On Monday, teens staged a “lie-in” at the White House, calling for action on gun control. 

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A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out for Change

After the tragedy in Florida, students are speaking out and demanding tighter gun control laws

Delaney Tarr, a high school senior, can’t remember a time when she didn’t know about school shootings.

So when a fire alarm went off inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and teachers began screaming “Code red!” as confused students ran in and out of classrooms, Delaney, 17, knew what to do. Run to the safest place in the classroom—in this case, a closet packed with 19 students and their teacher.

“I’ve been told these protocols for years,” she said. “My sister is in middle school—she’s 12—and in elementary school, she had to do code red drills.”

This is life for the children of the mass shooting generation. They were born into a world reshaped by the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 13 people, and grew up practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. They talked about threats and safety steps with their parents and teachers. With friends, they wondered whether it could happen at their own school, and who might do it.

Now, this generation is almost grown up. And when a gunman killed 17 people last week at Stoneman Douglas High, the first response of many of their classmates was not to grieve in silence, but to speak out. Their urgent voices—in television interviews, on social media, even from inside a locked school office as they hid from the gunman—are now rising in the national debate over gun violence in the aftermath of yet another school shooting.

On Monday, a group of teens staged a “lie-in” outside the White House, in Washington, D.C., calling for political action on gun control. The silent protest, which involved dozens of students lying on the ground as if they were corpses, was organized by a Facebook group called “Teens for Gun Reform.” 

That protest came two days after students in Florida—including many from Stoneman Douglas—held a rally at the Broward County federal courthouse to speak about gun control. Emma González, a senior, pledged that her school would be the site of the nation’s last mass shooting. How could she know? Because, she said, she and her peers would take it upon themselves to “change the law.”

“The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” she said. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call B.S.”

“They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence—we call B.S.!” she continued as a chorus of supporters echoed her. “They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun—we call B.S.! They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars—we call B.S.! They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred—we call B.S.! That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works—we call B.S.!” Video of González speaking quickly went viral.

Several students from Stoneman Douglas are already planning a “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand stricter gun laws and action from lawmakers. (Separately, the Women’s March Network is calling on students, teachers, and school administrators to participate in a national school walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14. The walkout will last for 17 minutes—a minute for each of the 17 Stoneman Douglas victims.)    

While many politicians after the shooting were focused on mental health and safety, some vocal students at Stoneman Douglas High showed no reluctance in drawing attention to gun control.

They called out politicians over Twitter, with one student telling Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.” Shortly after the shooting, Cameron Kasky, a junior at the school, and a few friends started a “Never Again” campaign on Facebook that shared stories and perspectives from other students who survived the rampage.

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Emma González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spoke at a student-led rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on February 17.

'It's Way Too Late'

At other high schools across the country, students rallied in solidarity with Stoneman Douglas High and staged walkouts to protest what they called Washington’s inaction in protecting students and teachers. A gun control advocacy group, Moms Demand Action, said it had been so overwhelmed with requests from students that it was setting up a parallel, student focused advocacy group.

“People say it’s too early to talk about it,” Cameron said. “If you ask me, it’s way too late.”

His argument reflects the words of other students who want action: The issue is not an abstraction to them. These are their murdered friends, their bloodstained schools, their upended lives.

Students said they did not want to cede the discussion over their lives to politicians and adult activists.

“We need to take it into our hands,” Cameron said.

David Hogg, a 17-year-old student journalist who interviewed his classmates during the rampage in Parkland, said he had thought about the possibility of a school shooting long before shots from an AR-15 started to blast through the hallways. As he huddled with fellow students, he stayed calm and decided to try to create a record of their thoughts and views that would live on, even if the worst happened to them.

“I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive,” he said. “But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.”

It is a stark change from the moments that followed the Columbine shooting in April 1999, said Austin Eubanks, who survived that shooting. Eubanks and a friend hid under a table when the two teenage gunmen walked into the library and started shooting. Eubanks was wounded. His friend, Corey DePooter, was killed.

“There was nobody who took an activism stance,” Eubanks said of Columbine’s immediate aftermath. He said he began abusing opiates shortly after as a coping mechanism. “I just wanted to be left alone. I was so destabilized and traumatized.”

Eubanks now helps run an addiction treatment center in Colorado and has sons of his own, aged 8 and 12. The oldest has asked why Columbine happened and whether he needs to be afraid, and Eubanks said he has tried to make the boys feel safe while also discussing how children can drift toward violence.

Lockdowns and Code Red Drills

No matter how rare school shootings are for the vast majority of students around the country, they have grown up in a world so attuned to these threats that high schoolers are now more conversant in the language of lockdowns and code red drills than their parents.

Spencer Collier, the police chief in Selma, Alabama, was chatting recently with a group of high school students when they brought up mass shootings and pressed him about current trends and what law enforcement agencies were doing to address them. In Connecticut, Nathaniel Laske, a high school junior, said he had asked school administrators about the apparent absence of lockdown drills or a mass shooting plan in the event something happened during school theater productions.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to talk about it,” Nathan said. “When you’re part of a school community it makes you much more inclined to want to prevent things.”

Soon after Amy Campbell-Oates, 16, heard about the Parkland shooting, she knew she wanted to try, in some small way, to influence the national discussion on gun violence. She and two friends organized a protest, made posters, and on Friday, they rallied with dozens of fellow students from South Broward High School.

They carried signs that read “It Could’ve Been Us,” and “Your Silence is Killing Us,” and “We Stand with Stoneman Douglas.” They chanted, their collective voices rising as cars honked in support.

“We agreed that our politicians have to do more than say thoughts and prayers,” Amy said. “We want voters to know that midterms are coming up. Some of us can’t vote yet but we want to get to the people that can to vote in common sense laws, ban assault rifles and require mental health checks before gun purchases.”

Tyra Hemans, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High, made a poster, too, emblazoned with the word “ENOUGH.” On Friday, Tyra attended the funeral for Meadow Pollack, one of the 17 people killed, and then she spoke about her desire to see President Trump when he visits the area.

“I want our politicians to stop thinking about money and start thinking about all these lives we have lost,” she said. “I want to talk with him about changing these laws. Seventeen people are dead, killed in minutes.” 

Close Reading & Discussion Questions

1) How have students across the country responded to the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas?

2) How does this response differ from that of past school shootings? Why might that be?

3) Consider this quote from Cameron Kasky, a junior at Stoneman Douglas: “People say it’s too early to talk about [gun control]. If you ask me, it’s way too late.” What do you think he means?

4) What power do students have to enact change?