by Paula Romanow Etzel
Thirty million Americans watched President Obama on television when he spoke at the University of Arizona on January 13, 2011. Nine-year-old Irvington resident Sam Roth was one of them. The president’s speech was in response to a Tucson shooting in which Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 11 others were seriously injured; six people were killed including a nine-year-old girl. Urging that the national gun debate be conducted “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” President Obama said what mattered was “how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”
The president’s words had a profound impact on Roth, who is now 16 and a sophomore at Irvington High School. “I’d been interested in current events all my life,” he explained. “But that speech was electric. President Obama offered hope, with actions backing up what he said. His words symbolized some sort of magic for me.”
This experience instilled in Roth a passion to work toward gun reform. With such frequent shootings, there have been times of disillusionment – such as last October, when 58 people were shot to death, and 851 injured, by a gunman in Las Vegas. “I couldn’t sleep, didn’t know who to look to,” Roth recalled.
The Irvington Education Foundation’s Innovation Fund encourages students to submit ideas for creative, entrepreneurial, or enrichment initiatives, and Roth had an idea. He envisioned a presentation that would educate, inspire, and provoke action. “This isn’t a conversation that should only take place after a shooting,” he noted. His proposal was approved, and Roth’s vision will be realized on May 23 at 7:30 p.m. with a symposium at the Irvington Town Hall Theater.
Moderated by Michael Wolkowitz, former chairman of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the panel will include speakers with advocacy, legislation, and law enforcement expertise as well as a gun violence survivor.
Grant recipients are assigned mentors with related experience; Roth’s mentor is Irvington resident Sarah Wynter, a volunteer for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Wynter asked Barry Graubart, co-leader of Moms Demand Action’s Westchester group, to help them organize the program.
“Sam has an amazing ability to quickly learn and absorb information about a very nuanced, complex topic that often baffles adults,” observed Graubart.
Roth is a co-lead of the Westchester Chapter of Students Demand Action, a new national organization for students (14 and up). Comprising 8,000 students, the group organizes at the school, community, and state level with voter registration drives and advocacy days to lobby state officials on gun reform policies — and helps other students start their own local groups.
The February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 14 students and three teachers were murdered (and 17 injured) has evoked a sense of urgency for students nationwide.
For many, the walkouts personalized the effects of gun violence – as it did for Roth; one Parkland victim, Meadow Pollack, was the daughter of his father’s close childhood friend. Recalling when Meadow’s name was read at the March 14 Irvington school walkout, Roth said, “As I’m sure was the case for countless other students with connections to victims, my heart dropped. Meadow died shielding a freshman. Set to start college this fall, she was taken from those who loved her and whom she loved. She never got to say goodbye to her parents. That moment when her name was called, that is something that will live with me forever.”
The May 23 symposium will offer students and adults the opportunity to become educated about gun violence, policy, safety, and ways to implement reform.
Roth cited State Senator-Elect Shelley Mayer’s recent campaign as key to the future of gun reform in New York. “She is a longtime champion and sponsor of gun safety bills,” he said. “Working on her campaign was a life-changing experience. The willingness of elected officials to hear from students has inspired hope. With continued volunteerism and events like the walkouts, our generation can really make a difference.”