On Friday, 16-year-old Taylor Mills paid a visit to Rep. Kevin Yoder's office in Overland Park, Kansas. Mills, a junior at Blue Valley North High School, was there to invite the Republican congressman to a town hall she and others were organizing after Kansas City's 'March for Our Lives' rally a few weeks ago.
"The best answer we could get for why he couldn't come was, 'He just can't come,'" Mills said. "As a student, that just doesn't cut it for me."
Yoder spokesman CJ Grover said in a written statement that the congressman would not attend Saturday's event because:
"These students absolutely have the right to have their voices heard, but Saturday's last-minute event will be hijacked by forces that want to politicize this tragedy. Turning a serious, important issue into a political rally is the wrong approach to solving our nation’s toughest problems."
But that didn't stop the 16 students from hosting the town hall, which drew more than 100 to the Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas, on Saturday afternoon.
Alongside a cardboard cut-out of Yoder were seven challengers for Yoder's U.S. House seat: six Democrats and one Libertarian. They fielded questions on topics ranging from women's reproductive rights to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to education funding. But the students were hoping to focus on gun violence.
Several of the candidates voiced their support for expanding background checks and banning gun accessories such as bump stocks. Yoder's ties to the National Rifle Association came up several times during the two-hour panel discussion.
Moderator Kevin Kinsella, debate teacher at J.C. Harmon High School, asked the cardboard cut-out of Yoder if he plans to continue to accept money from the NRA.
"His silence tells me all I need to know," Kinsella said.
Democratic challenger Mike McCamon said Congress won't act on gun violence because of money.
"The only way we're going to stop this is if we cut off the legs of the NRA," McCamon said.
Sharice Davids, the most recent Democrat to enter the race, said gun violence is a public health issue and needs to be addressed with behavioral health services.
Libertarian candidate Chris Clemmons — a teacher at Rosedale Middle School, and a "staunch supporter" of the Second Amendment — pointed to drugs and gangs as root causes of violence and homicides.
"We have to end the drug war if we want to get some measure of improvement in our inner cities," Clemmons said.
After the panel, Blue Valley North junior Taylor Mills said she was disappointed gun reform wasn't the main focus, and that Yoder didn't participate.
Grover said the congressman would be happy to meet with students in the future to discuss the issue and some of the solutions he's been working on, "like lifting the ban on gun violence research at the CDC, enhancing the background check system, new funding for armed resource officers and other deterrents, and getting new regulations banning bump stock devices.”