A handful of onlookers included some East Tennessee State University administrators, as well as four people quietly protesting in order to make a stand in support of the Second Amendment.
After the national walkout event concluded, the students approached their protesters for a peaceful conversation. Each side tossed questions back and forth in a calm fashion, but three ETSU police officers were nearby just in case they needed to intervene.
The conversation revealed distinct differences of opinion about what can be done to maintain citizens’ right to bear arms but also protect people from being killed while going about their daily lives.
The nationwide movement was designated for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which left 12 students and one teacher dead and 24 injured. In addition to remembering those victims, organizers placed 17 empty chairs in a line. Each chair contained the photograph of one of the victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who were killed in the most recent mass school shooting.
Gracie Somich, a senior and the Student Government Administration president, began her presentation saying the event was not affiliated with University School or East Tennessee State University. It was sanctioned by the university and high school, but was “a student-organized event,” she said.
“The whole point is to not let these lives be lost in vain and to tell our legislators we do want to have safer gun laws,” Somich said. “We’re not trying to take anybody’s guns, but we would like to push for safer gun laws. For me, it’s just seems like it could happen for any of us. We’ve had incidents here where people have been pulled over and there’s loads of ammo and guns in their car.”
Somich said the event was a show of solidarity, “realizing we are all one species interconnected on this planet and we do need to band together and protect that integrity. It’s important to remember that it could have been any of us, and I think the fact that some of the kids were so young .... couldn't even drive, never gonna see their 18th birthday, never gonna see their 21st birthday, it really hits home to me. It could have been any of us.”
The few people who attended to peacefully disagree with the students included Kimberly Dahlgren, a parent of a student at University School and who strongly supports the Second Amendment. She and others were there to provide “an alternate viewpoint,” she said.
“The movement that they are representing is informing them of different legislation and things and all we’re doing is providing them with alternate viewpoints because there are always two sides to every story,” Dahlgren said.
“It’s important to have a civil conversation, to be willing to listen to the other side. Gun safety, yes, it’s important. We were asked if we were pro-school shootings, which I think is inappropriate,” Dahlgren said. “No, we’re not pro-shooting, but we’re pro-liberty, we’re pro-freedom, we’re pro-Second Amendment, we’re pro-First Amendment. Everyone has the right to come and do this and that’s what I wanted the children to see that yes, their views are important but so are ours.”
No one who spoke at the short gathering made any statements about disregarding or rewriting the Second Amendment, and several said they have guns in their homes. Their message, Somich said, was about gun safety, regulations on who can and cannot purchase weapons and the basic right to attend school without fear of being killed.