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The Senator and the Students: Cortez Masto Meets with Student Leaders to Talk Gun Violence Prevention

U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) met with students at the Las Vegas Academy for the Performing Arts yesterday to discuss the ongoing challenge of gun violence, and what America can do about it. Six months after Las Vegas experienced the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, and just over six week after the nation was rocked by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, both the Senator and the students vowed to do all they could to prevent future tragedies like these. But with a continuing stalemate in Congress, what else can be done? The Senator and the students gathered at the table to figure out what they can do about it.


“You should be the ones telling us what needs to be done to keep schools safe.”
– Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Photo by Andrew Davey

On March 24, students from across the nation took to the streets to “March for Our Lives”. In Washington, Las Vegas, Carson City, Reno, and elsewhere, students, educators, and allies demanded action on gun violence prevention. At Las Vegas Academy yesterday, Senator Cortez Masto reassured students that she heard their message, and she’s still listening to them now.

In opening the roundtable discussion, Cortez Masto proclaimed, “At the end of the day, it’s all about protecting you, making sure you’re safe.” She then added her wish that more of her colleagues listen to the students they’re supposed to work for: “You should be the ones telling us what needs to be done to keep schools safe.”

“We don’t feel safe any more. We feel like we’ve been intruded upon.”
– Rachel Rush, Palo Verde High School
Photo by Andrew Davey

It may be easy for politicians from other parts of the country to forget the 1 October Shooting that rocked Southern Nevada six months ago. But for many local students, our mass shooting and the Parkland Shooting have been a kind of one-two punch. They explained to Cortez Masto how that’s felt, and what their new reality is like in school.

Rachel Rush, a Palo Verde High School student and Nevada Youth Legislator for Senate District 6 in Summerlin, minced no words in describing the climate of fear that plagues schools today. “We’re so close to what happened on October 1. […] We don’t feel safe any more. We feel like we’ve been intruded upon.”

She wasn’t alone in expressing that sentiment. Several other students provided details of their new reality of undergoing regular active shooter drills and worrying about unlocked classroom doors. That particularly irked local March for Our Lives organizer Denise Hooks: “I don’t believe locking the doors will make us safer. I don’t believe metal detectors will make us safer.” She then added, “We’re having the wrong conversation. We need to talk about access to weapons.”

“We’re not trying to take away individual rights. We’re trying to make sure we don’t get shot in our schools, in our communities.”

– Karl Catarata, UNLV

Photo by Andrew Davey

Eventually, the conversation moved to the matter of what to do about this. Among the students, there was overwhelming support for stronger gun safety laws, such as universal background checks and a new assault weapons ban.

Paulina, a Rancho High School student, made crystal clear what she and many of her fellow student activists want done: “I don’t think people are saying, ‘No Guns!’ We just want guns out of the hands of shooters. […] It’s to prevent these mass casualties from happening.”

March for Our Lives organizer and UNLV student Karl Catarata agreed: “We’re not trying to take away individual rights. We’re trying to make sure we don’t get shot in our schools, in our communities.”

“This is bigger than who gets elected. This is about saving lives in the future.”
– Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Photo by Andrew Davey

After the marches, there’s been a bit of movement in Washington. The White House has recently taken steps to restrict access to certain bump stock devices, and Congress just passed an omnibus budget bill that includes the “Fix the NICS” legislation to improve reporting to the national background checks system along with authorization for the Centers for Disease Control to conduct more research on gun violence. But when it comes to the heavier policy lifts, such as closing background check loopholes and restricting access to military-grade assault weapons, there’s almost no chance of Congress passing that kind of legislation this year.

After the program, Cortez Masto voiced her refusal to accept continued inaction. “To not even have a debate, to not even have a discussion, […] that’s doing a disservice, not just to these kids here, but to everyone across the country who wants us to work in a bipartisan manner.”

And yet, Congress has failed to do just that after multiple mass shooting attacks. Cortez Masto had this stern warning for any colleagues who are only looking at this issue through the prism of winning primaries and pleasing donors: “This is bigger than who gets elected. This is about saving lives in the future.”

“Congress needs to do something about this, and Nevada [can play] a pivotal role in that with this election.”
– Karl Catarata

Even as Senator Cortez Masto was meeting with students and calling for bipartisan action on gun violence, her fellow Nevadan in the U.S. Senate was declaring his opposition to universal background checks and bragging about how low voter turnout could guarantee his reelection. After the program, Karl Catarata had this to say about Senator Dean Heller’s (R) recent words and deeds: “That’s disturbing enough. He’s here in Nevada, yet he won’t spend time with his constituents?”

Catarata insisted that students and activists simply want a chance to speak with Cortez Masto, Heller, and other members of Congress about what’s at stake. “We’re talking to people on both sides of the aisle. We’re working to hold everyone accountable for their actions.” But if Heller continues to avoid constituents, Catarata stated that there will be consequences: “Congress needs to do something about this, and Nevada [can play] a pivotal role in that with this election.”

Even if Heller continues to ignore these students and their calls for gun violence prevention, Cortez Masto sensed that they’re just beginning to succeed in raising awareness and making more of her colleagues listen to them. “I think they’re doing it. I think they’re organizing, and they’re prompting us to have these discussions.”

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