In an unprecedented manner, high school students have taken the lead in calling for increased gun regulation, including through a lie-in at the White House, a rally in front of a state capitol, classroom walkouts and three upcoming nationwide protests.
Spurred by the most recent mass shooting, last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, the nation is apparently witnessing the beginning stages of a movement. This time it’s #NeverAgain and #Enough instead of #MeToo, and led by high school students with a plethora of inspiration and passion.
Longtime advocates of increased gun regulation say they think the teenagers marching and rallying have proven they won’t stop at a few protests and tweets, but they say their movement ultimately must take on the powerful gun lobby to achieve its aims. A mission many have tried and failed in the past no matter how many deaths are blamed on gun violence in the most recent tragedy — or even how young the victims are.
“We’ve had students over the years sporadically reach out and ask what they can do, but after the Parkland shooting we were bombarded with requests from students,” said Taylor Maxwell, deputy communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety. “We’ve had 290 shootings on school grounds since Sandy Hook, and this moment feels different. It feels like a groundswell moment.”
Student organizers say they acknowledge the need for more organization and communication among their ranks if they are to succeed. Students who survived the Stoneman Douglas shooting that killed 17 students and faculty last week in Parkland, Fla., have organized press interviews, protests at home and the Florida capitol, meetings with lawmakers and press releases. Their efforts have inspired many others, but nationwide coordination among the new activists seems conspicuously absent.
“At first we were just thinking about the protest, but it spiraled into more,” said Eleanor Nuechterlein, who helped organize a lie-in outside the White House this past Monday. “It’s not about the protest, it’s about what comes after it.”
That would mean supporting gun control regulations and other measures that have long been mired and blocked in Congress and statehouses. For now, though, the focus of the effort is mobilization.
On Wednesday, high school and college students rallied in front of the Florida Capitol, a day after that state’s House of Representatives voted down a call for a debate on an assault weapons ban. A group of Maryland students marched to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday morning as well.
More protests are planned by a variety of student groups — but the seemingly disparate nature of the efforts is what some say may need more coordination if it truly is to take on the powerful gun lobby.
The lack of coordination, moreover, has caused one awkward interaction that needed to be smoothed over.
A nationwide 17-minute school walkout on March 17 and an all-day walkout on April 20 (the anniversary of the Columbine shooting) in response to the Parkland shooting were originally being promoted by different, unaffiliated students on different media.
The March 14 protest is being organized by the Women’s March Youth Empower group, but started garnering criticism from those who thought the Women’s March, which is guiding youth organizers, was steamrolling over the April 20 walkout. That event is being organized by high school students who grew up near Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six teachers were killed at Sandyhook Elementary in December 2012.
Youth organizers of the two walkouts then put out a joint statement of support, signed by 13 students between ages 15 and 23, from Los Angeles to Newtown.
“It will take sustained action from students across the country to send a strong message to our elected officials that we want to be safe, particularly in our schools,” it read, also expressing support for the D.C. March for Our Lives, though the Parkland shooting survivor organizers did not join in authoring the statement.
Paul Kim, a founding member of the group organizing the April 20 walkout and a senior at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut, said members of the Women’s March have been helping them but admitted there is loose organization at this point. The group is having conversations on what they should do after organizing the walkout.
“It’s a lot of random solicitation from high schoolers around the nation, but we have common goals,” Kim said. “We’re all just as upset about this, and we are the ones being affected by this and we want to change it.”
Kaleab Jegol, a 17-year-old Women’s March Youth Empower organizer from Ohio, and Tabitha St. Bernard Jacobs, the youth initiative coordinator of the Women’s March, were also optimistic that coordination will continue and become stronger.
They’ve offered to help organizers of the other walkouts and have planned a conference call with the students from Ridgefield on Thursday. They have reached out to the Parkland survivors but have not yet heard back, though they say they understand it’s a short time after the shooting and the group is still dealing with grief.
More communication exists on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, where students and adults alike have been joining groups and showing support using hashtags like #NeverAgain. David Hogg, one of the leading voices among Parkland student survivors, expressed his thanks to those staging a lie-in in front of the White House Monday, but said he didn’t know who they were.
That and an Instagram post are the extent of the direct contact the lie-in organizers, 16-year-old Nuechterlein and Whitney Bowen, have had with any of the Parkland shooting survivors. They said they organized the lie-in both out of outrage over the shooting and inspiration from the Florida students’ courage in speaking out just a few days after losing fellow students. But they said they did not reach out to the Parkland survivors directly.
The students of the Washington, D.C., suburban high school thought their protest would just involve them and their friends. But they were shocked when hundreds showed up. Now, they’re grappling with what they should do next with their group, Teens for Gun Reform, which already has about 3,000 likes on Facebook. They started getting messages from people asking how to join and what they could do to help from places as far as California.
Ironically, the minimal coordination comes as alt-right and other organizations allege the student groups are conspiring and being set-up by adults with agendas — a charge that has been roundly repudiated.
Gun regulation advocacy groups say these students are just getting started.
Everytown for Gun Safety officially launched a national Students Demand Action group for high school and college activists, which had scheduled an introduction call Wednesday night, according to Maxwell. Maxwell said students have shown themselves more than capable of being leaders of this movement, and Everytown feels it can use its well-established grassroots experience to guide them on the best ways to enact changes in public policy.
The new activists also have some more experienced hands to draw advice from.
Roni Weissman, a 16-year-old junior at Berkeley High School in California, is one teenager who has been working for increased gun regulation for a while. She co-founded her local chapter of Students Demand Action with Everytown’s help in August 2016, and since then has published an informational on shootings in her school paper and is working with the Berkeley mayor and city council to draft an ordinance to mandate safer storage of guns. She also successfully lobbied the mayor to join a Mayors Against Illegal Guns group.
She acknowledged the Parkland survivors and others might have a tougher time than she has had. Her advice: Be patient and take small bites.
“We were so overwhelmed in the beginning,” Weissman said. “There are all of these possibilities on this issue, and you have to narrow your lens to things you’re really passionate about.”
One advantage the new student activists have is they have been able to post short-term successes in raising money for their cause.
The D.C. March for Our Lives on March 24, which was organized by Parkland survivors, has already raised more than $1.3 million in a GoFundMe created by 17-year-old Cameron Kasky. Actor George and Amal Clooney announced Tuesday they would be donating $500,000 more to help pay for the event, followed by three more donations of $500,000 each from Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Kasky said in the account that all funds raised would go toward organizing and transportation for the event, with leftover funds going to the victims’ families.
“We know that this will require continuous and sustained effort, and we’re all working together in solidarity,” said Jegol, of Women’s March Youth Empower. “One action may not be enough, but two or three or four will be.”
And if that isn’t enough, then America will have a lot of angry teenagers turning 18 just in time to vote in the midterms, Jegol said.