For first- and second-time voters, casting your ballot can feel intimidating. There are so many important issues to consider — how do you know which ones you should pay attention to or which ones will affect your life most? In Elite Daily’s election series, I've Got Issues, we’re having conversations with young voters all across the country who hold different opinions on some of the biggest “dealbreaker” issues in politics. Here’s how they feel about the major topics impacting their vote in November, and what young voters like them should know before heading to the polls.
For this installment, we asked two new voters to share their thoughts on gun policy. Alliyah L., 18, is a college freshman from New York City who is an activist with gun safety advocacy group Youth Over Guns. She is a registered Democrat, and 2020 will be her first time voting. Harrison S., 19, is a college sophomore from Las Vegas, Nevada, who is the communications director for his school’s College Republicans chapter and a member of the National Rifle Association. He is a registered Republican, and 2020 will be his first time voting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why are gun issues important to you? Is it a make-or-break, dealbreaker issue this November?
Harrison: It’s absolutely a dealbreaker. The reason that we have our Second Amendment right to bear arms is to protect our First Amendment, the right to free speech. As a Jewish person, this is really important to me. I had family members that were impacted directly by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Looking at history, when a government decides to ban the right to protect yourself, you always see destruction of the right of speech and the destruction of individuals.
The question that I like to ask everybody is, “Do you trust the government?” And almost always, the answer is no. So, why would you trust the government to protect you? I believe in protecting yourself over relying on the protection of our government.
Alliyah: It's definitely a dealbreaker, but as a young, Black woman in America, I look at the intersections of every issue. You have to look at health care, you have to look at education, you have to look at the justice system.
I see gun policies and gun violence prevention as an extremely important issue. It’s a public health crisis and racial injustice in America. America’s gun violence rates are huge, and gun violence prevention, policy, and ideology are all on a very wide spectrum. Issues like criminal justice reform, reproductive health, environmental justice, even gender equality often intersect with gun violence. For example, people usually bring up the idea of protecting yourself, which is very true — and I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself, but there’s a very different connotation when it comes to a Black person having a gun. If you look at recent cases, like the Breonna Taylor case, there's a very different connotation when it comes to Black people with guns. Often, we have this narrative where we say we want to protect ourselves, but in America, who is allowed to protect themselves? It's not Black people, and it's not people of color.
How do you both research candidates as you prepare to vote? Is their stance on gun policy something you look for?
Alliyah: If they’re the incumbent, whether it’s a local, communitywide, statewide, or national race, I look at their previous track record and what they’ve done in their tenure. Besides gun issues, I also like to look at their impact on the education system and how they view school safety. Do they want to arm teachers and put police officers in schools, or do they want to have counselors? Things like that. There’s a common misconception that if you have more police officers and metal detectors in our schools and communities, that would make them safer and prevent the impact of gun violence. That’s completely inaccurate. A lot of the time, these officers and metal detectors get put in schools in low-income communities or that have predominantly Black and brown students. Safety really means having more youth services so that young people are able to access any services that they need.
Harrison: The simplest answer is to check what a person that's running for office says matches the stance they put on their website. Frankly, it's good that we live in 2020, when people who are running for office put their platform online for everyone to see. Before you vote, you can make sure that you thoroughly research everything that they have to say, and whether or not you like a law they support. Like Alliyah was saying, it can't just be based on whether or not you want to ban firearms, but it also has to do a lot on criminal justice reform or talking about the school to prison pipeline or other factors.
If you want to fix problems in our nation, I think it goes back to the idea that a well-armed society is a polite society. I think a really important thing that people running for public office should do is actually put gun safety and training in the education system, and in schools. You can look at the nearly 2 million new gun sales in March and April and May, when people were buying guns en masse. But, probably, none of those 2 million new gun owners know how to operate a firearm correctly; they don't know proper firearm safety.
Is there any specific legislation or policy on gun issues that you’d like to see candidates support or oppose?
Harrison: I’ll support anyone that will not ban or try to redact the Second Amendment and try to abolish it in the Constitution. I think that’s first. Also, I don't like universal background checks because I don’t think they can work. There’s zero chance that you can stop a private sale of a firearm. There are already laws on the book requiring that, in a private firearm transaction, the seller must know that the person that you are selling the firearm to has no problems. [Editor Note: Federal law does not require private sellers to run background checks or confirm that a gun purchaser has no disqualifications that would prohibit them from owning a gun. Twenty-one states, plus Washington D.C., have additional requirements.] I also don't think that restrictions on magazines would change anything because then again, you can just make your own and there's no law against going across state lines.
