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Since Parkland: How the gun control debate has changed in Madison

A year following the mass shooting in Parkland, staggering numbers of student activists, local lawmakers and gun control advocates have demanded reforms to be set in motion — a movement sweeping not only in the state, but throughout the nation. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In the year since a gunman killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, activists — many of whom are high school students themselves — have marched, petitioned and voted for tighter gun laws across the country.

But over the same span of time, firearm-related deaths were the highest they’d been in America in the last 50 years, according to a report by the New York Times.

In Madison, calls for reform were set against a backdrop of recurring gun violence. Below, we reflect on the way the conversation surrounding gun control has evolved in the year since Parkland, as well as the gun-related tragedies that have continued to punctuate the debate.

Campus stood vigil for Parkland Students in the days following the shooting

Hundreds of students and Madison community members congregated as dusk fell over Library Mall Feb. 22 in a show of solidarity with Parkland students.

“I think it’s really important to relate this to the campus. It’s a few thousand miles away, so it’s sometimes hard to make this feel like home, in a way,” said Robyn Ribotsky, a UW-Madison senior and Madison Metropolitan School District alumna who speaker at the vigil. “So I hope by all of us speaking, our stories can resonate and build some type of energy within the audience that they feel as passionate as we do about reforming all of these issues.”

Local high school students joined the conversation and took action

Allison Leyer, a senior at Madison West High School learned of the Parkland shooting while sitting with peers in a ceramics class. She said at that moment she was not surprised by the news and that other students around her had the similar nonchalant reaction as she did. 

“I was shocked that I could let myself fall into that mindset, rather than thinking it was not normal for someone to walk into a school and murder 17 people,” Leyer said. 

Desensitization consumes the lives of many Americans, including Leyer. However, the Parkland shooting started a conversation around gun reform that would continue throughout the next year. 

Community marched in solidarity with Parkland students

On Mar. 14, one month after the tragedy in Parkland Florida, Leyer, and other high school students including Emma Falk, a senior at Madison East High School, lead a student walkout. 

Students from Madison-area middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities walked out of their classrooms and congregated on the Capitol’s steps to protest gun violence. However, it was not only students that walked out. Community members of all ages gathered in solidarity with the students. Both Leyer and Falk spoke. 

“We were walking out of our government-regulated schools because we didn’t feel safe inside their walls,” Falk said. “This movement was our movement to lead.” 

School safety was a growing priority, but implementation was contested

As part of a $10 million statewide campaign in June, the MMSD received just under a million dollars to improve school safety. The district used the money to update interior door hardware, add glass hardener to main windows and entrances, and provide active shooter training to all district staff. 

In response to President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers, Chad Wiese, MMSD Director of Building Services, said Madison would stay far away. 

“No one’s even discussing it,” he said.

Middleton mass shooting brought gun-rights issues back into focus

Despite the increased attention brought to gun issues, the Madison area fell victim to gun violence in September, when an employee at a Middleton software company opened fire on his coworkers, injuring three, before being killed by police. 

"I saw a dude walking with a gun inside the building," Andrew King, an employee at TrafficCast, located near the scene at 1800 Deming Way, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Police records showed the shooter, 43-year-old Anthony Tong, had been previously banned from owning weapons after police in South Dakota became concerned about his mental health. When law enforcement searched his house in the days after the shooting, they found a stockpile of weapon parts and ammunition. 

Active shooter training enrollment saw uptick after Middleton

The UW-Madison Police Department holds monthly trainings outlining what to do in an active shooter situation. These classes saw an uptick in participation after the Middleton shooting, according to UWPD Communications Director Marc Lovicott. 

Lovicott mentioned there is still somewhat of a disconnect when people hear about gun violence on the news, not believing it could be present in their own communities. 

“There’s thinking that this can’t happen here [in Madison], or this isn’t real, but when we have a threatening situation we need to take it seriously,” he said. 

State officials continued the debate following events in Middleton

The Middleton shooting was also a flashpoint in the U.S Senate race between Leah Vukmir and Tammy Baldwin.  

Baldwin, who would win the midterm elections later that fall, said the shooting showed the need for greater safety measures, such as universal background checks and banning bump stocks.

“As a gun owner myself, I believe that the Second Amendment is absolutely consistent with stronger safety regulations,” she said.

Student activists registered more than 50,000 voters in an effort to harness the ‘youth vote’

Student-lead group “Our Lives Our Vote” registered over 50,000 young voters nationally by mid-October. 

The program hoped to appeal to young voters whose beliefs align with enacting gun safety reforms, in an effort to increase voter turnout supporting the cause. The initiative also awarded grants to various local organizations already engaged in voter registration efforts within their communities, including March For Our Lives, the Future Coalition and PLAN.

“It’s especially important for us to mobilize the youth vote this election.” said Cecilia McDermott, March For Our Lives state co-chair. “There are so many activists who are finally turning 18, who are finally able to vote. ”

Mass shooting at Pittsburg synagogue shook campus, community

The voices that chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for those who grieve, were heavy with pain when nearly 1,000 gathered at the First Unitarian Society for an interfaith service honoring the 11 killed and six wounded in the October attack on The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Jewish community members from across the city led the assembly in prayer and reflection, mourning those who had been shot and trying to make sense of, as one speaker put it, the “incomprehensible hatred” that drove 46-year-old Robert Brower to massacre the Jews who had gathered to celebrate Shabbat and the birth of a child.

“Every single person has a right to be treated with dignity, kindness and love,” said a Jewish transgender professor from the UW-Madison educational psychology department. “We’ve got to talk, we’ve got to act, we can’t stand still. Madison can only be my home if we can be each others’ homes.”

Shift in State offices left many hopeful for change, but hopes were dampened by lame duck legislation

The election of Attorney General Josh Kaul left gun control advocates hopeful for tighter regulations, with the democrat promising to function as an aggressive arbiter of progressive legal challenges on gun control law.

During the extraordinary session, Republicans initially proposed a bill that would have allowed legislators to remove Kaul entirely from certain legal battles and replace him with private attorneys at the state’s expense, but eventually relented on that front.

Still, the reforms that did pass would allow legislative Republicans to directly intervene if the attorney general challenged existing state laws, which could hamstring any of Kaul’s efforts to pursue litigations to do things like crack down on gun laws.

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