Phoenixville High School holds gun violence forum instead of walkout

Students from Phoenixville Middle School and High School had the chance to address panelists Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Montgomery/Chester), Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester County) and Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler during a forum on gun reform Friday.
Students from Phoenixville Middle School and High School had the chance to address panelists Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Montgomery/Chester), Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester County) and Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler during a forum on gun reform Friday. Marian Dennis – Digital First Media
Sen. Andy Dinniman was among three panelists taking questions from Phoenixville students Friday during a student-led forum on gun control.
Sen. Andy Dinniman was among three panelists taking questions from Phoenixville students Friday during a student-led forum on gun control. Marian Dennis – Digital First Media

PHOENIXVILLE >> As many students across the country planned school walkouts against gun violence on Friday, one local high school took a different approach.

Phoenixville Area High School opted to hold a gun reform forum as opposed to a walkout like those held in March, inviting Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Montgomery/Chester), Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester County) and Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler to a student-planned panel discussion on gun safety and gun law legislation currently before the Legislature.

“Please know that the administration supports student voice to express their positions and views as was evidenced by the past few months. The high school administration has worked hard to talk with students and work in tandem with them as is evident also with the student-led forums that are being held this week with our local representatives,” read an announcement on the school’s website. “In fact, an assembly will be held this morning at 11:44 a.m. at the high school with local representatives. As a district, we have worked hard to give our students the opportunity to express their views with local representatives in an organized and safe manner. To that end, the district cannot support any type of walk-out that occurs today, as there has been no planning and preparation for the safety and welfare of our students.”

Nine students from Phoenixville Area High School and Middle School had the opportunity to address the panelists either directly or as a group about what they are currently doing about the gun control issue and other related subjects.

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“In Pennsylvania, an 18-year-old can buy a long gun, such as an AR-15, from an unlicensed and private dealer. In other states, such as Hawaii, the purchasing age to buy a long gun from licensed and unlicensed dealers has been raised to 21 by their state governments. Do you support raising the age for buying long guns in Pennsylvania to 21? Why do you believe the age has not been changed yet in Pennsylvania,” asked an eighth-grade student opening the forum.

Each panelist was given two minutes to respond to questions posed by students.

“The bottom line is, we need to have universal background checks in Pennsylvania,” Kampf responded to the question. “Under current law, if you’re unlicensed and you’ve got a long gun you can sell it to anybody. You can sell it at a gun show, you could sell it in your backyard and that needs to be closed, that loophole ... I think for long guns we should raise the age limit to 21.”

“I do support that we increase the age restriction to 21 for anyone wanting to purchase long guns. I think we should also identify different guns. An AR-15 being an assault rifle and other types of long guns like shotguns for example. For an AR-15 or any kind of military style assault rifle I think we do need to go deeper than just increasing the age,” Urscheler responded.

Students followed up with additional questions including how certain safety initiatives will be funded, whether the panelists believe teachers should be armed and a closing question on how students can achieve their goals if they believe legislators aren’t listening.

“What everyone is trying to say is that it’s up to you. It’s up to you to continue this voice. Study history and you’ll see how many movements never came to a reality,” responded Dinniman to the final question. “Are you going to let this movement become like a 30 seconds of fame and done at the sacrifice of your fellow students who died? Or are you going to commit yourself today to real change? Hopefully ... Always understand that activism is a value in and of itself. But activism that comes with knowledge and knowledge that comes through education is powerful, my friends. And that’s how we create change in our society.”

The demonstrations and Phoenixville’s forum come in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, and to mark the 19th anniversary of Columbine, in which two seniors at the Colorado high school gunned down 12 students and injured 21 additional people before turning the guns on themselves. The 1999 shooting was, at the time, the deadliest school shooting in history.