There is a new voice in the debate over gun violence. It is poised, passionate — and young.
The student survivors of Wednesday’s massacre — many not even old enough to vote — have been saturating the airwaves and social media with a resounding message: Something is broken in a country that can’t stem bloodshed wrought by guns.
Students at a power-packed rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday made impassioned pleas for legislation to regulate guns. “We will be the last mass shooting,” Marjory Stoneman student Emma Gonzalez declared to wild cheers.
Their calls for gun control have been steadily growing since the school shooting. Twenty-four hours after a gunman killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., senior David Hogg implored lawmakers to take action.
“We are children; you guys are the adults,” Hogg told CNN. “You need to take some action and play a role. Work together. Come over your politics and get something done,” he said.
On the day of the shooting many of these students had texted parents as they hid under desks and squeezed into closets. They trembled next to the lifeless bodies of their classmates as screams and gunfire thundered through their once-calm halls.
These students should have been thinking about SATs, term papers and proms but instead endured a life-altering tragedy.
It is not unexpected that young voices are rising to the national stage on gun violence, said Mark Seery, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. “This could compel young people who have never advocated for anything before to do so now because they have been affected by this tragedy in a real and personal way.”
Students in recent generations live in a world shaped by Columbine, said Greg Shufeldt, assistant professor of political science at Butler University. The massacre at the Colorado school in 1999 triggered one of the first national debates over gun-control laws and school security.
“School shootings, and mass shootings in general, have been a part of their lives since they were born, unfortunately,” he said. “When tragedy strikes their community, the young survivors are ready to take action, and their reaction is not to grieve silently, for the most part. But to take action and to try and enact change — something no one has been able to do.”
Young people are using tools they know well by starting campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to call out politicians and demand change, Shufeldt said.
While tragedies often spur people to activism, this feels different, he said. “What makes this incredibly unique and powerful, is that it is originating with the students.”
Carly Novell tweeted that she hid inside a closet for two hours Wednesday, just as her grandfather did to escape a shooting rampage in New Jersey almost 70 years ago.
“Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns,” she said.
About 60 students at South Broward High School on Friday walked out in protest to demand an end to gun violence. They hoisted emphatic signs such as “it could have been us”; “prayers and condolences are not enough”; “your silence is killing us.”
Some said they knew some of the victims. Chris Hixon, the husband of one of their teachers, was killed while protecting others at Marjory Stoneman. “This hit close to home,” freshman Isaac Adelson said. “Our teachers are emotional. It’s tough to see them like that.”
But even for those who didn’t know anyone, they said they were determined to show solidarity — and shared outrage.
“We’re out here to make sure our voices are heard,” sophomore Genesis Campbell said. “We’re not adults, we can’t vote yet. But we need to speak up, and I hope people will listen.”
Political leaders have spoken out and congressional measures have been proposed after other shooting tragedies through the years, but little has come to fruition. President Trump vowed to tackle “the difficult issue of mental health” during a visit to a Florida hospital Saturday. But Trump made no mention of gun violence or any new measure to restrict access to firearms.
So, will the powerful chorus of students be a tipping point in the gun violence debate? Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., thinks the youths could be a difference-maker.
Speaking outside the Parkland high school where the rampage took place, Nelson said Friday that he feels inspired by the commanding words of the student survivors.
“The fact that they are speaking up as boldly as they are, maybe that’s the turning point. You haven’t heard students speak up one after another after another after witnessing such carnage and speaking out with such conviction.”