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Florida students rally in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a week after the mass shooting there.

Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

SPECIAL REPORT

‘Never Again’

The response to the mass shooting at a Florida high school has been a surge of activism among students nationwide. Can they change the debate on guns?

Alex Wind survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February by huddling in a classroom closet with about 60 other students for an hour and a half. Listening to bursts of gunfire in the hallway and desperate with fear, Alex texted his parents what he thought might be a goodbye: “I think there’s a shooter on campus . . . I love you guys.”

The following day, Alex was grief stricken and angry when he saw his best friend, Cameron Kasky, at a vigil for the 17 students and staff members killed at the school in Parkland, Florida. (The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student there, was already in custody.) Alex and Cameron hugged and agreed they had to do more than comfort each other and their classmates. They decided to take action, and Cameron proposed the name Never Again for a new group dedicated to pushing for stronger gun laws in the United States.

Within days, Never Again, formed along with other Stoneman Douglas students, had tens of thousands of social media followers, and Alex and his classmates had thrown themselves into staging political rallies, researching the legal framework of gun control, giving interviews, appearing on TV, and meeting with lawmakers.

“It was incredible to see how something that we started snowballed,” says Alex, a 17-year-old junior.

Alex Wind survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February by huddling in a classroom closet with about 60 other students for an hour and a half. He listened to the bursts of gunfire in the hallway. Desperate with fear, Alex texted his parents what he thought might be a goodbye: “I think there’s a shooter on campus . . . I love you guys.”

The following day, a vigil was held for the 17 students and staff members who were killed at the school in Parkland, Florida. Alex attended. He was grief stricken and angry when he saw his best friend, Cameron Kasky. The two boys hugged and agreed they had to do more than comfort each other and their classmates. They decided to take action. Cameron proposed the name Never Again for a new group dedicated to pushing for stronger gun laws in the United States.

Along with other Stoneman Douglas students, Alex and Cameron formed Never Again. Within days, the group had tens of thousands of social media followers. Alex and his classmates also threw themselves into staging political rallies. They researched the legal framework of gun control. They gave interviews, appeared on TV, and met with lawmakers.

“It was incredible to see how something that we started snowballed,” says Alex, a 17-year-old junior.

‘We Call B.S.!’

After decades of gridlock in the bitter national debate over the nation’s gun laws, some observers are wondering if these student activists might tip the scales and convince lawmakers to put aside their differences and act. The students are determined to try to make that happen.

Stoneman Douglas senior Emma González became an overnight celebrity after her impassioned speech at a Fort Lauderdale gun control rally
a few days after the shooting went viral on social media. “They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred,” she roared to a crowd of hundreds. “We call B.S.!”

Senior David Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed fellow students as they hid from the shooter, was so poised in TV appearances calling for stricter gun laws that conspiracy theorists began to circulate false stories online that Hogg, 17, was actually an actor paid by gun control interest groups.

Seizing their moment in the spotlight, the teens quickly announced plans for a national march on Washington on March 24 to urge lawmakers to pass gun control measures. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey made huge donations
to support the cause. (Separately, a nationwide student walkout is planned for March 14.)

There have been decades of gridlock in the bitter national debate over the nation’s gun laws. Now, some observers are wondering if these student activists might tip the scales and convince lawmakers to put aside their differences and act. The students are determined to try to make that happen.

Stoneman Douglas senior Emma González gave an impassioned speech at a Fort Lauderdale gun control rally a few days after the shooting. It went viral on social media, making her an overnight celebrity. “They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred,” she roared to a crowd of hundreds. “We call B.S.!”

Senior David Hogg, a student journalist, interviewed fellow students as they hid from the shooter. He was so poised in TV appearances calling for stricter gun laws that conspiracy theorists began to circulate false stories online. They claimed that Hogg, 17, was actually an actor paid by gun control interest groups.

The teens are seizing their moment in the spotlight. They quickly announced plans for a national march on Washington to urge lawmakers to pass gun control measures. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey made huge donations to support the cause.

‘It’s merging into a national movement.’

The movement has continued to gather steam. The Stoneman Douglas students have met with lawmakers in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, to press for changes to state law. They’ve traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress and with President Trump. And their activism has inspired high school students across the country to follow their lead and stage protests, rallies, and walkouts to draw attention to the issue of school safety and gun control.

“We’re seeing lots and lots of students who weren’t directly impacted by this standing up and taking action,” says Angus Johnston, a professor at Hostos Community College in New York City who studies youth movements. “It’s merging into a national movement.”

The movement has continued to gather steam. The Stoneman Douglas students have met with lawmakers in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, to press for changes to state law. They’ve traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress and with President Trump. And their activism has inspired high school students across the country to follow their lead. More students have staged protests, rallies, and walkouts to draw attention to the issue of school safety and gun control.

