Time and again, calls for gun reform in America have been met with an extreme skepticism reserved for few other political issues. But that skepticism may have met its match.
On Saturday, the U.S. will see the largest student demonstrations in perhaps generations. The March for Our Lives—spurred by the Feb. 14 massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that killed 14 students and three staff—will take over downtown Washington D.C. with an expected crowd of 500,000 people. More than 800 other marches are planned across the U.S., expected to draw hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more—all of them led by students
“The young people in this country have been given a mission,” wrote Emma Gonzalez—the Parkland student made famous by her speech calling “B.S.” on arguments against gun reform—in her manifesto for the march. The policy goals of the marches include a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines and comprehensive background checks for all gun sales.
The marches signal the collective political awakening of the so-called Columbine generation, which student organizers say is only the beginning: They have their eyes set on November, and the all-important U.S. midterm elections.
Maclean’s talked to high school and university students across the country, from blue and red states, about the reasons for their activism, their experiences with guns in America, and what comes next. These are their stories in their own words.
Trevor Wild, 19
Orlando March for Our Lives
Second-year student at University of Central Florida, Orlando
Former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida
Columbine happened 19 years ago, that’s when you started to see school shooter drills. The people graduating now, the voices you hear—Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High—we are the first graduating classes that have practiced school shooting drills since kindergarten. This presence of the imminent threat of someone walking into your class and shooting you has been weighing on us since we started school. That’s something that is unique to the voices we hear right now, and that has definitely influenced why everyone is saying that Parkland is different.
When I moved to Parkland, Florida, you would always hear, ‘Oh, a gun went off in some kid’s backpack in a school a couple streets down. Oh, a kid brought a gun to school in his backpack, the school’s on lockdown.’ That’s just normal.
I have a brother who’s a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas right now. He’s living through this nightmare that everyone else gets to watch on T.V.
They announced there was going to be a march, and immediately afterwards I created the March for Our Lives Orlando Instagram. And I was able to form a team of 30 students, most of us are Stoneman Douglas alumni. We called ourselves Never Again UCF (University of Central Florida).
Everybody in the city, we all agree that our lives are now divided into two, before the shooting and after the shooting.
Florida’s a state everyone knows Trump won in 2016. It’s very difficult to approach this issue here. We don’t want to trample on your rights in the constitution, we just want to make safer common sense gun regulations. The NRA spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, the videos she uploaded in the wake of the school shooting, she flipped a clock timer thing and she’s like, ‘Your time is up.’ It’s very concerning to see especially the NRA, as big and powerful as they are, still sending out this narrative we’re trying to trample their liberties. Our real narrative is we don’t want to die in school.
We have a giant team, representatives from almost every high school—they’re all students. The next step is continue to create these clubs and have a representative in every college, to create a nationwide coalition of young people ready to mobilize.
Really none of us know what we’re doing. Our social media head is a nursing major, our design and communications head is an aerospace engineer. We’re not doing this to inflate our resumes. We’ve made a ton of new friends, and I think that’s one of the good things in response to a tragedy: It brings a lot of people together.
Cora Haworth, 14
Grade 8 student at the Academy of Global Citizenship, Chicago
Chicago March for Our Lives
I go to school on the south side of Chicago and I’ve seen a lot of violence outside of the school, never inside though, and I’m afraid for the day it will step into the school.
I’ve been doing a lot of activism since I was little. My mom would bring me to a lot of marches and rallies, and I’m one of 32 youth ambassadors for the Women’s March on Washington. I’ve been kind of devastated that school shootings are still going on, but I’m also hopeful that we can end it. I feel like it’s better to be informed about what’s going on in the world at a young age so you can make a change—you can make more changes throughout your life.
The day of the Parkland shooting, my mom picked me up from school and she was crying in the car and she said there was a shooting in Florida. We listened to the radio, and then when they announced how many people were killed I was inside a McDonald’s and there are other people crowding the TV, being like, this is crazy. The thing that’s happening is insane.