I also oppose increasing the age of buying a rifle, a long gun, or a shotgun to the age of 21. If you're 18 years old, you can drive a tank in the military, but you can't own a .22 long rifle? I think that’s kind of stupid. Joe Biden is a big proponent of a policy to limit gun sales to one gun a month. Like, what is that going to stop?
With concealed carry permits, most states require some form of firearm training. But I don’t really think that training should be mandatory because there’s a difference between having a concealed carry pistol versus a shotgun or a rifle, since you won't be carrying those around everywhere. But safety should be at the forefront — maybe a manual about how to properly use a firearm, how to properly store a firearm. I’m pretty sure the government can provide that.
I don't think this is really a gun issue. I think something has changed about the way that we think, and the way that mental health problems impact us. Someone like the alleged Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter can post to social media about school shootings and be reported to the FBI. And nothing happens. That’s what I think is the major cause of gun violence, especially when it comes to mass shootings and the failure of the system to act.
Alliyah: I think a very important issue that often goes unaddressed are ghost guns. Ghost guns are basically guns that are made out of separate parts, and assembled to make any type of gun. For example, a ghost gun was used in a mass shooting that killed two people at Saugus High School in November 2019. I support legislation to ban ghost guns because I believe that if you want to purchase a gun, you should go through the proper channels and background checks.
The second thing is, it’s very important to remove loopholes in gun policy. For example, at the 2015 Mother Emanuel AME church shooting, the shooter had a previous arrest, but he was still able to buy a gun — it’s very important that red flags don’t get missed.
One thing Harrison mentioned that I agree with is proper training for gun owners. I think that’s something the government should be doing. It’s unrealistic to think that, you know, everyone is just going to stop using guns. I think there should be some sort of either statewide or federal legislation requiring safety training.
Would you ever, or have you ever, voted for a candidate whose stance on guns was the opposite of your own?
Alliyah: The simple answer is no. And this is my first time voting, so I haven’t voted for any candidate who opposes gun violence prevention policies.
Harrison: A big no. If there’s a candidate that will not protect the Second Amendment, I will not vote for them. It doesn’t matter what party they are, if they don’t stand with me on gun rights, then I can’t vote for them.
Would you ever not vote, if neither candidate lived up to your expectations?
Alliyah: When it comes down to it, it really depends on the circumstances. I hate using this phrase, but it’s picking the lesser of two evils, and if I have to choose between candidates, I would lean toward whoever has political identities closest to me. I’m not sure if I will ever not vote. But for those who don’t — if you’re a part of a marginalized group in this country, it’s very hard to have trust in this government when you have seen so many atrocities occurring unchecked.
Harrison: For me, that’s a yes. That's why since we live in a democracy, and we can choose who we want to vote for, and we have the option of none of the above.
You’re both framing this issue differently — one of you looks at it as a free speech and self-defense issue, while the other looks at it as an issue of public health and investing in communities. How do you feel about the other’s way of looking at it?
Harrison: The way people learn their beliefs is basically in a big game of telephone, where by the end, everybody really has a different opinion on the matter. In Alliyah’s case I can respect her beliefs, but since we’re different individuals we perceive this issue in a radically different way. Everything that she says, I believe to an extent — I think it’s really important to address issues like gun crimes, and gun violence is really a public health issue. I don't really think that we should be losing 40,000 people every year in this nation to guns.
This goes for every single issue in America, but especially for Gen Z voters, we all agree that there is a problem and we should fix it, but we all have a thousand different ideas about why we think that it should be fixed and how it should be fixed.
Alliyah: I think I can definitely agree with what Harrison said here. I’ve had a version of this conversation many times, and I think this conversation was the one in which I found the most similarities between what we were saying. Usually I’m speaking to people who are, like, in their 40s, and I'm the same as their daughter. So that can be weird. But in this instance, since we’re both in a similar age range and both a part of Gen Z, I think there are definitely similar narratives when it comes to this issue and what we're trying to tackle.
Your voice matters. So does your vote. Make sure both are heard and counted in the 2020 election by registering to vote right now.