They’re angry. They’re anxious. They’re afraid.
And they’re demanding action. Now.
They are warriors of a new youth crusade for stricter American gun laws — an impromptu movement born out of frustration and outrage over last week’s mass shooting at their Florida high school.
They are leading the charge with a simple message — “Never again” — and they say they will continue to speak out until their demands are met, unlike protests that broke out and then quickly faded away after other mass shootings in recent years.
In the week since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead, students at the Parkland school have unleashed what they hope will become a movement.
Rallies around country
At rallies in Florida and elsewhere, in television interviews and on social media pages, they’ve called out politicians with ties to the National Rifle Association, the nation’s main gun lobby, spewed anger at the NRA, and expressed frustration at state and national legislators’ failure to pass laws that they say would have prevented the tragedy.
“What we need is action, and we need it now more than ever because people are losing their lives and it is still not being taken seriously,” Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior at Stoneman Douglas, said Wednesday at a rally in Tallahassee.
The students are working on two fronts. In Florida, they’re lobbying local politicians to pass stricter gun laws. In Washington, they are planning to converge next month to urge Congress to enact tougher background checks for gun buyers and impose a ban on assault rifles.
Some are of voting age. Since the Florida House of Representatives rejected a ban on many semiautomatic guns on Tuesday, the youths have been putting state politicians on notice that they can’t take their votes for granted.
“The more that I know — me and my friends, we are turning 18. I am a senior; I’m 18 myself now. I can vote, and I know who I am not voting for,” Ryan Deitsch said at the Tallahassee rally.
The crusade has been joined by students and activists elsewhere. While the Tallahassee rally was going on, students across the country staged walkouts to express solidarity with their peers in Florida and demand new gun laws. In Washington, about a hundred students converged outside the U.S. Capitol.
“I think that this current fight for gun control is a fight that students and teenagers and children are having to fight,” Juliet Cable, a student at Newton South High School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, told VOA in Washington. “We’re the ones who need to stand up and call attention to it and change it.”
The organizers of the Women’s March, a group that staged a large protest rally in Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and a second march last month, are planning a National Student Walkout on March 14.
According to the group’s website, at 10 a.m. in every U.S. time zone, students, teachers and staff will walk out for 17 minutes to remember the victims of the Florida shooting and to protest what they see as congressional inaction.
A second national walkout has been organized by a student at a Connecticut high school not far from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, site of a 2012 shooting that left 26 people dead. The walkout is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, in which two students killed 12 fellow students and one teacher.
The plan, according to organizer Lane Murdock, 15, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School in Ridgefield, Connecticut, is for students across the country to stand in silence for 17 minutes to remember each of the 17 the victims of the Florida shooting.
“We are the students. We are the victims. We are change. Fight gun violence now!” Murdock wrote in an online petition.
As of Wednesday, her petition on Change.org had been signed by more than 120,000 people.
One gun-control advocate said she had never seen anything else like the movement that has sprouted in the wake of the Florida school shooting.
“We’ve certainly seen a groundswell of anger rise up following mass shootings in the past, but nothing like this in terms of the momentum or youth’s engagement,” said Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
The youth movement’s ultimate aim, organizers say, is to stop mass shootings, which have grown in frequency and lethality over the past two decades. According to Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit group that provides public access to information about U.S. gun-related violence, there were 34 mass shootings in 19 states and the District of Columbia in the first 51 days of 2018.
“We’re going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” Emma Gonzalez, another survivor of the Florida shooting, said on Fox News on Sunday. “We’re going to be the last mass shooting.”
Gun violence in U.S.
That’s a tall order. Gun violence is a leading cause of death in America — there were 15,592 gun-related deaths last year, according to Gun Violence Archive — but tightening gun laws has long been a polarizing political issue.
While gun-control advocates want to tighten laws to prevent someone like alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz from buying an assault weapon, opponents say the existing laws are already too tough.
“I don’t think this could possibly lead to any kind of radical change in American firearms policy,” said James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law. “What might come out of it is some kind of marginal law.”
Gun-safety advocates have been meeting with student organizers to educate them about gun laws.
“It’s important for us in the advocacy moment to ensure that the kids are focused on policy changes that actually make a difference,” Brown, of the Brady Campaign, said.
Representatives of the Brady Campaign, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and other advocacy organizations were in Tallahassee on Wednesday to speak at the rally and meet with students and state lawmakers.
The students are not without their detractors.
Some conservative critics have accused them of being used as pawns by progressive activists intent on undermining Americans’ constitutional right to own guns.
Yet the students’ message appears to be resonating — and not just among the usual proponents of gun safety.
In the wake of the shooting, Trump has shown an openness to raising the minimum age for buying certain guns, expressed support for enhancing background checks, and ordered a ban on a device that allows semiautomatic rifles to fire at nearly the rate of fully automatic weapons.
He met with students, parents and teachers at the White House on Wednesday for a “listening session” on mass shootings, vowing to find a solution to a problem that he said “has been going on too long.”
Pro-gun-rights politicians are feeling the heat from unlikely sources.
Al Hoffman Jr., a real estate developer and prominent Republican donor, announced after the shooting that he would stop supporting candidates and political groups that do not support a ban on assault rifles.
In Congress, there is a proposal to ban assault rifles, a bill introduced last year by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
Just what kind of legislation Congress will ultimately pass in response to the shooting remains to be seen.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, however, tweeted this week that Trump’s support for bipartisan legislation to improve background checks signaled that “the politics of gun violence is rapidly shifting” in the wake of the Florida shooting.
Murphy and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas are co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill that would tighten FBI background checks of people who are attempting to purchase a gun.