“We’re seeing lots and lots of students who weren’t directly impacted by this standing up and taking action,” says Angus Johnston, a professor at Hostos Community College in New York City who studies youth movements. “It’s merging into a national movement.” 

A Long List of Tragedies

The school shooting in Florida follows a long string of national tragedies, including the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado; the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech; the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in October. Each time, a familiar script has played out: horror at the death toll, calls for action in response, and ultimately legislative gridlock.

The school shooting in Florida follows a long string of national tragedies. Among them are the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado; the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech; the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in October. Each time, a familiar script has played out. There is horror at the death toll, calls for action in response, and ultimately legislative gridlock.

Gun Laws by State

This map shows which states ban assault weapons and/or require additional background checks beyond what is already required by federal law*

Jim McMahon

The big question for many has been: Might the passion and the engagement of all these young people be enough to change that script?

There are already signs of action in statehouses across the nation, with lawmakers considering a variety of measures. In Florida, the legislature in March passed a gun control bill that raises the minimum age to purchase any gun to 21, creates a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, bans bump stocks,* provides money for school security and mental health services, and creates a voluntary program to arm some school personnel. The new law does not include an assault weapons ban, tighter background checks, and other changes sought by student activists. Other states, including Wyoming, Idaho, and Virginia, were considering expanding gun rights, sometimes citing the Parkland shooting as a motivating factor. Whether Congress takes any action is another question (see “A Divided Nation,” below).

Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a center-left advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is a longtime watcher of gun debates that have failed to lead to compromise on this issue, which stirs passion on both sides. He thinks this time might be different.

“What has changed . . . is the kids and the extraordinary, galvanizing force they have become,” Bennett says. “No one knows when we are going to hit a tipping point on this issue. We may have hit it—we don’t know. But if we did, it’s because of them.”

Many people, however, while deeply concerned about school shootings, aren’t convinced that the answer is more restrictions on guns.

“Of course we want to listen to these kids,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said after meeting with students, “but we also want to make sure that we protect people’s due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don’t get them.”

The big question for many has been: Might the passion and the engagement of all these young people be enough to change that script?

There are already signs of action in statehouses across the nation. Lawmakers are considering a variety of measures. In Florida, the legislature in March passed a gun control bill that raises the minimum age to purchase any gun to 21 and creates a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. It also bans bump stocks,* provides money for school security and mental health services, and creates a voluntary program to arm some school personnel. The new law does not include an assault weapons ban, tighter background checks, and other changes sought by student activists. Other states, including Wyoming, Idaho, and Virginia, were considering expanding gun rights. Whether Congress takes any action is another question (see “A Divided Nation,” below).

Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a center-left advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is a longtime watcher of gun debates that have failed to lead to compromise on this issue, which stirs passion on both sides. He thinks this time might be different.

“What has changed . . . is the kids and the extraordinary, galvanizing force they have become,” Bennett says. “No one knows when we are going to hit a tipping point on this issue. We may have hit it—we don’t know. But if we did, it’s because of them.”

Many people are very concerned about school shootings. But they aren’t convinced that the answer is more restrictions on guns.

“Of course we want to listen to these kids,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said after meeting with students, “but we also want to make sure that we protect people’s due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don’t get them.”

Walkouts & Rallies

Young people have often been on the forefront of demanding social and political change in America, says Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies youth movements. But the movement these high school students have launched to push for stricter gun laws is beginning to draw comparisons with the influential student protest movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s.

“These students have great moral credibility because they speak as people directly affected by this issue,” Costanza-Chock says.

Today’s high school students have grown up in a world reshaped by the 1999 Columbine attack, which killed 13 people. They’ve spent their entire school careers practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. For many of them, the natural response in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting was action.

In the weeks since the shooting, thousands of high school students across the country have demonstrated in support of the Stoneman Douglas students and their fight for gun control. Students at several high schools outside Atlanta walked out and held rallies for gun control. In the suburbs of Chicago, hundreds of students at dozens of schools staged walkouts. High school students in Kansas City and St. Louis also held protests.

In fact, there have been so many protests and walkouts that more than 200 colleges have announced that school disciplinary actions against students for taking part would not affect their college admissions prospects. 

Young people have often been on the forefront of demanding social and political change in America, says Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies youth movements. But the movement these high school students have launched to push for stricter gun laws is beginning to draw comparisons with the influential student protest movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s.

“These students have great moral credibility because they speak as people directly affected by this issue,” Costanza-Chock says.

Today’s high school students have grown up in a world reshaped by the 1999 Columbine attack that killed 13 people. They’ve spent their entire school careers practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. For many of them, the natural response in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting was action.

In the weeks since the shooting, thousands of high school students across the country have demonstrated in support of the Stoneman Douglas students and their fight for gun control. Students at several high schools outside Atlanta walked out and held rallies for gun control. In the suburbs of Chicago, hundreds of students at dozens of schools staged walkouts. High school students in Kansas City and St. Louis also held protests.

