Sun Youth Forum tackles gun control, nuclear threats and American identity

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Steve Marcus

Lucia Bevilacqua of Coronado High School comments on an “School Days” topic during the 61st annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.

Thu, Nov 9, 2017 (2 a.m.)

The Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum, one of the largest and longest-running programs of its kind in the country, assembled some of the valley’s brightest young minds on Nov. 8 to celebrate, debate and have their voices heard.

The 61st forum saw roughly 1,000 high-achieving students from 52 local high schools discussing a wide range of topics, from the death penalty and the North Korean nuclear threat to America’s international relations. But just six weeks after the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip, the room hosting a roundtable on gun control was especially electric.

Defining #VegasStrong

Christine, 16, Valley High School: “The union of the people to remember the occurrence of the Mandalay Bay shooting and other tragedies in the nation.”

Christopher, 17, Western High School: “Unity when faced with tragedy.”

Jack, 17, Cimarron-Memorial High School: “To stick together and help each other during a time of crisis, no matter your views or opinions or who you are.”

Kailey, 17, Legacy High School: “A community of people dedicated to healing and regrowth.”

Melissa, 18, E.W. Clark High School: “A community united not only by tragedy, but every day.”

Brian Greenspun, CEO, publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun, moderated the discussion as part of the “Home in Nevada” topic area. Students agreed that the events of the Route 91 Harvest festival were tragic; several had family members who were there. But while some were against gun ownership writ large, others starkly opposed any stricter regulations. The conversation had echoes of national debates about personal liberties and public safety.

“Nobody needs 60-something guns — that should be a warning sign,” Olivia, a student at Foothill High School, said of individuals such as Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock, whose guns numbered nearly 50. “Why are we letting one person have that much control of that many lives?”

“Unalienable rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Connor, a student at Basic Academy of International Studies. “It’s not an unalienable right for the gun, it’s for the people.”

Greenspun challenged the students: “This is your world. What are you going to do to stop this destruction?”

With that, Connor rattled off solutions the students had rigorously debated and mostly agreed on: better enforcement of existing laws; banning bump stocks and high-capacity magazines; making a psychological evaluation mandatory at the time of purchase; and requiring anyone buying a semi-automatic weapon to obtain special licensing through training.

“The Second Amendment is a right,” said a student named Brandt, adding that he had grown up with guns. “But it’s also a privilege.”

American Identity

A universal thread connecting the different discussions was what exactly it means to be an American. Students dug into the question of national identity, trying to settle on what rights citizens should and do have, and whether the American Dream is attainable.

The discussion was led by Michael Brown, president of Barrick U.S.A. (part of the international Barrick Gold Corporation). The first-time moderator for the Sun Youth Forum guided students to explore the contrast of how the world views America versus how its citizens view the country, and whether American democracy could be successfully exported.

Students eagerly pointed to gridlock in Washington as an example of why the political system shouldn’t be exported.

“American-style democracy doesn’t even work in America,” said Andrez, a junior at Las Vegas High School.

“American democracy doesn’t work for me. Many voices are heard, but not listened to,” said a Mojave High School junior named Tekembe. “Other countries view us as our government and not the voice of the people who aren’t listened to.”

North Korea

In a discussion about the enigmatic regime of North Korea, students disagreed sharply on the approach the U.S. should take to halt the small nation’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Campbell, a Shadow Ridge High School senior, said President Donald Trump’s bluster toward Kim Jong Un was fueling tension by feeding North Korea’s perception of the U.S. as an aggressor that “wants to wipe them off the map.”

“In order to change what’s going on in North Korea, we have to make sure we treat them with some respect,” Campbell said.

But Centennial High School junior Lance insisted that a moderate, diplomacy-based approach hadn’t worked in recent years. “All they did was build bigger and better nukes. I don’t think it’s going to work if for the next four years we put just a little water on this raging house fire,” he said, adding that dialing up sanctions while continuing to pressure China to reduce its support of North Korea could be the road to progress.

But Kenia, a Palo Verde High School junior, disagreed. She said heavy sanctions in Cuba hurt the island nation’s population but had little effect on the government.

“As far as being a liberation strategy, sanctions haven’t actually worked,” she said.

Rancho High School senior Austin said it was critical for the U.S. not to attack North Korea, as doing so would lead other nations to see the U.S. as imperialistic and aggressive. Trade would be disrupted, he said, and alliances likely would dissolve. “The best solution to this is the one no one wants to do,” he said. “We have to wait for North Korea to initiate something.”

Student Recognition

Between morning and afternoon sessions on heavy topics, students enjoyed lunch, live music and the presentation of $1,000 scholarships from organizations including the Las Vegas Sun, Barrick U.S.A., Nevada State Bank, UNLV and Touro University Nevada.

Winners were selected randomly from among the high school seniors in attendance.

Greenspun said that in addition to partnering with the Sun and Clark County School District on the scholarship element of the 2017 event, Barrick Gold Corporation’s support had secured the continuation of the Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum for the next 60 years and beyond.

Las Vegas Sun Scholarship Winner: Brittney Dickson Snider

Las Vegas Sun Scholarship Winner: Leanne Messimer

Las Vegas Sun Scholarship Winner: Yesenia Castro-Lopez

Barrick U.S.A. Scholarship Winner: Lily Viano-Seubert

Barrick U.S.A. Scholarship Winner: Karlyle Niesen

Barrick U.S.A. Scholarship Winner: Elaina Kaehler

Barrick U.S.A. Scholarship Winner: Emaan Khawaja

UNLV Scholarship Winner: Andrea Garcia

UNLV Scholarship Winner: Kayla Tyler

UNLV Scholarship Winner: Ava Trompeter

Touro University — Shelley Berkley Scholarship Winner: Kimberly Vidal

Nevada State Bank Scholarship Winner: Alexander Balasky

Ric Anderson and Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed to this story

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