Over the last month, high school students from across Oregon met virtually to hear from speakers and talk with each other about ending gun violence.

It’s the second year for the Youth Leadership Academy to End Gun Violence, a program hosted by Lift Every Voice Oregon.

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Saturday, several students joined U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden to discuss the issue.

“The bottom line here for me, is that these young Oregonians deserve a new and safer normal,” Wyden said.

Wyden shared an update on federal gun legislation, including a background check bill, and said he would support legislation for safe gun storage.

“We need standards for firearms locks and firearm sales,” Wyden said.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks with high school seniors at Madison High School in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 21, 2019.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks with high school seniors at Madison High School in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 21, 2019.

Meerah Powell / OPB

Wyden also expressed support for more mental health services, citing a recent Government Accountability Office report that found access to mental health services have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the participants was a Portland high schooler who helped start the leadership academy last year as a way to involve students in Oregon and nationally in the gun violence conversation and learn about activism.

“Gun deaths and injuries do not have to happen, and we’re here to do something about it,” said the student, Ben. Like all students participating in Saturday’s event, he was only identified by a first name for privacy reasons. “This is a solvable problem if we can just overcome political divisions and use common sense.”

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Matreya is a Portland high school student who helps lead her high school’s gun control advocacy club.

“It’s really important that no one is afraid to go to school, no one is afraid to go to church, or go to synagogue, no one is afraid to just be in their community because of this fear of guns,” Matreya said.

“As youth inheriting this world, it’s important that our voices are heard in this matter.”

This past week, Lift Every Oregon filed petitions for two potential Oregon ballot initiatives related to gun reform. One would ban semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines, the other would require a permit and training to purchase firearms. The text for the initiatives is similar to the 2019 bills the group introduced in the Oregon Legislature.

Ben said students will be on board to help the initiatives move forward and he hopes they will qualify for the 2022 general election ballot.

“We’re excited as youth to help with those efforts to get those passed, gathering signatures, building a network through social media,” Ben said.

When asked about Oregon Senate Bill 554, which would allow school districts to enact firearms, Ben said it’s a step, but it’s not enough.

“Those are good starting steps, and we really need good, comprehensive gun reform laws to be able to see real change on these issues,” he said. “So it’s important, but we still have a long way to go.”

Chloe, a student in Nevada who participated in the event, said Oregon’s group is something that could be replicated in other states.

“It is a national issue, and we need more organizations working on grassroots campaigns that can really make a difference,” she said.

Wyden thanked and praised the students for their advocacy, particularly in rural areas of the state. He said students’ advocacy can help move their parents and other older voters to support gun reform.

“Some of them may not vote for a few years,” he said. “But they’re watching their elected officials and they’re going to hold them accountable.”

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