Can a Parkland grad and a rape survivor bring bipartisanship to gun laws? They’re trying

Cara Kelly

WASHINGTON – Someone who lost his sister in the Parkland school shooting might not be the first person you'd expect to defend the National Rifle Association. 

Yet, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alumnus Robert Schentrup is quick to praise the NRA's contributions to the debate on gun regulation in America. 

“I like to tell people the NRA has actually brought up some pretty good ideas," Schentrup said. "They actually come to the table with more than 'no, we don't like this.' They come to the table with specific concerns. ... And they come with specific solutions." 

He points to penalties for those who bring “false or frivolous” charges in extreme risk protection order (ERPO) legislation as one example. The junior at University of Central Florida (UCF) is pushing for the adoption of ERPO or "red flag" laws, which allow law enforcement or family members to petition a judge for the removal of firearms from a person who poses a risk of harm to themselves or others. The goal is to prevent future mass shootings in cases like Parkland where shooters showed warning signs of potentially violent behavior, as well as help those who are at risk for suicide, which accounts for nearly 60% of gun deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And in order to get laws passed, Schentrup is open to compromises, such as those frivolous-petition penalties, that other advocates may not be. It's a lesson he learned from Amanda Nguyen, who wrote the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights which passed Congress unanimously in 2016. 

Through her civil rights nonprofit Rise, Nguyen helped pass 21 bills affecting 40 million people. 

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Schentrup and his group, Zero USA, whose mission is to pass legislation to help end gun violence, is the first to come out of Rise's newly launched Justice Lab, an accelerator program that's a riff on tech incubators for social justice movements. The incubator trains activists to compose and pass legislation using funding that Rise received through individual donations as well as from foundations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Nguyen describes the training as brutally analytical and aggressively bipartisan, which she credits with helping her achieve unanimous support for her bill fighting sexual violence. And what makes her confident in aiding Schentrup take on gun violence.

"A lot of people have this misconception that because our 21 laws passed unanimously that somehow it’s easy. But if the issue of sexual violence were easy, then Kavanaugh, the 2016 election, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) renewal, Title IX, among many other things would be litigated differently," Nguyen said. "So it’s not by the good will, unfortunately, of Republicans and Democrats coming together that’s given us the success that we’ve had. The track record that we have is specifically because we strategized amongst it."

That strategic approach led Zero USA to identified two key legislative goals: the passage of extreme risk protective orders and disarming domestic abusers. Both are personal for Schentrup – sheriff's deputies received at least 18 calls warning them about the Parkland shooter, many of which were domestic violence related.

They were also identified as potential bipartisan solutions, something that is frequently missing in debate around gun control. 

"Red flag" policies have seen renewed support since the Parkland shooting, as well as following the recent apparent suicides of two Parkland survivors and the father of a student killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  

In the past, the NRA has fought "red flag" legislation as "anti-gun" but has recently expressed greater openness to protective orders. In an NRATV video last spring, the group’s top lobbyist said Congress should provide funding for states to adopt “risk protection orders.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reintroduced a bill in Congress earlier this year to do just that, and in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., indicated the state level would be a good place to start. 

One such law passed in Florida as part of school safety reform after the Parkland shooting. And on Friday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a similar measure into law in his state, the fifteenth to do so along with the District of Columbia. Schentrup was a vocal proponent of the bill, writing op-eds and testifying at hearings. 

But the battle still looks Sisyphean. 

For all the talk of support, there is significant opposition to "red flag" laws. The new Colorado law may still face legal hurdles – sheriffs have voiced concerns that it threatens citizens' constitutional rights to gun ownership and due process and have threatened not to enforce it. 

Asked if there was any room for compromise on "red flag" laws, Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America (GOA), said "no."

"I and Gun Owners of America have taken the position that these are far from noncontroversial and are just Orwellian," Hammond said.

Hammond and GOA find particular fault with ex parte, or a unilateral decision by a judge without requiring all parties to be present. Some of the state bills allow for hearings, and Colorado law provides the gun owner with free legal counsel. But Hammond says the core of the provisions are unconstitutional. 

"For me to believe (advocates) are generally serious about due process, they’d have to start by knocking out ex parte orders."

The NRA has also found fault with many state provisions, proposing a lengthy list of caveats, including penalties for frivolous claims.

Graham stopped short of supporting a national bill in the March Senate Judiciary Committee hearing saying, “I think passing a federal law is beyond what the market will bear.”

Gun control politics have threatened to derail the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in recent weeks, a 25-year-old law aimed at reducing domestic and sexual violence that has historically had bipartisan support. A provision to stop those with misdemeanor stalking convictions from buying a gun has drawn condemnation from the NRA, which argues that the provision is too broad and would ensnare people for minor offenses, such as a tweet. The NRA warned lawmakers that a vote for the bill would ding their ratings from the group. The bill passed the House this month with a vote of 263-158. Most Republicans voted against it, though 33 broke with the party and NRA to vote for it. It's not expected to be taken up in it's current form in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

Schentrup has taken on similar provisions in state legislation that, like those in VAWA, are aimed at closing the "boyfriend loophole," a term coined by advocates in reference to intimate partner violence outside of marriage, often affecting teens and others who don't have the same access to protections afforded to those who are married or living together. A study released Monday found that nearly 7% of adolescents killed between 2003 and 2016 were killed by current or former intimate partners, and of those, 61% involved firearms. 

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Stats like those inspired Schentrup's work to close the loophole. And leave him hopeful in the face of blowback. 

“I know it’s very contentious with VAWA and on a lot of right-wing sites. I saw a Breitbart headline saying ‘Democrats look to seize everyone’s guns.’ But that’s not what this legislation looks to do. It aims to make sure more people have access to the rights they need," Schentrup said.

Schentrup's tendency to double-back on the policy details and data that support it is what initially impressed Nguyen when they met last summer, inspiring her to create the incubator within Rise.  

“I was blown away when I met Robert," Nguyen said. “I’ll never forget when Robert sat next to me and he described a meeting that he and his family had with a politician and that politician said, ‘I want to work on gun violence, but I can’t because I’ll lose my seat in the primary.’ And instead of being mad, Robert said, ‘I don’t care. I just want to make it safe for this person to vote, because I don’t want to lose my other sister to gun violence.’ That to me is what it takes in order to cut through the political fray and get things done."

Schentrup has understood that bipartisan mentality from the beginning. About a week after the Parkland shooting, he found himself on stage at a town hall with NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch. He says focusing on the reasons behind her views, imagining her own experiences, helped him see past their difference of opinions.

"A lot of what she said in the aftermath for a lot of people, a lot of survivors I know, was very triggering," said Schentrup. He says focusing on the reasons behind Loesch's views helped him "better understand exactly where she’s coming from and that she’s not some terrible monster person. Because so often we try to paint the other side as being inhuman."

Schentrup further flexed those muscles during a trip last summer that took him around the South to speak about gun violence. And in December, where he and fellow Parkland families met with the Trump administration to discuss school safety, including safe storage and protective orders. It included time in the Oval Office with Trump and what Schentrup describes as a substantive back-and-forth on policy merits.

"I always try to remember, no one actually wants people to keep dying of gun violence. Its just with both sides we have different ideas of how to achieve that goal," Schentrup said. "But we have the common goal of wanting to reduce death, so how do we do that and how do we get to a place?" 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can a Parkland grad and a rape survivor bring bipartisanship to gun laws? They’re trying