I think a lot of people don’t think gun violence applies to how the government uses funding for schools, mental health, the community. A lot of gun violence on the streets or in schools wouldn’t happen if they fixed the gun laws and also had funding to help people who need mental health services or help communities where there’s really no hope.
A lot of people turn to violence and gangs and drugs and a lot of things just because they’ve got nothing else to do, they’ve got no opportunity to advance and have a brighter future because of where they live, the colour of their skin.
There’s a lot people are supportive of the march, but there have been a couple times where people have asked us to show proof that we aren’t undercover Russian operatives, and there have been some people who have gone so far as to get in contact with our parents, and harass them.
I feel like after the march a lot of people will start to consider what they believe, and I hope that more people who support this march will help other people who don’t—like why it’s such an important thing.
If nothing changes we’re not going to give up because this affects our lives every day. It affects whether we wake up in the morning. If we got to school. A lot people have been fighting for common sense gun laws and gun law reform for a very long time, and we’re not going to stop fighting.
READ: Mental health has almost nothing to do with the gun-control debate
Marcel McClinton, 16
Grade 11 student at Stratford High School, Houston
Organizer of the Houston March for Our Lives
I actually am one of the only conservatives in the Houston march. I used to be like: ‘The NRA, it’s not as bad as y’all think. They’re advocating for everyone’s right and the Second Amendment.’ I still believe in the Second Amendment, I think everyone should have that right to own a gun. I’m involved in organizing this march in favour of gun reform—and not gun control. That’s what I want to make clear to my Republican friends.
I didn’t really grow up with gun violence in my area. But there was one situation about two or three years ago. I teach Sunday school class to little toddlers, and there was a Memorial Day shooting at our church. There was a shooter with an AR-15 and he was on the parking lot of the church. That’s when my view shifted. You see gun violence on TV and think that will never happen to me or my area. But it did. It hit home. It messed me up for a long time.
My dad was in the army, so I know guns. He has, I think, five. Open carry doesn’t scare me. People who have concealed carry licenses don’t scare me. What’s scary is when people don’t seek help they need or don’t have access to that help. I think that’s when the problems start increasing.
Talking with my Republican community has been difficult, because part of the political pledge for the Houston march is we’re asking politicians to not seek funding from the NRA. They donate to the Republican Party of Texas, so politicians refuse to sign that pledge.
Money is talking more than the lives of students. In an email to the Republican Party of Texas—because I’m actually an intern with them—I said I don’t see how I can support a party or a candidate who’s running for governor if they’re not doing the least bit to advocate for my life and the lives of my classmates. And they haven’t responded.
I’m trying to not let it faze me. But it just sucks. You feel abandoned, you know. It’s sad someone has to be embarrassed to advocate for the lives of students who have died. This really shouldn’t be a political battle.
They expect this to be one of the biggest demonstrations in Houston’s history, and so I’m excited. The march is one day, and politicians can ignore that one day, but we’re making an announcement on the 24th about what we’re creating to make sure this does not die out.
I’m not going to shut up, the kids in Houston are not going to shut up, and for sure the kids in D.C. and Florida are not going to shut up.
Ava Young, 15
Grade 9 student at South Forsyth High School, Cumming, GA
Atlanta March for Our Lives
Growing up I was aware of guns. Not only is deer hunting a big thing in my community, but I do have relatives who’ve served in the military. They were safe gun owners, however. I live in the suburbs, I live in an affluent area, so there’s not exactly high rates of gun violence. But when I was in elementary school, a local student’s older brother shot and killed people at a grocery store. That’s when I became fully aware that guns were not only used for deer hunting, they were not only used for self-protection.
My mother and I went to the Women’s March on Washington D.C. this past January, and just the momentum I felt, the change that’s been progressing has been really important. Gun violence is something I’m passionate about now.
To the people that say ‘you’re dreaming’, I just can’t take them seriously. I think if we limited the amount of people who could buy guns who are dangerous, I think gun violence would be lowered. People who kill people with guns, they’re not all just buying them off the black market. They’re buying them legally at unregulated gun shows.
