UI student group's town hall on gun violence filled to capacity

UI student group's town hall on gun violence filled to capacity

CHAMPAIGN — Urbana Superintendent Don Owen was teaching a U.S. history class at Urbana Middle School in 1999 when two teens went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"For the next month, I was dealing more as a social worker than I was as a teacher," Owen said. "I wasn't ready for that, but I had to adapt to that because of something that happened hundreds of miles away from Urbana, Illinois."

Owen was one of the participants in a Thursday night town hall meeting on gun violence at the Champaign Public Library organized by a UI student group.

Between 140 and 150 people attended the event, with others turned away at the door because the room was filled to capacity.

A series of speakers talked about gun violence and what they think should be done about it.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz stressed that the problem isn't new to our community and she sees it every day.

"I see it in the faces of victims who have lost loved ones," Rietz said. "I see it in the faces of witnesses who are terrified to come forward and help us address the issues. I see it in the faces of offenders who have suffered trauma all of their lives and only know how to resolve their conflicts through violence."

State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, said that when he asked students in a fifth-grade class in Champaign this week what was important to them, one little boy came forward and said, "Keeping our streets safe." The class cheered, he said.

Bennett later learned that little boy had lost his dad three years ago.

"Gun violence is not a Democrat or Republican problem. It's not an urban or rural problem. It is a national problem," he said.

But the most enthusiastic response from the packed crowd was for the participating young people, many of whom had been inspired by the survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting and organized the recent March for Our Lives in Champaign's Douglass Park.

Dozens of teens from local high schools were in the audience for Thursday's town hall discussion.

"I really don't want to take away your guns," said Centennial High School student Emma Trail. "No, we just want to take away your military assault rifles that are literally used to kill people."

"We want reforms such as raising the age to purchase weapons from 18 to 21," said Uni High School student Sophia Schmitz. "It is ridiculous that you can't buy alcohol, but you can buy weapons to kill people."

"We want to see our generation be the generation that finally introduces common-sense gun laws," said University of Illinois student Abby Weber, leader of UIUC Students Against Gun Violence, which organized the event. "This community that we are so privileged to call our home for the next few years has experienced gun-violence deaths firsthand. And as a part of this community, we want to help to change it."

Democratic congressional candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan was critical of the National Rifle Association.

"I have pledged to never take a dime from the NRA. I don't want it," she said. "When we talk about the NRA, we are talking about the gun lobby. It is really in the business of promoting gun sales."

Her opponent, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, was invited to take part in the town hall but was unable to attend.