The Evanston bus women helped make history.
At least that is how it seemed when they returned from Springfield Feb. 28 after spending the day rallying, lobbying, and cheering on State legislators intent on passing long-delayed gun-safety legislation.
“I feel elated, hopeful, and invigorated,” said Kathleen Long, one of the trip organizers, of the day’s efforts.
The “Action Lobby Day” in Springfield had been planned months in advance by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and the bus with 49 women, mostly Evanston moms, which left from Dempster Dodge Plaza at 5:20 a.m., had been booked weeks earlier. So no one involved in planning the day knew what would play out in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day, or that there would be seven critical gun bills up for consideration at the Illinois State Capitol on Feb. 28.
Nevertheless, the timing could not have been more stark. Exactly two weeks earlier 17 people – 14 students, a geography teacher, an assistant football coach, and the school’s athletic director – had been killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Even as the tragedy unfolded, students were texting a play-by-play narrative. Since then many have become passionate advocates for gun safety.
Emma Gonzalez, an 18-year-old Douglas senior, has risen to prominence through her appearances on network news shows, her social media posts, and a widely praised essay in Harper’s Bazaar magazine advocating stronger gun-control measures. She now has more than 1 million Twitter followers, which according to the political website Politico, is more than the National Rifle Association. “We will be the last mass shooting,” she declared at a rally in Fort Lauderdale.
As if following her lead, thousands of high school students across the country have marched and rallied since Parkland. Additional school walkouts are planned for March 14 at Evanston Township High School and elsewhere around the nation, as well as April 20 to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. A March 24 rally called March For Our Lives is scheduled in Washington D.C. and in other cities nationwide. As a result, some people are now hopefully predicting a turning point in the decades-long campaign to enact common sense gun laws.
That was one of the reasons Northwestern freshman Ellise Shafer was on the bus. She and two of her fellow students spent the day videotaping the Evanston women for a Medill class assignment.
“This has been an amazing experience for me,” she said afterward. “One reason I came down here was because of the inspiring actions of the Parkland students, speaking out and taking action. I’d like to reach out to the kids and encourage them to carry on.”
Still, when Ms. Shafer and the other Evanston activists scrambled back on the bus at 4 p.m. for the three-and-a-half hour ride home, they were not altogether hopeful. Discussions in the House had not yet concluded on a key initiative, HB 1657, the Gun Dealer Licensing Act, and the debate had been contentious.
But half an hour after the bus pulled out of town, word came via text that the bill had passed, 64-52. Loud cheers erupted and people shouted, “This is awesome.”
In fact, it was only the beginning. Shortly afterwards came news that Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, had raised the minimum age to buy guns and ammunition to 21, and would stop selling toys and other items resembling assault-style rifles. Dick’s, a large sporting goods chain, had announced earlier in the day that it had raised the minimum gun-buying age to 21 and that it would halt sales of all assault-type weapons.
Next came a text from 18th District State Rep. Robyn Gabel applauding the group’s efforts. “Thanks so much for coming to Springfield,” she wrote. “It means a lot to us.”
Then in the next hour more good news rolled in: several other gun-safety bills – an amendment raising from 18 to 21 the age a person can buy an assault weapon; a bill banning bump stocks; and a required 72-hour “cooling off period” on sales of assault weapons – also passed. The licensing bill now goes to the Governor’s desk. Several other measures, including a bill to ban body armor, are still under consideration.
“This is very exciting,” said Evanston bus rider Bob Grannick, the sole male activist on board. “Especially the enthusiasm of young people that we’ve seen. It’s a marked contrast from some of the cynicism [about gun violence].”
The day began before sunrise when the bedraggled crew set off by bus from Evanston for the State Capitol. Some riders, like Ms. Long, reminisced about the 15-hour bus rides to and from Washington D.C. for the Women’s March to Washington in January 2017. Betsy Storm, co-leader of the Evanston-Wilmette-Skokie chapter of Moms Demand Action, found herself sitting next to Laurel Latimer. It had been the first time they had seen other since May 2000, when they went to the Million Mom March together.
Ms. Storm said Moms Demand Action was started by a stay-at-home mom right after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Today it has 4 million members.
“It’s not easy getting up at 3:30 in the morning,” she said. “But it’s such important work.”
Ms. Storm was one of several riders who spoke to the group on the way to Springfield. Others included Karen Smith, Director of Operations for Curt’s Café. She talked about the restaurant’s mission and introduced a young employee who was on the ride. Other speakers included Jennifer Moran of the Evanston Community Foundation, talking about Leadership Evanston; Karla Thomas, a political blogger; Laura Tanner Swinand of Indivisible Evanston; and Eileen Soderstrom of People for a Safer Society.
On arriving in Springfield and checking in with Mothers Demand Action in the Capitol building, the group split up to meet with 17th District State Rep. Laura Fine, 18th District State Rep. Gabel, and 14th District State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, each of whom represents a part of Evanston.
Rep. Fine stressed the importance of their work. She said her son’s university had recently notified parents that a student had been suspended for having a semi-automatic rifle in his fraternity house and a handgun in a nearby garage. “How can we prevent this sort of thing from happening?” she asked.
The answer, Rep. Fine suggested, comes from the growing strength of their gun-safety campaign. “Five years ago, only a handful of people would show up at these rallies. Today it’s 500,” she said.
And she praised their efforts as meaningful and effective. “Because of you guys, I have the strength to say [to the gun lobby and pro-gun lawmakers], ‘This is what my community wants.’” She said it’s a matter of “health and safety, of protecting our children. I hope this [legislation] is just the start, and when other states see what Illinois has done, they’ll be encouraged to stand up to the NRA too.”
Next, the Evanston group joined the Moms Demand Action rally on the front steps of the Capitol. Gun violence survivors spoke of children killed in shootings. Many people at the event wore “Survivor” buttons. They or a loved one had been the victim of gun violence. One woman said she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and held in the trunk of her car. She survived when her assailant abandoned the car.
After lunch some of the Evanston group joined the visitors’ galleries in the House and Senate, where various gun bills were being debated, before heading back to Evanston.
Nina Kavin, one of the bus ride organizers and founder of the Dear Evanston website, summed up their experience on the ride home. “It’s been an unbelievably long day, but so worthwhile,” she said. “A lot of people are motivated to make changes, to get on the bus together and protect the kids of Evanston – and everywhere – by making it harder for illegal guns to be sold to the wrong people.”
Just before the bus pulled back into Dempster Dodge Plaza at 7:30 p.m., Ms. Long told the group: “Today represents everything I love about Evanston.”
There were extra loud cheers.
Rep. Fine said, “It was such an emotional day. But all the pieces fell in place, and together we made history. I was so proud to have so many constituents from my communities come down and stand up for what we believe is right. I really believe that because of their efforts – the phone calls, the emails, the meetings, coming down to Springfield – that we were able to get this done, to protect our children and protect our community.”