NEW ROCHELLE, New York — Jessica Moskowitz hesitated before she sat in one of the pews in the back of an Episcopal church. The 16-year-old is Jewish and had never been inside one.
She had also never helped bring two political candidates to a student-led forum on gun violence before. Republican Julie Killian and Democrat Shelley Mayer, competing for a New York State Senate seat, came to Trinity-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Rochelle Monday evening.
While the candidates were in the spotlight, the students controlled the crowd, the questions and the microphones. “We as students need to do something because our politicians are not,” Moskowitz said before the start of the event.
Nearly all the students who worked on the event were surprised by how quickly the event came together. “I was ecstatic because I honestly believed only the Democrat was going to come,” said Melissa Altschiller, 18, a senior from Pelham Memorial High School. Dylan Klein, 17, of New Rochelle, who identified himself as the media relations volunteer, agreed. “When I heard that they were coming I was very happy, I jumped up and down a couple of times, to be honest,” he said.
Killian and Mayer are running in a special election scheduled for April 24. Whoever wins will create a majority for their party in the state Senate, and the students know this.
“What they say influences how we vote, and if they don’t work for us, they’re out of office,” said Sophia Psaila, 18, from Mamaroneck. She is working hard to raise awareness at a time when most high school seniors around the country are anxious to finish school and enjoy the summer. “I must say, I have a little bit of senioritis, so I’m getting lazier and lazier … but I really love doing this and what we’re fighting for is so important,” she said.
Candidates decry NRA
During the forum, the crowd both applauded and booed. Mayer accused Killian’s party of obstructing bills that would have banned bump stocks in New York, which Killian denied. At times, they echoed the students, who have clamored for expanded gun control. “There’s so much we can do as a society,” said Abe Baker-Butler, 16. “… implementing laws such as expanded background checks, extreme risk protection orders.”
Moskowitz was silent during the town hall but the event made her open up and re-examine the normalization of gun violence in her own life. She was in kindergarten when a lockdown shut her school. She had no idea what was going on at the time but now, it made sense.
“This is the kind of world we’ve grown up in,” she said.
Both candidates agreed that the NRA is obstructing gun control, said they did not accept NRA donations and distanced themselves from the group.
But while New York has had mass shootings, including an attack at a Bronx hospital that killed two and wounded six in 2017, many victims are shot with handguns and many are minorities living in areas that suffer from high crime rates and tense relations with local police. It’s a fact the students are well aware of.
The students asked Mayer about the link between police shootings and gun violence in New York. She responded, “It is our obligation to examine racism when we talk about gun violence.”
Killian disagreed. “I just reject the idea that we have law enforcement that is racist.” Some members of the audience murmured in disbelief but the forum remained civil and ended with both candidates praising the students for their initiative.
The candidates took selfies with the students but the teens couldn’t stick around for too long. Their parents had driven many of them and they had school in the morning.
This story has been updated.