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NEWARK –The first high-schooler asked for a hug. The second for a selfie. Although Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr indulged them one after another in the Newark Memorial High School gym on Monday afternoon, he had come with a serious message: Take action against gun violence.
“The easiest thing to do is fall back on your routines, go home, lie down and curl up. But there are times that call for more than that, I think now is that time,” Kerr told the gathering of more than 200 students from Newman Memorial and several other high schools from Fremont to San Jose. “I feel for the first time in my life, I feel there’s a movement happening. I truly believe that.”
Kerr is the rare NBA coach who is turning his celebrity into political action. And on Monday, nearly a month after the high school massacre in Parkland, Fla., Kerr joined U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, at the town hall-style meeting intended to recognize and unleash the emerging power of teenagers almost old enough to vote. Many students who attended the gathering plan to join Wednesday’s school walkout to protest gun violence and call for gun control.
But even 15-year-olds can be cynical.
“I don’t think it’s making any difference,” Anna Flores, a sophomore at Newark Memorial, said of the activism of her Florida compatriots who watched 17 of their classmates die at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month, victims of a 19-year-old former student with an AR-15.
Elected officials, Anna said, “make it a big deal for awhile, and then they just move on.”
Khanna, a freshman congressman, along with Rep. Mike Thompson of Napa, chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, who also attended the gathering, were hoping Monday’s event might inspire the students. It’s a tall order for students who routinely go through “active shooter drills” at school, like the Newark students did twice last week. At Monday’s event itself, security was tight, with Newark police officers outside and backpacks banned inside.
“Right now, they’re giving the students attention and acting like they’re going to make a change, but no one really knows,” Gianna Carauta, 15, also from Newark Memorial, said before the meeting started. “I’m really disappointed and kind of scared. You never know when it could happen or who it could happen to.”
Kerr has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun control and a critic of President Donald Trump and his policies affecting race, immigration and guns. Kerr was 18 when his father, Malcolm Kerr, the former president of American University of Beirut, was assassinated in 1984 by Islamic terrorists.
“I’m not going to sit here and say if we can change some gun laws, it would stop all gun violence or terrorism overseas,” Kerr said.
And neither he nor Khanna can necessarily solve the problem, he said. “The old guys aren’t going to be able to do it,” Kerr said. “It’s you, the young people who are going to do it, the next generation.”
#Warriors coach #stevekerr tells students at #Newark Memorial High to help stop gun violence. “The old guys aren’t going to be able to do it. It’s you, the young people who are going to do it, the next generation.”
— Julia Prodis Sulek (@juliasulek) March 12, 2018
On Monday, along with the hugs and selfies from students, Kerr took their questions on the floor of the high school basketball court. One-by-one, they took the microphone. In their sweatpants and hoodies, they asked about mental health programs, about raising the legal age to buy a gun and about arming teachers in the classrooms.
“What can we do so we don’t have any more tragedies like this?” asked Margaret Rollins, 15, from Newark Memorial, wearing purple Converse hi-tops that matched her purple hair. “We love you,” she told Kerr, then put the coach on the spot. “So you’ve got a bunch of us here, but what else are you going to do to help us help the world?”
It was a tough question.
“What would you like me to do?” he asked. “All I’ve really done is express my outrage and concern.”
He says that while “people are upset because I don’t tweet what Steph Curry had for breakfast,” he knows he has influence and is trying to use it. Without making any commitments, he received resounding applause when he suggested, “maybe I can get my team involved more.”
Kerr also plans to join the March 24 “March for our Lives” in San Francisco, the same day the Florida teenagers plan to march on Washington.
As much as he’s been a Trump critic, Kerr said solutions to gun violence should be nonpartisan.
“I don’t care if you’re conservative or liberal or Democrat or Republican. There are plenty of worthy issues to discuss,” Kerr said. “But kids getting murdered in high school and murdered by semi-automatic weapons, weapons that belong in the military, that should not be open to debate.”
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have taken the lead in launching their generation into activism. Their emotional pleas for tougher gun laws inspired a youth movement and landed them a meeting with Trump last month.
— Julia Prodis Sulek (@juliasulek) March 12, 2018
But how effective teenagers can be where adults have failed remains to be seen. Legislation to ban so-called “bump stocks” — that effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic ones — never went anywhere in Congress even after a Las Vegas gunman in October opened fire on outdoor concertgoers, killing 58.
While the Florida legislation has taken action, federal legislation introduced after the Florida shooting to require universal background checks for gun purchases and raise the minimum age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21 appear stalled. And the only sponsors for laws to ban assault rifles are Democrats.
In a recent meeting, Trump supported the idea of raising the age of gun purchases to 21 and called out a Republican congressman as being “afraid of the NRA.” After meeting with NRA officials, however, Trump backed off his suggestion of increasing the gun-buying age and instead is focusing on “rigorous firearms training” for school teachers.
Rep. Khanna said he understands the sense of outrage and futility, but wants this young generation to be undaunted. “Kids in the civil rights era thought it was hard, and they won,” Khanna said. “Kids during Vietnam thought it was hard, and they won. If these kids stick with it, they are the ones who will succeed, not us politicians.”
Matt Deisch, a 20-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate whose younger sister survived the massacre, was also invited to the town hall meeting and urged the students to get involved.
“We are standing up together as this young wave of new voters,” Deitsch said. “We demand leaders that act for us.”
Rep. Thompson, who represents Yountville where a veteran took hostage and killed three women last week at the Veterans Home, agreed.
“We’ve got to make sure your voice echoes across the country and through the halls of Congress,” he said.
As Kerr put it, change will happen if the youth take action. “If you get all your friends who are 18 or turning 18 soon, you have that power.”
When it was over, the students gave Kerr a standing ovation. Then they mobbed him, asking for more selfies.