A visit by a sitting member of Congress or the Legislature is a staple of many government and current events classes in high schools, a chance to get a first-hand perspective on the workings of government and the day’s issues.
Each visit is different, said U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., to a combined class of about 50 of Darrick Hayman’s advanced placement government classes at Lake Stevens High School, “but this year is different.”
Seated press-conference style in the high school’s library, the students asked the three-term 1st District representative a range of questions on health care, mental health, opioids, funding replacement of the U.S. 2 trestle and the fate of Dreamers, who include fellow students who came to America with their undocumented parents and are now seeking a path toward citizenship.
But the most frequent topic Thursday morning was guns and gun violence, particularly in schools.
Like their counterparts at Parkland, Florida’s Majory Stoneman Douglas High School, following last month’s massacre of 17 students, faculty and staff, the Lake Stevens students recognize they now have the attention of their communities, the media and government officials. But they also have seen that attention — and the motivation for action — can easily evaporate.
“What can we do to keep pushing for change?” one student asked DelBene, especially when many of them aren’t yet old enough to vote.
“Letters, calls and emails,” the congresswoman advised.
(If that seems a rote response, ask Gov. Jay Inslee if the barrage of calls and emails to his office influenced his decision Thursday night to veto an unpopular bill from state lawmakers that would have largely excused them from the state’s Public Records Act. Then ask some of the lawmakers who, following the public outcry, joined in seeking the governor’s veto of a bill they had just approved.)
DelBene admitted to students that moving legislation on gun safety has been difficult. With about 70 such pieces of legislation, there’s no shortage of ideas regarding gun safety and some with bipartisan support, but Republican leadership in the House and Senate have blocked legislation from floor votes.
That refusal to allow a vote, DelBene said, has prompted some push-back from members in the House — Democrat and Republican alike — who want action on specific legislation that seeks to bolster the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to prevent those prohibited from buying firearms from obtaining them.
To get the “Fix NICS” bill past House leadership and on to the floor for a vote, DelBene explained some members are using a process called a “discharge petition.” If 218 members, basically half the House plus one, sign the petition, it will be brought to the floor for a vote. As of Feb. 27, 169 members, including DelBene and 2nd District Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., had signed on to the petition.
The same procedure could also be used, DelBene said, to force a floor vote on legislation to preserve the protections for Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which also has bipartisan support.
But action on gun safety legislation and DACA, she said, does depend on constituents continuing to push members of Congress and on continuing the discussion among each other.
“Keep bringing people together to talk, and talk to the people who disagree with you,” she said. “Have a dialogue, learn from each other and build those bridges.”
Holly Smith, a Lake Stevens senior, was one of those asking how to move the issues of gun and school safety from discussion to action.
Like other students in high schools across the nation, Lake Stevens students are planning a one-day walkout to protest the lack of action, Smith said.
“We have to keep talking about the things we believe in,” she said. “It’s up to us to push it forward.”
Smith, by the way, turned 18 a few days ago. She planned to register to vote that afternoon.