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School Walkout Organizers Weigh In On DeWine's Gun Plan

Clare Driscoll helped organize walkouts at Upper Arlington High School.
Nick Evans
Clare Driscoll helped organize walkouts at Upper Arlington High School.

At lunchtime on a drizzly, February day last year, students at Upper Arlington High School flooded out of the building into a courtyard. Clare Driscoll and Dylan Carlson-Sirvent couldn't believe how many have fellow students showed up for the walkouts to protest gun restrictions.

Trying to make herself heard over the murmur, Driscoll jumped on a bench and yells, “Hey guys, we don’t have a microphone, and we weren’t expecting this many people.”

The shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida happened a week prior to the walkout. This is the first of many walkouts students organized in Ohio. 

“It is time for change, it is time for lawmakers to realize that we are no longer asking to be heard, but that we are demanding it,” Carlson-Sirvent shouts, voice quavering to the crowd.

But at least in Ohio, those protests fell on deaf ears.

In August, a shooter opened fire in the Oregon District of Dayton. When Governor Mike DeWine came to a vigil for the victims, he heard a simple message: “do something.”

Shortly afterward, DeWine took an unusual step for a Republican, promising a series of gun reforms including a red flag law and expanded background checks. A month later, flanked by Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley he offered something different.

Ohio’s existing law for involuntary commitment, the so-called pink slip law, would expand to include people with drug or alcohol dependency.

Guns can be taken out of someone’s possession through the probate courts, where they’d have access to counsel and the opportunity to sell their firearms or hand them over to a trusted family member.

DeWine argues this procedure for law enforcement because officers would collect guns while the owner is in custody.

So far for background checks, DeWine unveiled a system where gun buyers can run a check on themselves to prove they’re a responsible buyer. In turn, private sellers would face stiffer penalties if they sell to someone prohibited from having a weapon.

Some Democrats were quick to pan the move as tepid and insufficient, but others are eager to see lawmakers “do something” even if they’d like more to be done.

Whaley noted, "This is the first time in my career that I have witnessed our state government seriously consider restrictions on access to guns instead of allowing more dangerous weapons in our communities."

The governor acknowledges his plan is built on the politics of the possible.

“We think what we’ve come up with frankly has a lot better chance of passing,” DeWine told reporters. “But just as important as that, we think it will get the job done.”

The organizers of the Upper Arlington walkout are both happy to see legislation, but realistic about the plan on the table.

“I mean at least it’s a step. It’s a tiny step,” Driscoll says of the Governor’s STRONG Ohio plan.

Driscoll, now a first-year student at Ohio State University, worries that the background check system remains voluntary.

“It’s good in theory,” she says, “but anyone who wants to even still just legally buy a gun and then do something bad with it can just find the right person who’s not going to ask for a background check and go for it.”

Carlson-Sirvent, who is taking a gap year in Paris, and he’ll be attending Yale next fall, doesn’t want to see this modest plan detract from efforts to push for more rigorous legislation.

“I think we shouldn’t take for granted this bill,” Carlson-Sirvent says. “But [that] shouldn’t also mean that because this bill has happened that we can’t keep pushing for more robust gun safety law.”

Dylan Carlson-Sirvent flanked by Driscoll speaking at the first Upper Arlington High School walkout.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Dylan Carlson-Sirvent flanked by Driscoll speaking at the first Upper Arlington High School walkout in February 2018.

Looking back on their experience organizing walkouts, both seem proud of what they and their fellow students accomplished. But they’re disillusioned in equal measure to see that energy fail to translate into legislative changes, and that it took another mass shooting to spur leaders to action.

“No matter how much we got up there and talked, and how much, you know, how loud we were, it really came down to three or four people just needing to get something out there and then enough people to vote on it,” Driscoll says.

“I think that’s a tough thing to feel—to feel this sense of shame for the lack of change,” Carlson-Sirvent says. “For a moment maybe people looked up to what was happening to the walkouts and things like that like. ‘Oh finally things are going to change.’ I don’t know. It’s a sense of disappointment I can’t really put to words.”

That said, Carlson-Sirvent believes the coordinated, mass walkouts at schools around the country permanently shifted the conversation around reform. He says they helped reinforce and bring to life what polling has shown for years—there is significant public support for some restrictions on guns. 

The governor’s plan has been introduced in the state Senate, but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.