“If we’ve learned anything from the tragedy at Parkland,” said Congressman Jared Huffman, speaking on Sunday, March 18 at a standing-room-only Student Summit on School Safety and Gun Violence Prevention at Dominican University, “it’s that young voices are powerful voices. In the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Marjory Stoneman) in Parkland, the students who experienced it, and their supporters and friends, have been bravely standing up to speak out—in the face of some brutal opposition and bullying—and I have to say it’s been incredibly inspiring, proving that young people can be incredibly persuasive advocates for the things they care about.”
Just five days after the much-publicized, nationwide #ENOUGH National School Walkout on March 14—coming one month after the Parkland shootings and lasting a symbolic 17 minutes, one for every life lost at Marjory Stoneman on February 14—the summit drew more than 850 students and community members. An assemblage of 18 “student ambassadors” representing 15 high schools and colleges were on stage to represent their campuses. As was made clear by the signs carried by some audience members, and the organized move to register and pre-register arriving folks to vote, the summit was an unabashed call for sensible gun control, an issue made all the more vital for some of the participating students, given recent Marin County school shutdowns in the wake of threatening graffiti on some school campuses. Moderated by Huffman, the summit was initially going to include a Skype conversation with Emma Gonzalez, one of the more visible and outspoken of the Marjory Stoneman student survivors. Gonzalez’s schedule changed at the last minute, however.
“I understand she’s on a plane right now,” Huffman announced, adding, “I can’t imagine what it must be like for these students who are still grieving, trying to recover from surviving a terrible mass shooting just a few weeks ago, while also becoming national television figures and political advocates—and also trying to study for their AP Government exam.”
Filling in for Gonzalez, also via Skype, was Bradley Thornton, a 2015 graduate of Marjory Stoneman, who’s been working with the survivors at his alma mater, and has also emerged as an evident leader in the #ENOUGH movement.
In response to a question from Huffman about the online bullying that he, Gonzalez and several other student activists from Marjory Stoneman have been enduring, Thornton—currently a student at the University of Central Florida—replied that such negativity, much like the horrific shooting itself, has only made him and his fellow student activists more resolved.
“It does sometimes get to us,” Thornton admitted, “but our community and our friendship is what’s keeping us afloat. It allows us to mostly just laugh off the negativity, by sharing the negative emails and pointing out how ridiculous most of them are.”
Thornton went on to tell of Leslie Gibson, a conservative candidate for the Maine state House, who publically dismissed Gonzalez as “a skinhead lesbian,” and mocked another Marjory Stoneman survivor, David Hogg, as “a moron.” In response, Hogg took to the airwaves to invite challengers to run against Gibson. Within hours, two candidates—a Democrat and a Republican, both vocally opposed to Gibson’s remarks—had entered the race, and the popular Gibson, who’d been running unopposed, had withdrawn.
To a loud round of applause, Thornton, his face projected onto a screen above the stage, added, “People who are going to insult us, or say horribly inappropriate things to us, they now know that there will be consequences. You can disagree with us. That’s fine. But you need keep your conversation appropriate.”
Asked how much Thornton knew about gun laws in America and in Florida, the filmmaking and theater major said that he’s learned a great deal over the last four weeks. “The shooting has changed us all forever,” he said. “For one thing, those of us who are now organizing against gun violence, we’re all suddenly becoming experts on gun laws. It wasn’t our choice, but here we are. The biggest thing I’ve learned, the biggest surprise, is how little the politicians seem to care about these issues. Our voices are being ignored by a lot of politicians, who are afraid of standing up for what’s right. We don’t think that’s OK. And we’re only going to get louder.”
Thornton included a plug for the upcoming March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, March 24, and invited everyone present to join him, Gonzalez, Hogg and other student advocates from Parkland.
“There are currently over 800 other marches being planned all over the world,” he said. “March for Our Lives is now on every single continent. So if you think the government should take real action on gun control, we invite you to find a march, and come walk with us.”
Asked by one of the student summit participants if he thought the #ENOUGH movement was going to gain momentum, or eventually fade away as other similar movements have often done, Thornton said that he has no intention of stopping until real change is made.
“After the march in Washington, we are forming a non-profit organization,” he announced, “with the goal of empowering and inspiring our fellow students all over the country, to create organic and educated ways to ensure that sensible gun control becomes the number one issue in the upcoming midterm elections.”
Following Thornton’s remarks, the focus was turned back to the student representatives onstage, and a small cluster of adults representing the Marin chapter of Moms Demand Action, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Beyond Differences. Jessica Gerber, of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—named for James Brady, a former press secretary to Ronald Reagan, who was wounded during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981—said, “Jim and Sarah Brady would be so proud of all of you young people. They too took tragedy and turned it into activism and change, and if they were alive today, they’d be marching right along with you.”
Huffman asked the audience what they thought of the idea to arm teachers.
“I’ve been approached by many of my teachers, expressing their own concerns and fears about being armed,” replied Evelyn Navarro, student government assembly president of Santa Rosa Junior College. “And I’ve been approached by students who are praying that their teachers will never be armed. And my question for you is, what are you going to do, as our congressman, to stop this from ever happening?”
