For months, Idaho high school students worked with state lawmakers to craft a resolution on gun violence. They prepared emotional testimony on losing family or friends to suicide, feelings of numbness to active shooter drills, and fears they had when their loved ones struggling with mental health had access to firearms. They expected to read it before a committee of legislators.
But the students never got the chance to share those stories publicly.
Students said they were frustrated and disappointed that what they viewed as a reasonable resolution failed to get introduced. They’d spent weeks meeting with state legislators, many of whom they said were supportive and excited about the students’ involvement.
The draft resolution acknowledged the importance of the Second Amendment and the Idaho Constitution, recognized the impact of “preventable tragedies” and encouraged “responsible firearm safety and safe storage.”
“I think to us, it just feels so simple. This (resolution) literally is just acknowledging that there are people dying, and that we should care about this,” said Amaia Clayton, a student at Renaissance High School in Meridian. “And then it immediately gets turned into a political issue.”
Resolution acknowledges impact of gun violence
Last fall, the group of students worked on a bill that would have required licensing for minors to purchase firearms. The aim was to slow down the process minors go through to buy a gun, so students in the midst of a mental health crisis couldn’t as easily access a firearm.
Several of the students involved took a safety course themselves, where they were able to feel more comfortable with firearms after learning more about how to safely use them, and to gain an understanding of other people’s experience with firearms. They wanted to make sure they were educated on the issue before seeking to change any laws.
The students had reached out to Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise. Wintrow said when the students came to her, she took their concerns seriously. They weren’t the first students who had contacted her about the issue, she said.
“They were telling me stories about the amount of kids that had access to firearms, and they’re concerned,” she said. “We owe it to them to at least listen.”
In Idaho, conversations about firearms are often difficult, Wintrow said.
Wintrow suggests the students instead work together on a resolution that would raise awareness and educate youhe public about the issue. The students said they felt they had a better chance of garnering support for the resolution, which doesn’t carry the weight of law.
“A lot of time, reasonable conversation is squelched because of extremists saying, ‘You’re going to take our guns away,’” she said.
The draft of the resolution, shared with the Statesman, acknowledged the Second Amendment and the Idaho Constitution, which states that hunting is a “valued part of the heritage of the state of Idaho and shall forever be preserved for the people.”
It pointed out that people who want a hunting license in the state must take a hunter education and safety course, noted that Idaho code doesn’t address “responsible access and the safe storage of firearms” in places where youth under 18 may be, and included statistics on those who died by suicide using a firearm.
Tea Idaho Violent Death Reporting System reported that of those in Idaho who died by suicide from 2014-2020, about 61% used a firearm. Idaho consistently ranks in the top 10 among US states for suicide deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The Idaho Legislature encourages Idaho’s residents and institutions to continue to educate, promote, and implement safety precautions for firearms access and storage,” the draft resolution said.
Students met with more than a dozen legislators on resolution
While working on the resolution, the group of students got support from more than 100 students across the state, who added their names to sponsor the resolution. They said they met with more than a dozen lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom were excited about their ideas.
“The resounding response that we got from most senators was, ‘This is awesome. This is great,’” said Kate Stevens, a Boise High School student who has been leading the effort.
But some lawmakers had concerns about linking suicide to guns, and were worried the resolution could lead to further legislation restricting access to guns, the students said. Legislators also were hesitant about the clause encouraging safe gun storage.
The National Rifle Association said on its website it offers “a variety of programs and services to promote the safe handling, use and storage of firearms.” It recommends people store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized people.
The students had wanted the resolution introduced in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Students said they spoke with Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who chairs the committee, multiple times. They said she was supportive early on, but expressed concerns with parts of the resolution. Lodge didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Wintrow said the NRA didn’t like the language of the resolution.
“These students just wanted little teeny tiny corner of their government,” she said. “I think when they see some of the other bills that are allowed to be printed and introduced, it’s hard to (understand) why this very simple resolution that doesn’t even have force of law cannot be considered.”
Stevens said legislators should be open to hearing the facts, and ways that would help make guns safer to access and lead to fewer deaths. No one is interested in taking away anyone’s rights, she said.
“It feels very simple,” Stevens said. “And it’s frustrating that it’s been painted as an issue that it’s not.”
Students said it felt like some legislators were disconnected from the issues they were bringing forward. Simon Richardson, a Boise High student, said most of them have someone in their lives who attempted or died of suicide.
Last year, a sixth grade girl at a middle school in Rigby injured three people in a shooting. The girl had a handgun in her backpack and fired multiple rounds before a teacher disarmed her. No one died.
The shooting appears to be the second school shooting in Idaho that resulted in an injury. In 1999, a 15-year-old boy fired two shotgun rounds inside Notus Junior-Senior High School, according to the Associated Press. One student was injured by a shell that ricocheted.
“We’re all scared to go to school,” Richardson told the Statesman. “I don’t think there’s many students at any of our schools that aren’t afraid of a very real and potential school shooting.”
Students share stories of suicides, lockdowns
Last year, Stevens said both a family member and a friend attempted suicide. Her grandfather, who survived, didn’t have a gun. About a month and a half after that, another friend of hers attempted suicide.
Stevens said she’s grateful every day that neither of them had access to guns. While her grandfather had a handgun for a while, her parents asked that he get rid of it so that she and her sibling weren’t in the house with a firearm, she said.
“You don’t realize what you have until you almost lose it,” she said. “Being a student, you hear about it every day. We’re so numb to it that we laugh. Because if we don’t, we cry.”
Richardson remembers when he was in elementary school, his school had a lockdown because there was a man outside with a gun. He recalled, as an 8-year-old, crying in the school library and hiding behind a rocking chair, afraid the man would come inside the school.
Students said they fear school shootings and suicides by firearm every day.
“Not a day goes by that any of this doesn’t cross my mind, like suicide, school shooting, mass shooting, any of it. Every single day. Every single day, it comes into my head and it’s like, why am I living with this? I’m 17,” Clayton said.
Students said they’re not sure where to go from here yet. They feel like they got so close to getting a resolution, and bringing more attention to this issue, and little came of it.
He said he feels unheard and doesn’t understand why there isn’t any action being taken. But the students said they plan to continue their work — to raise awareness of the issue, try to stop deaths by firearms and provide support for survivors of gun violence.
“It feels like what do we do now? We’ve tried everything with the Legislature. It’s a problem that’s only growing, and it feels like they’re just ignoring it,” Richardson said. “And it’s only going to get worse and worse.”
Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.