The students organized the walkout last week in protest of gun violence.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Students left the classroom last week to give voice to their concerns about school shootings after 17 high school students and faculty were killed in the state of Florida last month
About 400 miles away, the ears of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal perked up a bit. When Neal found out about the hundreds of students who collectively protested gun violence in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., he booked a flight back to the district to visit the students last Friday.
But then school was canceled because of a snowstorm.
Neal waited it out and sat down with the students at Pittsfield High School on Monday afternoon.
The former history teacher used the occasion for a "teachable moment" in civics. He expressed his views on gun control legislation and had a back and forth with the students, answering questions they had and hearing their concerns.
"We live in a time where there is plenty of outrage. I think the challenge for all of us is how do we refine the outrage into meaningful public policy," Neal said.
The Springfield Democrat said when he was in school, these conversations didn't happen nor were they needed to happen. But in the last two decades, 15 have been killed at Columbine, 33 at Virginia Tech, 28 at Sandy Hook, and now 17 at Stoneman Douglas.
"I don't think when you kiss your child goodbye in the morning that you should be worried about them not coming home in the afternoon, that when you drop them off at school that that's the last conversation you are going to have," Neal said.
The congressman believes what he is putting forth is a series of "sensible proposals" to keep weapons out of the hands of mass murderers.
"The conversation is not that we are talking about taking guns away from responsible sportsmen and hunters. I think there are a series of steps we can take to improve the safety of all of us," Neal said.
He supports raising the minimum age to buy weapons to 21. He supports tougher oversight on gun dealers and the procurement of sophisticated weaponry, and he supports mental health background checks.
"Ninety percent of the American people support mental health background checks. I don't understand why we can't have a vote on that," Neal said.
As a former mayor, he also recognized that small handguns "wreak havoc" on cities but at the same time, it is AR-15s that tend to show up in mass shootings. He supports bans on military weapons and bump stocks. And he doesn't believe in arming teachers.
A student asked what is holding back of such "sensible proposals." Why hadn't these been passed already?
That's partly because of discord between representatives and senators and partly the influence of the National Rifle Association, Neal said. He said the NRA's position is that any such change would be a step toward taking weapons away from sportsmen, which make negotiations difficult. He said most will take a position and then negotiate it, but the NRA isn't moving.
"The NRA has been resistant to any change that has been proposed," Neal said.
At the same time, he's finding that with members of Congress as well.
"People show up with opinions and call them facts. It is very hard to move people off of a position they've already taken and it distorts the conversation," Neal said.
With such a quagmire, a student asked what could be done more immediately. Neal still believes there is a path forward on background checks, saying even President Donald Trump has previously voiced support for that. He said with the shooter in Florida, "clearly there was a history of mental health illness."
He called on the students to say something if they see behavior change among their peers. He wants them to report any of those so-called "red flags" warning of a potential incident.
Superintendent Jason McCandless agreed.
"We avoid 50, not things like the magnitude we are talking about in Florida, but we avoid 50 situations a year because somebody saw something on social media, mentioned it to their mom and dad, and mom and dad calls someone at the school or you yourself take it directly to the school," McCandless said.
"Please understand that you are the most keen-eyed observers of what any of these red flags are. You know them."
Another student said there are a lot of mentally ill people out there and another said there are times when there aren't any red flags. Neal agreed there are many people living with mental health issues. But, he said with proper medication and therapy, they can get back to living a regular life. He said many people have bumps in the road but return to mainstream life. That's why early detection is so important, he said.
One student suggested that students receive more training about what to do if there is a shooting. Neal said training on those procedures "makes sense."
Another student questioned his support for raising the age to 21, saying at the age of 18 someone can go to war. Neal moved to a different comparison -- drivers licenses.
"We do more to monitor drivers licenses than we do who owns an AR-15," Neal said.
Another student asked about state gun laws, to which Neal responded, "They are as strict as you are going to find. I think they proposed a bipartisan solution over many years. A Republican governor proposed a ban on assault weapons and the Republican governor now continues to support the ban on assault weapons. It shows you that a bipartisan Republican governor and a Democratic legislature can accomplish those initiatives."
Neal said many of his plans could be done on the state level and Massachusetts' efforts have lowered gun violence compared to other states.
Incoming District Attorney Paul Caccaviello also joined the conversation, saying the DA's office is often taking a reactive approach to violence. It prosecutes crimes after they are already committed.
"It is so much more important to have a proactive approach. Some of the proposals the congressman as proposed is common sense, they are decent proposals and they are proactive," Caccaviello said.
He said conversations like Monday's are "vital" toward combating crimes.
Overall, Neal said the issue of guns is a "balancing act" of protecting the liberties of gun owners while also protecting the liberties of everybody else.
As for local safety concerns, McCandless told the students "we have been listening" and taking steps to ensure safety at each high school. But the concerns the students raised about their own safety is even bigger than just the Pittsfield schools. McCandless hopes those students take that passion with them when they get to college and keep pressing to change the world.
"Your lives are being affected, you see that, you feel that connection with those students in Florida and all over the country and you are speaking out. You are learning more about civic engagement, coming of age, through this process and I think you can really make a difference," School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said.
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