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'We are the force for change': Student activists protest at NCGA for stricter gun legislation


Students rally outside of the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh in a protest against gun violence organized by the UNC chapter of March for our Lives on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.

“Vote them out!"

Those were the words student protesters chanted at state Republican lawmakers on Tuesday as they stood arm-in-arm on the balcony of the N.C. General Assembly’s public gallery. 

The chant continued as security personnel escorted students out of the building, and it did not stop until they were outside.

As the students were escorted out, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland,  Rutherford) asked, "Are you all sure you're not from Duke University?"

This act of protest followed a rally in front of the North Carolina State Legislative Building where student groups, elected officials and activists demanded lawmakers pass stricter gun legislation.

“Today, we organized a display of power in which students made their voices heard because our legislators have been ignoring us for far too long,” Luke Diasio, vice president of March for Our Lives UNC, said.

March for Our Lives UNC, UNC Young Democrats and other student organizations planned the End Gun Violence protest after UNC professor Zijie Yan was shot and killed on campus on Aug. 28

A day after the protest, another lockdown was ordered after an "armed and dangerous person" was reported on UNC’s campus. No injuries were reported. 

"It saddens me that we had two situations in a little over two weeks," UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a press conference on Wednesday about the incident involving the armed individual. 

At the rally on Tuesday, over 40 attendees gathered behind the speakers holding posters with messages protesting gun violence as the sun glared down on the plaza.

“This, to me, doesn't feel like a political issue,” UNC junior Caroline Butler, a member of UNC March for Our Lives who attended the protest, said. “This is me going to the steps of the General Assembly begging for my life.”

The protest was planned to coincide with the discussion of S.B. 747 and 749. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed S.B. 747 — which shortens the deadline on which voters can submit absentee ballots — on Aug. 24, but the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly overrode the veto last week.

S.B. 749, titled “No Partisan Advantage in Elections,” proposes that each party appoints four members to the State Board of Elections, rather than the governor appointing five members. Cooper said in a press release the proposed change could lead to gridlock within the board and delays for voters.

The House plans to vote on S.B. 749 on Sept. 19, and Cooper said in a press release he plans to veto the bill.

“You don't make it harder to vote if you think your policies benefit the majority of your constituents,” Diasio said during the protest. “You do so when you know your policies are unpopular. You do so to stay in power. You do so when you are afraid of the voters.”

Ashley Ju, a UNC first-year and the president of March for Our Lives Cary, recently became eligible to vote and said she attended the protest to protect that right.

“Let's make sure that our voices, our advocacy and our determination resonate so loudly that they drown out the gunfire,” Ju said in a speech during the protest. “We are the force for change, and it's time to say, ‘Enough is enough.’” 

In his speech at the rally, Diasio urged the General Assembly to enact universal background checks, prohibit domestic abusers from purchasing a firearm and pass red flag laws. Red flag laws allow a judge to temporarily prevent a person from purchasing a firearm if there is evidence they pose a risk to themselves or others. 

Almost 80 percent of North Carolina voters support red flag laws, according to a flyer the protesters handed out which cited a poll conducted by Third Way, a national think tank.

N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) said during the protest that members of the General Assembly have filed a red flag bill four times since 2018, but it has not been passed by either chamber.

“The majority in that building right now, they're debating casinos, not your lives,” Morey said, pointing to the General Assembly building behind her.

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Diasio said mental health issues are not an excuse for a lack of stricter gun legislation, which many Republican lawmakers across the nation have pointed to as a major reason for gun violence.

“Our legislators could double mental health funding tomorrow,” he said. “Don't blame mental health if you're not willing to be part of the solution.”

David Hogg, gun violence prevention activist and survivor of the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fl., said young people have the power to make legislative change. After the Parkland shooting, Hogg said activists successfully lobbied to raise the eligibility for a firearm purchase to age 21 in Florida.

“These politicians want our kids, our friends and family to be on the frontlines of this issue, instead of having the courage to stand up to the gun industry, to the NRA and say, ‘Responsible gun ownership and strong gun laws are not antithetical to each other,’” Hogg said. “They are essential to protect one another in the first place.”

UNC Young Democrats plan to return to the General Assembly on Sept. 17 at 2 p.m. for a rally against gun violence alongside additional youth groups and elected officials.


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