In fact, there have been so many protests and walkouts that more than 200 colleges have announced that school disciplinary actions against students for taking part would not affect their college admissions prospects. 

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa via AP Images

Teens stage a “lie-in” in front of the White House in February calling for action to prevent school shootings.

‘It Could Be Any of Us’

Students at schools in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have been particularly active. Caroline Kassir helped lead a student walkout at her school, H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, Virginia.

“There’s something about seeing people your age standing up and making speeches and fighting for change that makes you feel like you can do it too,” says Kassir, an 18-year-old senior. 

Kassir says she and her classmates felt like they had a special responsibility to take action because they live just outside the nation’s capital. On February 21, a group of about 100 students walked about five miles from their school, across the Potomac River, and through Washington to the White House. The students chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho! Gun violence has got to go!” Outside the White House, they met up with students from other D.C.-area high schools.

“This is a personal issue for everyone,” Kassir says, explaining why so many high school students have felt the need to act. “It’s not just some kids in Parkland. It’s not just some kids in D.C. This has to be a nationwide thing. It could be any of us. This is as pressing and as personal as it gets.”

Alex Wind says he’s inspired by how students across the country have taken up the cause. “It’s encouraging to see that these people are marching for us,” he says. “We’re the voice of the voiceless, the people who’ve lost their lives. So we’re trying to be those voices. The fact that people are doing that for us in D.C.—it’s surreal.”

Many aspects of the students’ lives have been surreal since the shooting. Practically overnight, they went from teens focused on friends, homework, and college applications to political activists with access to some of the most powerful people in the nation. Emma González didn’t even have a Twitter account until two days after the shooting; now she has more than 1 million followers. 

“This is my whole world now,” González says. “I cannot allow myself to stop talking about this.”

Students at schools in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have been particularly active. Caroline Kassir helped lead a student walkout at her school, H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, Virginia.

“There’s something about seeing people your age standing up and making speeches and fighting for change that makes you feel like you can do it too,” says Kassir, an 18-year-old senior. 

Kassir says she and her classmates felt like they had a special responsibility to take action because they live right outside the nation’s capital. On February 21, a group of about 100 students walked about five miles from their school, across the Potomac River, and through Washington to the White House. The students chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho! Gun violence has got to go!” Outside the White House, they met up with students from other D.C.-area high schools.

“This is a personal issue for everyone,” Kassir says, explaining why so many high school students have felt the need to act. “It’s not just some kids in Parkland. It’s not just some kids in D.C. This has to be a nationwide thing. It could be any of us. This is as pressing and as personal as it gets.”

Alex Wind says he’s inspired by how students across the country have taken up the cause. “It’s encouraging to see that these people are marching for us,” he says. “We’re the voice of the voiceless, the people who’ve lost their lives. So we’re trying to be those voices. The fact that people are doing that for us in D.C.—it’s surreal.”

Many aspects of the students’ lives have been surreal since the shooting. Practically overnight, they went from teens focused on friends, homework, and college applications to political activists with access to some of the most powerful people in the nation. Emma González didn’t even have a Twitter account until two days after the shooting. Now she has more than 1 million followers. 

“This is my whole world now,” González says. “I cannot allow myself to stop talking about this.”

Struggling With the Trauma

But with the newfound fame and media clout has come a downside: Some of the students who’ve attracted the most attention have also been targets of threats and harassment from extremists and those who disagree with them. David Hogg has stopped checking his email because he’s been getting death threats from people who claim he’s not really a student. Cameron Kasky has taken a break from Facebook because of harassment.

The Stoneman Douglas students say that activism is helping them grieve by giving some purpose to the senseless killings of their friends. But even as they raise millions and plan nationwide rallies, they’re struggling with the trauma they’ve lived through.

“There are times where I just want to cry,” says Ashley Turner, a Stoneman Douglas senior.

Looking ahead, the student activists say they plan to keep pressing politicians on this issue in the coming months. Many of them are 17 or 18 and either already eligible to vote or on the cusp of being voters.

But the newfound fame and media clout have come with a downside. Some of the students who’ve attracted the most attention have also become targets. They’ve been threatened and harassed by extremists and those who disagree with them. David Hogg has stopped checking his email because he’s been getting death threats from people who claim he’s not really a student. Cameron Kasky has taken a break from Facebook because of harassment.

The Stoneman Douglas students say that activism is helping them grieve. It has given some purpose to the senseless killings of their friends. They continue to raise millions and plan nationwide rallies. But even still, they’re struggling with the trauma they’ve lived through. 

“There are times where I just want to cry,” says Ashley Turner, a Stoneman Douglas senior.

Looking ahead, the student activists say they plan to keep pressing politicians on this issue in the coming months. Many of them are 17 or 18 and either already eligible to vote or on the cusp of being voters. 

Will anger over the shooting drive up youth voter turnout?