January 7, 2019

My Experience at the Ohio Senate

Abby Lefton Abby Lefton

This year, teens across the country have been stepping up and speaking out. Abby Lefton, a senior at Sycamore High School, has been one of those voices as a part of Lobbying for a Safer Tomorrow (LAST) and was recently invited to speak about House Bill 228 in front of the Ohio Senate. She sat down to answer a few questions on the experience.

Can you give a short recap of the bill?

HB 228, also known as “Stand Your Ground,” has three major points. One, it removes the current “duty to retreat” in self-defense situations which means if someone pulls a gun out in self-defense, they can shoot the other person without letting them retreat or leave the situation. It also shifts the burden of proof (the responsibility to prove that the person broke the law) to the prosecution (lawyers) instead of the person who committed the crime.

Currently, the law dictates that if you get pulled over if you have a gun on/with you, you put your hands in plain sight and notify the officer that you have a firearm. However, this bill wants to make the law that if you get pulled over with a gun, not only do you not have to put your hands in plain sight, but you do not have to tell the police officer you have a gun with/on you. Finally, it says that if you get caught carrying a fully loaded handgun without a permit (that means you went through training and got cleared to have a gun) in public, it will change the punishment from up to six months in jail, down to a maximum fine of $150.

How did this opportunity arise/who invited you?

I am the co-leader for Lobbying for a Safer Tomorrow (LAST), an organization created by Ohio high school students with the intent of advocating for common sense gun reform as individuals who are impacted by it on a daily basis. We have gone to the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus to lobby our representatives about other pieces of legislation in the past. The other leader of LAST is Matthew Youkilis, a senior at Walnut Hills High School who lost his cousin Jaime Guttenbergduring the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. This has caused many politicians on Ohio to form relationships with him and LAST.

Governor John Kasich came out last week in opposition to HB 228, saying he will veto it if/when it comes to him. As a result, our names (Matthew and I) got passed along to Governor Kasich’s office as well as another gun-reform organization called Moms Demand Action. I received a call from an organizer of Moms demand action telling me I had been invited by the Governor to testify against HB 228 in front of the Ohio Senate in the capitol building in Columbus on November 4th.

What was it like writing your testimony?

After finding out on Sunday night that I had to write a testimony due at 7 p.m. on Monday, I realized I was in a bit of a time crunch. I went through bells 2-5 until I realized the seriousness of what I was doing in comparison the day-to-day school routine. My mom called me and told me I should leave to go home and start preparing my testimony. And so, I went home and started diving into the process of writing a testimony to present in front of the Senate, a process I had no idea how to complete or even start. Luckily, I had been given resources from Moms Demand Action which I printed out and spread out all over the kitchen table.

With a cup of chai latte, a piece of loose-leaf paper, and my dog to keep me company, I began the process of writing for an experience I will take with me always. I wrote out my testimony on the loose-leaf paper with a pen, which in hindsight was not the most efficient or effective way to do it, while continuously scratching lines out and making arrows to new arguments. After almost three hours on that one piece of loose leaf, I typed it up on Google Docs where Grammarly (not sponsored) corrected my many, and frequent, spelling and grammar issues. By the time I had other people look over it and make edits, the 7 p.m. deadline was creeping closer. Finally, at 6:50 p.m., I turned it in.

What was it like testifying? (Who was there, were you nervous, what was the overall experience like)

I was told to meet in the rotunda (big open lobby-like area in the state building) at 6:40 P.M. However, when I walked into the rotunda at 6:25, there is a huge flock of people wearing bright red Moms Demand Action shirts. One lady leads us into the hearing room. It looks very similar to a courtroom, including a podium in the middle of the room with a bench for the Senators in the front, facing the people, and chairs set up behind the podium. There was also an upper deck which had seats running the perimeter of the room. I’m not sure if you have ever had the experience of walking into a room of people who all are there for the same common goal and all feel so passionately about it, but it’s the most amazing rush. The overwhelming sense of community I felt as I looked around at individuals who each had their own story and reason for being there was amazing. However, this group of people were different than anything I’ve ever seen. The list of individuals who came to testify against the bill included: Police Chiefs, the Chair of the Ohio NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Muslims, Jews, African American Christian Bishops, Chair of Prosecutors of Columbus, veterans, gun owners, lawyers, more police officers, professors, victims of gun violence, students, parents, city council members, and people with special needs, just to name a few. It was by far the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen in one room. Sitting on the left was the big squad of people from Moms Demand Action. In the middle, next to me, were the African American Christian Bishops, and victims of gun violence, including a 21-year-old man who came home one day to see his dad dead, face down on the front porch with a bullet through his head after an attempted robbery. On the left sat a few students and a huge section of lawyers and police officers. When the hearing began, I realized I would be there for a while. There were almost 30 people on the list to testify and after about 11 had gone, it was already 9:30 (it started at 7) and I was third to last. The senators asked many questions, but as more people went, they became less frequent because everyone was basically saying the same thing.

Throughout the entire process, I had my manila folder out and ready with my speech and a pen, eagerly waiting for them to call my name. At 11:20 p.m., they finally called my name. At this point, many of the Senators were beginning to doze off and their eyes got glossy and heavy. I rose from my chair and approached the podium, and when they noticed a young person, they all bounced up and eagerly waited at the edge of their seats for me to say something. At that moment, I made a split-second decision. I was going to improvise. And so, I began speaking to them, person to person. As a result, they genuinely listened. It’s easy to tell when someone is being genuine as opposed to reading off a script and sounding like a robot.

After several minutes of improv, I began to recite my testimony. At no point during the process was I nervous or scared. I am confident enough in my voice to feel comfortable constructing a coherent message and deliver it to adults who may or may not be more educated than me on that topic. After, the chairman told me I did an excellent job and thanked me for my time. However, I looked around and people were crying. I was confused as to why until I remembered that I had told a graphic story and began to speak passionately about it. I left the state house at 12:02 A.M and started my journey back home.

What do you have to say to other students who want to be involved in politics/government/ have “big dreams”? How can they get involved?

Getting involved is not as painful or complicated as it may seem. Everything happens through gradual steps. The very first thing you can do is get involved with groups/organizations which align with a certain cause you are passionate about or just with your morals in general. Participate in their events and see if you can get a leadership position through them.

Another way to get involved is writing letters or calling your representatives about specific bills/issues that you are passionate about. You may even be interested in going to lobby about that issue. But the most basic and, I would argue, the most important thing that you can/should do is EDUCATE YOURSELF. Make it a point to look at the news (credible and reliable sources) to make sure you know what’s happening in the world. You must remember that the government works for YOU and does not work without you. “If not now, when? If not me, then who?” “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Live by these words because your voice does matter and your voice is absolutely heard, whether you know it or not.