I do live in a more conservative area, and there are people who want teachers to have guns, and I do not feel safe with that at all. I’ll be in my social studies class and we’ll discuss these issues, and I’ll say, ‘I’m with March for Our Lives, I’m planning this.’ And people that I’ve known since elementary school, they’ll say, ‘That’s ridiculous. These people they’re just evil. They’ll find a way to get guns.’
The political climate in the U.S. has grown really tense. We’ve had adult commenters on social media pages say students shouldn’t be taking on this issue, go do your homework.
I want people to know no one is immune from gun violence. Wearing a bulletproof vest is not giong to protect you. Having money won’t protect you. Any mass shooter can come to my school, which is right next to a shopping mall, which is right off a major highway, and take away your friends, take away your family members.
We can’t keep letting this happen. We don’t want to be the next Columbine. No one wants to be the next Marjory Stoneman High.
READ: Florida school shooting: Charting the ‘normalization’ of gun attacks on U.S. kids
Hannah DeSanto, 22
Fourth-year student at University of Arizona
Tucson March for Our Lives
We’ve always had the lockdowns in school for practice. I’ve had those ever since I was in kindergarten. I thought everyone in the world does stuff like this in their elementary classroom.
But I wasn’t directly affected by gun violence until last October when we had a good friend who was killed in the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Her name was Christiana Duarte. That was what motivated me to get involved and help organize the march.
I’m one of two U of A student organizers—me and my friend Jessica, who was Christiana’s best friend. I remember the night it actually happened, seeing it on the Wall Street Journal notification on my phone that there was a shooting.
The next morning Jessica was saying Christiana was there at the concert and she had lost her phone early in the night, so we couldn’t get in contact with her yet. I was telling Jessica every five seconds the chances of her being affected by the bullets is so unlikely—the odds are in her favour. I reassured her not to worry.
Christiana’s family was in Vegas too, they were going to hospitals looking for her. There was a point we thought they had found her in the hospital, and she was in critical condition. That was a little bit of hope, but then an hour later we were told that wasn’t her. It took until 10 p.m. the night of October 3 to find out that she was one of the victims. I don’t even think she made it to the hospital.
She was 22.
I never thought about being in danger, and it kind of put things into perspective that this can happen in your neighbourhood, to your friends, to your family and to you.
People keep telling everybody from these shooting events that it’s not the time to talk about gun reform. It’s not the time to take some action. It’s a time to grieve. And I mean, grieving is important, but these just keep happening, and I’m just glad that this group of students from Florida are finally talking about doing something.
In the future, these kids are going to be really aware of the importance of voting and knowing where their politicians stand on gun violence and how that’s going to affect them.
Kelly Rogers, 18
First-year student at a New York City college
NYC March for Our Lives
I grew up in the south, in North Carolina. Both my grandparents hunt, my dad hunted, my uncle. Most of my family are members of the NRA, so it’s been a part of my life, in addition to being raised in the Columbine culture of having the Code 300 drills.
A 300 drill is an active shooter drill. They call them over the loudspeaker. We normally do one or two a month. Whatever you’re doing you’re expected to stop, you cut off all the lights, and when we were younger they’d put us in coat closets or you’d get to the corner farthest away from windows in your classrooms. You have markers to hang up in the window to show if there’s injuries so police can assess the situation before they go in. Administrators come to unlock doors. If they hear you from the hallway, they count you as a casualty and send an email out that says if this were an active shooter, this is how many of you would be dead because you didn’t follow the rules.
We’re taught to live in fear. I was perfectly aware of my own mortality when I was five years old. They treat it like it’s some game of hide and seek, but one day it clicked: I’m hiding from someone who has a gun and the potential to kill me. That presence is overwhelming.
Last year, my senior year, there was an active shooter lockdown at my school, and they thought it was real, and the kid was in my class. We got the talking to of, becuase he’s in your class, you have a target on your back.
