BENTONVILLE — As high school students and other activists filled Bentonville Square on March 24 to rally for stricter gun-control laws, three UA students joined the crowd, protest signs in hand, to raise their voices in support.
“It might be based around high schools, but it’s an issue that affects everyone,” UA junior Abby Patty said. “We all have siblings who are younger, or it’s something that could have happened to us when we were in high school.”
But for Patty and seniors Mallory Melton and Jacob Maestri, the rally was more than just an exercise of their First Amendment rights. With the Jan. 1 implementation of Arkansas Act 562, which allows for concealed carry on most parts of Arkansas’ public universities, gun control has been a controversial topic on the UA campus.
“A lot of this applies to UA students, especially with the changing policies on campus. For us, it’s very potent on a local level,” Maestri said.
Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 that took the lives of 13 people, 122 people have died from school shootings in which four or more people were murdered, according to a report from Axios.
“Although the issue is a huge issue nationwide, it has a local flavor for us,” Maestri said. “There really are very specific things that are happening on our campus that could have effects that could liken the chance of a shooting happening on campus.”
A group of high school students from multiple Northwest Arkansas schools including Bentonville, Bentonville West and Haas Hall Academy Rogers organized the rally as part of the nationwide March for Our Lives movement.
Participants are demanding politicians present a bill that addresses gun issues to Congress, according the movement’s website.
Sadie Bell, a senior from Bentonville and one of the main organizers behind the march, reprimanded politicians for their lack of action in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting in Florida. She argued the only way for her and her classmates to feel safe in the classroom is to have change at the national level instead of arming teachers and putting the responsibility of students’ safety solely on schools.
“It horrifies me that I can think of at least five ways someone can kill me, but I don’t know how my school would be able to protect me,” Bell said.
As part of her speech, Bell asked politicians to pass legislation to raise the legal age to buy a gun to 21 from 18, have longer waiting periods before purchasing a gun, have more comprehensive background checks and require all guns to be locked up when not in use.
Bentonville senior Josh Harpell spoke to the crowd about what students can do to deter any shooting from happening in the future as best they can.
He challenged students to befriend those at schools who they normally would not associate with and to break down cliques that divide a student body, he said.
“I wanted to be a part of this because there is nothing like this,” Harpell said.
Student organizers began the rally with a moment of silence that lasted 19 minutes — one minute for the girl who died in the Great Mills High School shooting in Maryland, one minute for the girl who died at Huffman High School in Alabama and 17 minutes for the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.
Jaelyn Willey, a 16-year-old student at Great Mills, died March 23 from injuries she sustained after a student shot her and injured another student March 20. Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old student at Huffman, died after a student shot her March 7.
Gene Page, the public information officer for Bentonville Police Department, estimated that roughly 450 people showed up to the rally, he said.
At least two anti-gun control groups, including the Freedom Crew and a white supremacist group, traveled to Bentonville to protest the rally. Multiple police outfits including the Bentonville Police Department, the Benton and Washington County Sheriff’s Departments and the Arkansas State Police all sent officers to the protest.
There were no arrests made in connection with the rally, and besides officers giving multiple verbal warnings for protesters and counter-protesters to separate, the event ended without any violent incidents, Page said.
Members of ShieldWall Network, a white supremacist group, stayed behind barriers placed around the square. One member started to boo the students during their speeches, while Billy Roper, the group’s leader and Arkansas native, disputed students' claims about the Second Amendment by shouting into a megaphone while the students spoke. Because of how far the counter-protesters were from the main speakers, protesters hardly noticed the disruptions.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups and other extremists in the U.S., describes Roper as a “non-sectarian hater” whose ideology falls in line with Neo-Nazism, according to the center’s website.
Around seven members of Arkansas’ Freedom Crew came out to “defend the Second Amendment,” member Billy Sessions said.
The Freedom Crew is the state chapter of The Hiwaymen, which is a self-professed patriot and confederate activist group that travels around the country to defend the Second Amendment and their other ideals, Sessions said.
“I think they’re protesting the wrong thing. I think they should be protesting to have some security resource officers and teachers being armed in each school,” Sessions said.
Ten members of Roper’s group protested the rally and held signs that read, “Disarming Americans Will Destroy America,” “Black Guns Matter” and “Save the 2nd Amendment.”
“When I went to school, people would leave rifles in the back of their pickup trucks and their cars, and no one shot anybody,” Roper said. “It didn’t ever occur to anyone to shoot their classmates. What has changed is not the access to guns but our culture. I think it’s because the people on the left have purposefully undermined and tried to destroy the homogeneity of this country.”
Roper thinks this lack of uniformity has led to some people feeling isolated and alienated from their communities, which leads to events like school shootings because these people do not know how to handle this aloneness, he said. He advocates for a “high-trust society” that is “homogeneous, not diverse, where people feel tied to their community, where they feel everybody else’s life around them matters equally to their own.”
Maestri does not agree with Roper and Sessions’ opinions about how schools should handle school shootings, he said. Arming teachers or having more security officers is not the answer.
Although Maestri thinks there is nothing that can be done to repeal Act 526, raising awareness about concealed carry on the UA campus is the best course of action advocates can pursue now, he said.
“Ignorance about the issue does not help anyone,” Maestri said. “Making it known to students that there will be guns on campus will be very important.”
Even with the hope that an increased campus consciousness would deter any form of violence that could take place at the UofA, the knowledge that classmates, faculty or any other person could be walking around with a handgun on themselves worries Maestri, he said.
“The anxiety of it will never go away,” Maestri said.