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Why Thousand Oaks Students Left Anti-Gun Rhetoric Out of Their Gun Violence Demonstration

In the wake of the recent mass shooting, college students in Ventura County attempt to call for action without alienating a conservative community.
A vigil site for the victims was erected not far from where the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting happened in Thousand Oaks, California.

A vigil site for the victims was erected not far from where the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting happened in Thousand Oaks, California.

Three weeks after a gunman fired more than 50 rounds into a country music bar in a quiet town in Southern California—killing 11 patrons and staff and one responding officer, before taking his own life—students at two local colleges walked out of their classrooms to draw attention to gun violence in the United States.

"It's beyond a national crisis. Something needs to happen," Moorpark College student body president Andrew Lopez says. Moorpark's student government organized the demonstration to coincide with the time of the first 911 calls to report shots fired at Borderline Bar and Grill: Those calls came in around 11:20 p.m., local time, on Wednesday, November 9th. The demonstration started at 11:20 a.m., on Wednesday, November 28th. In addition to Moorpark, sister school Ventura College also held a walkout at the same time.

Wednesdays were college nights at Borderline. Students from several local schools were at the bar, including at least a few celebrating 21st birthdays. A 21-year-old Moorpark student, Noel Sparks, was killed in the violence.

But organizing a walkout in Thousand Oaks, California, has its own considerations. Although the national news may have moved on, it's only been three weeks, and feelings there remain raw. In addition, the community is still reeling from a wildfire that ignited the same day and eventually forced evacuations, closed schools, destroyed 1,500 buildings, and killed three people. "How Much More Can We Take?" ran the headline of one recent story in California Lutheran University's student paper.

Finally, despite California's reputation as a bastion of liberalism, Ventura County is a moderate place, with sprawling suburbs and a wild feel to its golden, grassy hills. During the 2014 gubernatorial race, 39 percent of Ventura County voters were registered as Democrats and 34 percent, Republicans. The others were American Independent Party members, Greens, other parties, or didn't register as any party at all. By the 2018 mid-terms, Republicans had lost members in the county, but apparently not to Democrats. Instead, no-party registrants rose.

As a consequence, many Ventura County student organizers I spoke with were reluctant to make "More gun control" a centerpiece of their events.

Take the walkout that the student government at California State University–Channel Islands organized in April, in solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who had endured a school shooting in February. Sary Nguyen, then a student senator, explains the demonstration's philosophy over Facebook Messenger: "Our gripe was that [the Parkland student activism] focused in too much on the issue of anti-gun, an issue we know all too well is controversial and is resistant to change. Therefore, we wanted to go in with a more 'human' approach. Honoring the lives that were lost. Sending thoughtful words to them and to those within our own personal lives that were lost in such events."

Lopez, too, emphasized that Wednesday's walkout was not anti-gun. "We're trying to make it non-partisan," he says. He wanted all students, whether liberal or conservative, to feel comfortable joining. "We aren't saying more gun control. We're not saying less gun control. We're not taking a policy stance. What we're trying to do is, instead, call for our national leaders and politicians to make it a priority to come up with a solution."

"It's definitely a lot different from the Parkland walkout," he adds.

Neither Nguyen nor Lopez was hostile to more gun control, but both felt it wasn't enough. Nguyen wanted to see more resources go to mental-health services on campuses (although that wouldn't have necessarily helped the Stoneman Douglas shooter, who had already graduated). Lopez, who founded the College Democrats group at Moorpark, seemed unsure what to think. "I think most of our [student government] board leans left, but I don't think it's in any of our natures to say we know that gun control is the answer to this problem," he says. "It's not our expertise. It's not our job to come up with the solution."

When I asked him to describe Thousand Oaks, politically, he contrasted it to Los Angeles, which is practically next door. "It's very suburban. Upper-middle class. Those places tend to lean Republican. It's definitely not Trump country, though. It's more conservative values than, I would say, Trump country." And when he interviewed Moorpark students as a part of a College Democrats project, he found that they often felt "iffy" about more gun control. They're not fans of California's strict gun laws. "I can think of quite a few examples of people making fun of them, just with how dumb they are and how not well-written they are," he says.

How do you represent the wishes of an electorate like that? Lopez has done what he can, with his non-partisan, no-policy walkout—with a booth for students to write to their representatives, should they have anything specific in mind. One big part of the plea seems to be simply not to forget the country's latest mass shooting. "After two weeks, they aren't talked about anymore," Lopez says. "Our goal is to make sure that doesn't happen."