SALEM — High schoolers advocating for gun control aren’t the only ones who have taken a stand against school shootings.
James Nelson, 17, is a senior at Salem Hills High School who loves hunting, considers the Constitution a sacred document and feels strongly that the right to bear arms is “a real blessing.” He does not think restricting access to guns will result in safer schools.
But he was still deeply moved by the tragic slaying of 17 high school students in a February mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. And he wanted to do something to find answers, even if that meant sitting down with people whose opinions differ from his own.
That’s why Nelson organized and hosted a “Freedom and Liberty Symposium” at his high school on Wednesday night. He invited a panel of six professionals, including a police officer, a school counselor and member of the Utah House of Representatives to talk about solutions to school shootings. Some panelists opposed any gun control, and others said they supported what they called "commonsense gun reform." But they all wanted to prevent kids from getting killed at school.
“This is about citizens coming together on a local level to find real solutions,” said Nelson.
The panelists discussed ways to make schools safer such as training teachers how to protect themselves and students when faced with an active shooter, helping students struggling with mental health challenges, and utilizing the SAFE UT app, which provides 24/7 access to crisis counseling and tip reporting for students.
Some of the nearly 200 attendees, including parents and students, commented on proposed solutions that ranged from arming teachers to banning assault rifles.
Several spoke passionately about the dangers they perceive in restricting Americans’ Second Amendment rights.
“I personally believe no matter how much you think you are controlling guns, you are only limiting the law-abiding citizen and not the criminal,” said one of the panelists, Omar Viera, who served 21 years as a Navy Seal and has two children in high school. Viera also said it was important to listen to the other side. “Educate yourself; put yourself around individuals who are not like you. Bottom line, we don’t want more kids to die,” he said.
Ralph Jansa, a counselor at Salem Hills, was one of the panelists who spoke in favor of gun restrictions.
"Historically, I don’t think it’s on our side to say arming more people will lead to less violence," said Jansa.
But Rep. Marc K. Roberts, R-Salem, encouraged the group to look beyond gun legislation for answers.
“Too often we turn to the government to solve our problems,” he said. “We need to fix our family problems and our society problems and our neighborhood problems first.”
Nelson, who acted as a moderator during the event, is just one example of a young person who is taking action in the midst of a nationwide movement led by high school students. Even though Nelson’s views differ from the majority of young people advocating for stricter gun laws, he said he has felt similarly empowered to make his voice heard.
“I was called to action, but in a different way,” said Nelson. “Because (the Parkland students) really showed me that kids our age can make a difference and be a part of the national conversation.”
Parkland students have repeatedly spoken out in the national media and on social media against the NRA, which some of them say is responsible for lax gun laws that contribute to the frequency of mass shootings. On March 14, hundreds of thousands of students across the nation walked out of school, and the following week more gathered in the streets of cities around the world to participate in student-led “March for Our Lives” rallies.
In Salt Lake City, prior to the “March for Our Lives” rally, which drew an estimated crowd of 8,000 people and was primarily focused on gun reform, there was the “March Before Our Lives,” a countermarch organized by the Utah Gun Exchange. About 1,000 people showed up at the “March Before Our Lives” to demonstrate their support for gun ownership and advocate for school safety in their own way. Many of those who joined were high school students, like 17-year-old Cody Frandsen, a senior at Spanish Fork High School who also attended Wednesday’s “Freedom and Liberty Symposium.”
“In my age group, I know I’m 100 percent in the minority. … I’m the kid with the unpopular opinion,” said Frandsen, who thinks the best way to prevent shootings is to arm teachers and teach kids to be nicer to each other. “But if someone has a different opinion, I’m not gonna stop sharing mine.”
Nelson hopes the symposium will be a starting point for continued discussion about solutions to school violence, and welcomes any opportunity to talk with those with opposing ideas.
“We find common ground in that we really care,” said Nelson. “We all want to make schools safer.”