader, wrote Cardin that “the unimaginable already haunts my dreams at night.” Her question: “Is my life, and my best friend Tess’s life, and my little sister Caroline’s life, and the life of every single individual student a priority for you?”

Cardin and other members of Maryland’s congressional delegation say they’ve seen a sharp increase in letters, emails and faxes from young people in the four months since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen say the number of messages related to gun violence they have received surged more than 3,000 percent in the month after a gunman killed 17 people in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

The appeals have continued through the deadly spring, after a 17-year-old boy killed a 16-year-old girl and wounded a boy at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County in March, and after a gunman at a Texas high school shot 10 people to death last month.

Not all the writers endorse gun control.

Brendan Sweet, a student at Prince George's Community College, wrote to Cardin and Rep. Andy Harris, the state’s lone Republican lawmaker, to express support for gun rights.

“I am a big believer in the Constitution,” he wrote to Cardin. “I do however, believe rights should be stripped from those that don't follow the law and that are proven mentally unstable.”

Jack Bennett, an eighth-grader at Oakdale Middle School in Frederick County, wrote Cardin that “teachers and other staff at the school should be better equipped and trained on noticing the signs before the shooting. Please don't vote to do anything dramatic to gun control laws.”

Officials and analysts see the letters as one element of a new activism among young people, led by the survivors of the Parkland shootings, who have become national figures on the debate over guns.

The Parkland survivors “have done something we really haven’t seen since the Vietnam War: Start a powerful social movement among high school and college students,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

He said the movement could endure because “a structure and financial support have formed around the core. And tragically, one thing we know for sure is that there will be more mass shootings. The Parkland movement’s platform will reappear prominently each time another senseless massacre occurs.”

But Paul Brockman, a Maryland-based gun rights activist, said the student activists seem to have a naive belief in the power of regulation.

“I’m not sure, especially with the Parkland kids, how effective they’re going to be,” said Brockman, a member of The Patriot Picket.

“We enact these gun-free zone signs and pray and hope,” Brockman said. “They’ve come to believe the government can protect them by posting these signs instead of taking steps to either harden schools or — once they get out — to take steps to protect themselves.”

Some students said the shootings inspired them to learn more.

Megan Fitzpatrick, 12, researched homicide rates in Baltimore, not far from her Catonsville home, and emailed Gov. Larry Hogan about the “insane amounts of murders” tied to guns.

“I know as a student I do not want to be caught in a mass murder where I’ll have to see people I know and love shot right in school, the place where you are supposed to be the safest,” she wrote.

The Maryland students said they had never been moved to communicate with an elected official before. Fitzpatrick and Dwyer used programs that turn text into emails and delivers them to lawmakers.

Arancibia said his letter to Cardin was the first he had ever sent to anybody. Many in his generation are barely familiar with stamps and envelopes.

“It was a big thing for him,” said Melissa Arancibia-Levine, his mother. “Unfortunately, this is something we all have to worry about. His brother is in high school.”

Cardin’s response began: “Dear Mr. Arancibia.” The senator outlined his support for a ban on assault weapons and an expansion of background checks to include the sale of guns by private sellers.

Cardin said he pays less attention to how the correspondence arrives than to its content.

“To get a copied letter doesn’t mean that much to me other than volume,” the Democrat said. But whether it’s an email or a letter, he said, “I think to receive something that’s personal is pretty powerful. These kids are really engaged.”

Students said something changed for them after Parkland, and now, for the first time, politics feels close to home, even if they are too young to vote.

“The issue of school shootings mainly affects the children in schools,” Dwyer told The Baltimore Sun. “We’re the ones who go to the school and live with the day-to-day consequences. People saying ‘They’re just kids’ is an easy way to discredit a point.”

In January, the month before the Parkland shooting, Cardin’s office received 39 emails, faxes or letters related to “guns, gun violence and gun control,” aides said. The number jumped to 1,548 in February, followed by 656 in March and 183 in April.

Van Hollen’s office saw such messages rise from 99 in January to 3,066 in February to 1,746 in March and 4,052 in April.

“I’ve seen a big spike in student engagement on gun violence issues,” Van Hollen said. “I’ve seen it in terms of the mail and emails and phone calls, and the student participation in rallies and meetings on Capitol Hill.”

He said he believes the movement will translate into turning out more voters at election time.

Megan Fitzpatrick’s father sees a change in today’s youth.

“It’s a generation of kids who are very aware of their ability to be empowered,” Pete Fitzpatrick said. “I think of myself at 12, and my political issue was what pizza they had in the cafeteria.”

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the office received Megan’s email and was preparing a response.

The Republican governor responded to an earlier student letter by touting his support of legislation banning bump stocks, which can turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic machine guns, and requiring gun owners to surrender their weapons if judges find them an “extreme risk.” He signed both measures into law this year.

Some students said they were inspired to write letters after national school walkouts on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, and April 20, the 19th anniversary of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Arancibia, the Frederick middle school student, said he wrote his letter by hand because ‘I don’t have a phone and I have good handwriting.”

“When you’re a kid you don’t think your letter is going to be read by someone in an important position,” his mother said. “Honestly, it’s like giving a kid a new toy.”

Dwyer, in her letter to Cardin after the Parkland shootings, called for “common sense gun legislation,” and urged him to “act on it! Please!”

She wrote again after the May shootings at Santa Fe High School in Texas: “My voice will be around for as long as I am.”

Dwyer, Fitzpatrick and others said they are influenced by Parkland students such as Emma Gonzalez. The Parkland survivors have emerged as undaunted advocates for gun policy reform as well as Twitter and Instagram celebrities. Gonzalez has more than 1.6 million Twitter followers.

“They’re everywhere,” Dwyer said. “I see them and it’s made it more possible for me to share my opinions.”

It was the Parkland students who led the March rally in Washington at which hundreds of thousands called for a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles and universal background checks for gun purchases, among other measures.

“The Parkland students have galvanized students around the country,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat whose district includes Great Mills High School. “What’s different is they are so committed and so focused on a political agenda — not a partisan agenda — of supporting and urging the election of candidates who want to help them solve this particular problem.”

Jeff Hulbert is founder of The Patriot Picket.

“I was their age in the 1960s when America was a very chaotic and angry place,” he said. “The difference now is that this generation is attacking constitutional rights.”

Political scientists debate the impact that the youth activism could have on November’s congressional elections. Millennials — those born roughly between 1980 and the mid-2000s— have historically had lower voter turnout rates than other age groups.

Marylanders must be 18 to vote, but may register to vote as early as 16. They may vote in a primary at 17 if they will turn 18 before the general election.

More than 26,000 Marylanders aged 16 to 25 registered to vote from February through May, according to the State Board of Elections. That was nearly three times the 9,000 aged 35 to 60 who registered in the same period. The 16 to 25 group makes up about 13 percent of the electorate.

Maryland already has one of the nation’s most stringent gun control laws: A measure approved after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut banned the sale of many arms classified as assault weapons and required licensing and fingerprinting to purchase handguns.

With such laws already on the books, analyst Mileah Kromer said, she is not sure if gun control will rally young Maryland voters to the polls.

“Maryland already was moving in that direction since 2012,” said Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. “Yes, they might be showing up for cause-based activism. But will that actually turn into voting?”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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