Sophomore Pearl Benjamin takes a message to Augusta

Camden Hills student advocates for gun control reform at Maine’s capitol

Posted:  Monday, March 5, 2018 - 10:45am

AUGUSTA – Camden Hills Regional High School Sophomore Pearl Benjamin stated her case at the state capitol March 1, on Gun Safety Advocacy Day. In the State House Hall of Flags, she spoke before a crowd of approximately 200 people, who had gathered to advocate for gun control reform.

Sarah Gideon, Speaker of the House, led off with a condemnation of mass shootings and promised to step up her attempts to craft preventative legislation.

Benjamin also stood at the podium, and called for banning of assault weapons, high capacity ammunition magazines, and the dismantling of the National Rifle Association.

She echoed a warning raised by high school students in Florida, saying that her generation will hold politicians accountable if they don't pass legislation to reduce gun violence.

Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Camden, was at the rally and said Benjamin and her friends exhibited commitment to positive change and a willingness to step up to make it happen. 

Benjamin stood up to attempts by some inconsiderate gun owners who didn't want to let her and others have a voice, he said.

Benjamin challenged legislators to stand up and solve the problem.

"Take action while you still can because if you don't fit into this new world we are creating, we will vote you out," Benjamin said.

"This event gave me hope that we can pass laws to make sure only law-abiding, responsible citizens can get guns," said Miramant. "No legislator I know wants to stop folks from hunting or target shooting. Every legislator I know wants this to be the last mass shooting."

Benjamin said she was asked to give a speech by the Maine Gun Safety Coalition and its director, Nick Wilson.

The Maine Gun Safety Education Coalition is a grassroots organization founded in 2000 to protect Maine families and communities from gun violence. MGSC is the longest-standing gun violence prevention organization in Maine.

"My mom, Karin Leuthy, is the leader of an activist group, Suit Up Maine," she said. "She supported me in giving my speech."

Benjamin said she has been following the Parkland, Florida, students and their actions following the Feb. 14 shooting of 17 staff and students at their school. It has made her want to fight on their behalf, she said.

Benjamin said there is a walk-out planned at Camden Hills Regional High School on Wednesday, March 14.

"It will last from 10 a.m. to 10:17 a.m.," she said. "It's not a debate or a protest. It's to honor the 17 lives lost at Parkland and show respect."

Benjamin said the walk-out is a chance for everyone to understand that safety is not a given. A lockdown is a drill for a school to remain prepared for an occurrence. It will not stop bullets, she said.

"We don't have a school resource officer at Camden Hills," said Benjamin. "If there was one I wouldn't feel any safer. In Parkland, there were four deputies and it didn't change the outcome. The only way for us to feel safe is to get real gun reform."

The Gun Safety Coalition of Maine had organized the March 1 Augusta rally to oppose a bill that would allow guns in school parking lots. The measure had been designed to allow parents dropping off children at school to legally have a gun in their vehicles.

The sponsor the bill, John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, has since withdrawn support for it. In a letter he told lawmakers, "this is not the time to further discuss this legislation.”


Benjamin’s speech

My name is Pearl Benjamin. I am 16 years old and I attend Camden Hills Regional High School. My friends and I have grown up as part of a generation with a different set of norms from most of yours. When my parents were teenagers, the norms were cassette tapes, cigarettes, and boom boxes. In my generation, what’s normal are smartphones, Netflix, SnapChat...and mass shootings.

Every year more than 2,500 kids are killed with guns in America. That’s seven of us every single day. This is our “normal.”

How did this come to be? Why do my classmates and I now expect regular “lockdown” drills to prepare for the threat of an armed peer? Why have we been burdened with anxiety at our schools, afraid that ours might be the next to fall victim to an angry guy with a gun?

The answer is simple: our safety is not a top priority for you. Legislators favor political power over our lives- accepting campaign contributions from the NRA, prioritizing industry profits over safety, and indulging the whims of Call of Duty voters who have to have their deadly toys. Here in Maine, 18-year-olds can purchase assault-style weapons. No permit is required to purchase a gun, and background checks are not required for private sales. That means violent criminals, people who are dangerously mentally ill, and boyfriends who hit their girlfriends can all buy weapons. Legislators- and I’m speaking to all of you--Republican, Democrat, and Independent, Liberal, Conservative, and in between --you have not done enough to protect me and my peers from the terrifyingly real dangers of gun violence. I know that because I know kids who have guns. I know how easy it is for just about anyone to purchase a weapon that can kill me in an instant. Legislators, you have not done your part to create a system that puts as much space as possible between kids and assault weapons designed with one purpose and one purpose only: to kill.

I don’t feel like it should be the job of teenagers to teach adults about right and wrong. My friends and I didn’t come here today to try to convince you that our lives are more important than your job, the gun industry, or the hobbies of weekend warriors. We’ve already tried that, and you didn’t listen. Today we are here to warn you. We are here to tell you that your time for valuing your own benefit over the lives of others is running out. Because of my generation, your position of power is no longer set in stone.

This movement launched by American teenagers is as formidable as it looks. We are passionate. We are informed. We are unphased. Some of you still don’t quite understand where all these intelligent, outspoken kids came from. We must be actors. Actually, kids like me have been saying things like this for a very long time. In cities all over this country, kids like me have been yelling about innocent brown boys in hoodies being killed by those so-called “good guys with guns.” We have been here, making the same arguments and calling for the same reform for years. And you have ignored us. You are ignoring us now. I think I know why. It’s because we are too young to vote, and too easy to dismiss. Lawmakers don’t feel threatened by us. After all, we’re just lazy, screen-obsessed teenagers, right? Who cares about our complaints?

If you’d been listening, you’d have learned something about the teenagers around you. The teens that came with me today are impassioned students who also work multiple jobs, teach kids in after-school programs, and own their own small businesses. You know what else they do? They attend select board meetings, write newspaper articles, submit public testimony, and call their members of congress. We are productive citizens dedicated to making the world a better place- a place where kids like us feel safe and happy in our towns, our schools, and our homes. A place where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School can claim its place in history as the site of America’s LAST school shooting.

Legislators, it’s time to pass common sense gun laws. It’s time for universal background checks. It’s time to ban high capacity clips. It’s time to raise the minimum age for gun sales to 21. It’s time to ban assault weapons. And it’s time to dismantle the manipulative NRA. Take action while you still can, because if you don’t fit into this new world we are creating, believe me, we will vote you out.