Although school is out for the summer, Students Against School Shootings Iowa (SASS) isn’t taking a break.
The Iowa City-based organization was founded in February after 17 people died in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When a group of City High School students heard that students at South East Junior High School were planning a walkout to protest gun violence, they decided to help and started a group chat to organize the march. Weeks later, those students led a crowd of hundreds in the Iowa City March for Our Lives.
SASS has been “turning this moment into a movement,” as stated on their website. In April, they organized a benefit concert for gun violence research. In May, they held a candlelight vigil for Santa Fe High School shooting victims. They spoke with lawmakers about gun control and registered dozens of their peers to vote. Since the school year ended, members have participated in the Iowa City Wear Orange Celebration and the Road to Change Tour, a project of March for Our Lives. But keeping momentum has still been a challenge.
“There are people in SASS that are not interested anymore,” SASS member and City High School student Phoebe Chapnick-Sorokin said. “It’s hard to keep it up because a lot of us feel like we’ve done so much already, but barely anything has changed.”
Since the February 14 Parkland shooting, over a dozen states — but not Iowa — have enacted new gun control and safety policies. Companies like Delta Air Lines and MetLife have cut ties with the National Rifle Organization. At the federal level, Congress passed legislation incentivizing state and federal officials to report more to the gun background check system. A “red flag” gun bill — which would federally mandate authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals exhibiting violent behavior — has bipartisan support, but has yet to pass.
Days after the shooting, President Trump proposed a ban on bump stocks, which are modification devices used to accelerate a gun’s shooting rate. In October 2017, a gunman using a bump stock on a semi-automatic rifle killed 58 and injured 489 at a music festival in Las Vegas. There’s some question as to whether the ban, which is set to take effect later this year, is legally sound. It may also be largely moot, since the nation’s sole manufacturer of bump stocks recently stopped production.
In Iowa, a bill that would have allowed permitless weapon carry was scrubbed from the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee’s agenda.
But Chapnick-Sorokin says that SASS is not stopping anytime soon. A few core members meet weekly in between their summer jobs and travels.
“Every few days, someone sends a really long message that says something like, ‘Guys, we can’t stop, we gotta keep trying,’” she said. “We can’t have the mindset that we need to give up and we’re not going to make a difference.”
Rising City High School senior and SASS co-founder Maya Durham spoke at the Road to Change town hall meeting in Marion on June 21. The town hall meeting was organized by Cedar Rapids student activists and the national March for Our Lives group founded by Parkland, Florida students, and featured local student activists, Marion residents affected by gun violence and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“What Parkland students have done on the Road to Change is inspire a lot of us [to keep fighting],” Durham said. “I think because so many people in Gen Z are so passionate about this issue, it’s not going to die out. School shootings, gun violence, it affects almost everybody every day.”
Durham said one of her biggest takeaways from the town hall was the importance of empathy in gun control discussions.
“The biggest roadblock to communication and empathy is creating echo chambers where you only listen to people that agree with you, or [assuming] the other side is automatically the bad guy when that’s just not the case,” she said.
Although thousands gathered at the Capitol in Des Moines for the March for Our Lives protest, Iowans are split on the need for stricter gun laws. A recent poll from Morningside College found that 42 percent believe state firearm laws should be stricter and 41 percent believe they should be kept the same. 12 percent said the laws should be less strict.
Last year, the Iowa Legislature passed the most pro-gun legislation in state history. Former Gov. Terry Branstad’s signing of House File 517 expanded “stand your ground” protections and made records of permit holders confidential. In March, lawmakers approved a resolution to add the right to bear arms to the Iowa Constitution. The resolution must pass another legislative session before Iowans can vote on it.
SASS hopes politicians who back gun control — mostly Democrats, they say — will take the Iowa Legislature in November. They sent out a survey to candidates and will grade them on their degree of support for the organization’s goals, which include banning assault weapons and funding community-intervention programs to reduce gun violence.
Increasing political participation has always been one of the organization’s main focuses. During the school year, some members carried voter registration forms in their backpacks. This summer, they’re asking classmates at graduation parties if they’re registered to vote.
“If we can’t get people and especially young people to come out to vote, then this movement can’t be successful,” recent West High School graduate and SASS member Nick Pryor said. “It’s not the most glamorous thing in the world to sit there and read about who your district senator is, but that can arguably be more important [than protesting].”
Pryor was one of the SASS members who visited the Iowa Capitol earlier this year. He said the reaction from lawmakers was “very partisan,” with Democrats tending to respond more positively. While he appreciated the opportunity to speak with Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley — who supports a gun rights amendment to the Iowa Constitution — he said it was “a more frustrating 20-minute conversation.”
Separate from their work with SASS, some members are working on campaigns for Iowa Democrats like Zach Wahls, nominee for Senate District 37, and Jodi Clemens, candidate for House District 73. Another GOP-majority legislature would be a “setback,” but SASS wants to compromise with whomever comes into power.
“If [Republicans] are in charge of our state, we need to work with them,” Chapnick-Sorokin said. “We’re prepared to work alongside them, but we’re not just going to disappear if they’re elected.”
Whatever happens in November, it’s clear that members of Generation Z — many of whom are not old enough to vote — have changed the national gun control conversation. And while protests and school walkouts have taken center stage, local organizations like SASS are focused on the “little things.”
“It’s not ‘big event, big event, big event,’ you know, that’s not what organizing is all about,” Durham said. “It’s the little things that you do. Like little voter registration drives or just talking to people about what’s going on. Really focusing most of your time and energy into this is what’s going to affect real change in our current political climate.”