This is such an amazing opportunity to be the voice for people my age who’ve felt this way for so long, and are finally getting the opportunity to raise their voice. The Parkland kids, seeing them—we’ve been waiting for that validation of, ‘Now it’s time. Let’s do something.’
Even though I’ve never met those kids, I feel connected to them.
We need to address this culture of violence. It’s a conversation I approach lightly with my family members. I think it’s important to remember, in this environment of extreme polarization, that on both sides are humans who are able to reason with each other. I am able to listen to my grandfather, who I love and respect and is a member of the NRA, and hear him say he, too, is in favour of common sense gun regulation, but demonizing one side doesn’t help us.
Karl Catarata, 20
Third-year student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Las Vegas March for Our Lives
I grew up in North Las Vegas. My dad has a military background, and I grew up prepping his hunting rifles, and we would go to the shooting range.
In Las Vegas we had the deadliest mass shooting last year. Fifty-eight people died. It happened in my neighbourhood. I live right next to the strip.
I think I wanted to help organize the march because of my survivor background, and realizing we don’t want another mass shooting.
In 2014, my family and I were coming from church, and we went to the Walmart, and two white individuals, the Millers, Jared and Amanda, they walked into the pizza place next door. They shot two police officers. They took their weapons and walked to the Walmart. My brother was heading to the cashier, my mom was looking at nail polish. There was shouting, and we realized we heard a gun. I pulled my mum and pulled my brother’s hand and flung them towards the exit. We got out. We went home, and kept up with the news, and we realized they had barricaded themselves in the Walmart and the wife had shot the male and she had commited suicide, after shooting another civilian.
Often times in America people discriminate, saying gun violence is a black, African-American, Latino problem, that gun violence comes from gangs and thugs. But we’ve seen across American history, the majority of mass shootings and school shootings have been caused by white males who’ve had access to semi-automatic weapons.
The reason we’re advocating for at least a little bit of gun laws is because we keep getting killed every week, and our peers across the nation are getting shot up in the classroom, and instead of addressing the problem like other countries, our administration and politicians are saying, how about bulletproof windows, or security systems, or a smoke bomb.
In jails and prisons they have smoke bombs, so when prisoners are out in the hallways and are rowdy, guards release smoke into the hallways. This was on a national newscast, they were saying if there was a person shooting at a school, they would release smoke so the shooter would not know where to go.
We’re not here to remove the second amendment of the United States. I believe people should be able to protect themselves. But when you shoot someone a few times, they go down. You don’t need to shoot them 100 times to protect yourself.
We think this is a movement that will change the political landscape of America. The student activism will definitely have an impact on the midterm elections. And gun lobby-backed candidates will be in danger in Nevada.
Louise Olivier, 16
Grade 11 at Ben Franklin High School, New Orleans
New Orleans March for Our Lives
As a teenager you can’t vote, so you pay attention to the news, but you feel like maybe there’s not much I can do. It’s this waiting game of, when I turn 18, I can vote and I can make a difference then. But it shouldn’t be that way. I can take action as a teenager; we can talk about an issue that directly affects us.
In my years as a student I’ve had three separate legitimate threats of violence. There was a planned bombing at our high school, and they brought bomb sniffing dogs. Last Monday, I was off school because some student at a college campus near our high school threatened to kill another student. My sister missed a day of middle school because a boy in her grade who was in several of her classes threatened to shoot up the entire school. Every person who goes to high school right now can tell you a story similar to mine.
New Orleans deals with a lot of gun violence, which disproportionately affects young people, black people, poor people. It’s a huge issue, and we believe we can really make change if we focus our effort on our local level.
On Facebook we’ve had people call us Nazis. It’s insane. I would say the most common negative response we’ve gotten is, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea, but you’re not going to change anything.’ I don’t even know how to respond to that. Would you really rather do nothing?
It shows the way we’re so conditioned to expect nothing to happen on gun control. I keep saying this number because it appalls me so much, that 70 per cent of Americans support gun control, but nothing is happening. We have to end this stalemate, with the NRA controlling the gun debate.
This is a bipartisan movement, and we’re going to make change happen, one way or another.