Huffman’s reply included an educated guess as to how the Trump administration might attempt to enact such a policy, largely by offering cash incentives to states or counties that implemented such a plan.
“But the decision would have to come down to the local school district level, and probably to the individual school,” he said. “I will just tell you that everywhere I go, the answer is loud and clear, from students and parents and educators, that this is just a really dumb idea. I’m really not that concerned that we’re going to see armed teachers in the North Bay, or Mendocino and the North Coast. My bigger concern is that this is just an intentional distraction. That by throwing this out there, President Trump and the NRA are hoping we’ll get all distracted and excited about this crazy suggestion, and will waste this moment of momentum, and not take advantage of a few really sensible things we can easily do right now: Background checks, a ban on assault weapons, things like that.”
A question posed by an audience member asked if any of the students had seen their parents change their views on gun control in response to recent events, or in response to the advocacy of their children.
“I’m originally from Redding, California,” said Samantha Hunt, vice president of the Associated Students of Dominican University. “So I come from a very different kind of background than here in Marin. Both of my parents are strong defenders of the Second Amendment, and we’ve been having a lot of conversations about what’s going on, and the capacities of all of these firearms. And they do see the importance of common sense gun legislation, but that came after years and years of conversations where I ended up hearing myself saying, ‘We’re not trying to take away all of the guns, mom!’”
Asked by Huffman what ultimately caused her mother to shift her views, Hunt said that it had a lot to do with realizing that school shootings weren’t just happening to other people’s children.
“I’m her only child. I’m her baby,” Hunt said with a smile, “and I think my mom eventually understood that this was happening to children, children that parents just like her are sending every day into places they think, and trust and hope are safe.”
Alex Simard, of Marin Catholic High School, told of a long period when his family became ardent gun enthusiasts. “When I graduated from elementary school, my grandfather thought the best thing for a fifth grade boy was to have his very own shotgun,” Simard said. “So that was my graduation gift. And after that, my dad and I experienced this two- or three-year-long romance with guns. We talked about guns all the time. We had a white pickup truck and an NRA sticker. All of that. And then when Sandy Hook happened, we both woke up and realized, maybe we liked guns, but that didn’t mean we needed them. And what if someone stole some of our guns and did something terrible?”
Not long after, his family voluntarily gave up all of their guns.
Helen Rosen, of the Marin chapter of Moms Demand Action, said that the organization was founded five years ago by Shannon Watts, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. “Shannon was a mom, and she was horrified that so little was being done in this country in response to school shootings,” Rosen said. “She had a huge response, immediately, but I have to tell you, since the Parkland shooting last month, the response has been overwhelming. As of today, we have over 4.5 million supporters working for Moms Demand Action around the country. We are not for taking away all guns, but we are for sensible legislation to curb this epidemic of violence. Seven teenagers a day are shot and killed by guns. That’s a national health crisis, and something real must be done about that, and it must be done now.”
Adam Friedman, of Marin Academy, asked Huffman what could be said in response to those who genuinely fear that gun control will lead to the abolition of the Second Amendment, and the end of Americans’ right to own guns.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we have to find a way to debunk this paranoia that we want to take all of those guns away,” Huffman said. “California has a rigorous background check system. We have a number of sensible laws that exist, and guess what? People still are allowed to have guns. There are just some limits that prevent certain dangerous people from getting them. But if you can go to another state and get around our laws, then it doesn’t help. So what many of us are proposing is national implementation of the most sensible existing gun laws.”
Huffman asked if anyone knew the first words of the Second Amendment. The response from several students was a simultaneous recitation of the phrase, “A well-regulated militia.”
“‘Regulated,’” repeated Huffman. “The Founding Fathers were in favor of some sensible regulation. That’s all we want. Just what the Second Amendment already calls for.” He went on to describe what happens in Congress following every new school shooting. “There is a general statement that it would be inappropriate to discuss politics at such a time, someone from the state where the tragedy has occurred will make a short statement about thoughts and prayers, a moment of silence will be called for, the House solemnly bows its heads for about 20 seconds, the gavel will bang and we go back to business as usual.”
“We call B.S.!” shouted a voice from the audience, inspiring a huge round of applause from the student ambassadors.
“And that’s just what you are all doing, with this march that’s coming up, and with your advocacy,” Huffman responded. “You’re saying not any more. This has to stop. We’re not going to let this issue go away. That’s important. Your voices are important, and they need to be as loud as you can make them.”
Perhaps the most rousing moment came from Jake Cohen, of Tamalpais High School, who took the microphone to make a crowd-pleasing announcement. “I’m a freshman,” he said, “and as soon as I turn 18 I am running for office. It might be the City Council, or it might be something else, but it’s something I’m going to do, because my community needs to be represented. My Jewish community, my queer community and my youth community [need] to be represented. We’re tired of false promises coming from adults who claim to be our allies. We’re young, but we’re not stupid. We understand the issues.
“So, putting it plainly,” Cohen added, “the youth community is just going to have to register to vote, learn everything we can and then take over to make the changes the adults have been too cowardly to make themselves.”
A March for Our Lives event takes place on Saturday, March 24, 1pm, San Francisco Civic Center Plaza, 335 McAllister St., San Francisco; marchforourlives.com.