Hundreds of thousands of students stood up and streamed out of classrooms across the country on March 14 as part of the National School Walkout. The protest honored the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and called on lawmakers to pass gun control legislation.
But this was just the beginning of a new wave of teenage activism against gun violence. In less than two weeks, thousands are expected to amass in Washington, DC, for a March for Our Lives protest on March 24. Another national school walkout is planned a month from now on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
The unprecedented walkout on March 14 is an early sign that this movement, ignited by survivors of the Parkland shooting last month, is gathering strength. Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut who started a petition for the idea of an April 20 walkout, told Vox these protests are more than symbolic. Together, they’re the first step in what she sees a real grassroots movement for concrete changes to gun laws.
“There is a lot more to come,” Murdock said. “It’s big enough that it scares me. It’s going to be hard — but it’s realistic enough that I know we can get it done.”
What to expect in the March for Our Lives and the April 20 walkout
Teenage activists are preparing for two more major activist events in the coming weeks: March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24, and a National School Walkout on April 20.
Survivors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24, with the support of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun law reform advocacy group.
We're marching to show our support for students across the country who are demanding that leaders take action to end gun violence in our schools and communities. What about you? Share your story using the hashtag #IWillMarch. March with us and RSVP here: https://t.co/6qW3824ke3 pic.twitter.com/XldZ67tUsa— March For Our Lives (@AMarch4OurLives) March 12, 2018
“A march to get the entire country to unite under one cause — it is the ultimate show of prominence and support and just rage toward the things that have been happening in our country for so long,” Delaney Tarr, a 17-year-old senior at Stoneman Douglas, told Vox last month.
In Washington on March 24, protesters will march along Pennsylvania Avenue starting at 12 pm. The demonstration could draw as many as 500,000 people to the nation’s capital. “Sibling marches” are also planned in dozens and dozens of cities across the country from Maui to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Some international cities are hosting marches: Quebec, Canada; Bogota, Colombia; Bucharest, Romania; Brussels, Belgium; Hong Kong.
“On the 24th we’ll take another major action together,” March for Our Lives posted on its website in response to the walkouts. “We will keep up the pressure. Then we will take more action. This fall we will go and vote like no generation has in history. It is only when we show the collective strength of our voices, in the streets and at the voting booth, will they start to listen.”
A month after the march, students will walk out of classrooms against on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in Colorado. Murdock came up with the idea immediately after the Parkland shooting; she was tired of how numb America was becoming to yet another school shooting. “But I also just felt really powerless,” Murdock told Vox. So, she thought, “what could I do to help other kids who felt really powerless?”
On the day of the Parkland shooting, Valentine’s Day, she said, she created a petition: a rough outline of what she wanted to see happen, which was for kids to pledge to walk out. “It kind of blew up overnight,” she said.
Today’s energy has been incredible, and we’ve shown the world that we’re serious.— National School Walkout (@schoolwalkoutUS) March 14, 2018
But this isn’t the end.
We have to keep the momentum going with the April 20th #NationalSchoolWalkout.
Next month, even more people will stand up to demand change.
We will not give up.
Indivisible, the progressive organizing group founded after the 2016 election, is backing the April 20 walkout, and helping Murdock and some of her fellow students organize.
Some students who participated in the March 14 walkout told Vox they would also demonstrate on April 20, though not all had events planned. Students at more than 1,500 schools have signed up so far to participate, though that number will probably balloon as the date gets closer.
“April 20 isn’t the end of this,” Murdock said. “April 20 is the launch. We want to make sure we take all this momentum, power, and interest and turn it into concrete, actual change.”
Teen activism is driving a new push for gun control
The Parkland survivors ignited a new gun control movement by finding a platform in their tragedy. David Hogg rode his bike to school after the shooting to film as a journalist and then found himself on Fox News, where he said there couldn’t be another mass shooting. Emma Gonzalez’s speech led to a chant: “We call BS.” Cameron Kasky challenged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on accepting donations from the National Rifle Association during a CNN town hall.
Student activists are tired of being numb to school shootings, of simply moving on, of referring to “another” school shooting. Some have watched guns steal away family, friends, and classmates.
Kari Gottfried, a junior at Corvallis High School in Oregon, is 17; she wasn’t even born when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. “I’ve never known a world where there aren’t mass shootings,” she said.
Gottfried and her fellow student activists feel this issue personally. They were in middle school when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened — old enough to understand the savagery, young enough to remember their own elementary school classrooms. They’ve grown up with active shooter drills, watched protocol morph in response to the latest tragedy. Gottfried said that now if the fire alarm goes off, students are told to go into lockdown mode. “It’s more likely there would be a shooter than a fire in Corvallis,” she said.
“We’re no strangers to gun violence,” Fiorina Talaba, an 18-year-old senior from Carson High in California, said of herself and her fellow students. “When we heard about the shooting in Florida, it really spoke to us, and we wanted to have some type of change.”
The teenage activists have another thing in common: social media. Students across the country are connecting with each other, sharing strategies and stories. Maxwell Nardi, an 18-year-old senior at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia, made the case that those who demeaned his generation for being obsessed with their phones are in for their own awakening. “We’re fighting for this issue, were making our voices these tools,” he said.
Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old junior at the Beacon School in Manhattan, is organizing a bus down to DC for the March for Our Lives. She said she felt an “urgency of collaboration.”
“Our generation is so easily discredited as the social media generation, always on our phones,” she said. “But look what social media has done for this movement. It turned into this national thing.”
The public pressure has pushed lawmakers to act
Students are also pushing for gun law reform with the National School Walkout. They’re focusing on small actions — what teenagers can do to get more involved, including registering to vote and writing to lawmakers.
But they can already claim some victories. The big one: refusing to let the country move on and forget.
That has put pressure on lawmakers to act. Staunchly pro-gun Florida bucked the NRA to pass the first gun restrictions in the state in more than 20 years, in consultation with the families of Parkland victims. The law increased the age to purchase a firearm to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period, and created a system for police to petition to remove guns from someone deemed a threat. It put millions of dollars toward school safety and mental health initiatives, though it included a controversial, voluntary program to arm some school employees.
Dozens of other states passed new gun safety measured in the aftermath of Parkland or are mulling new restrictions. Kansas, New York, and some other states are considering legislation similar to Florida’s that would allow for judges to temporarily remove guns if people are deemed a threat. These “red flag laws” existed in five states before the Parkland shooting. Rhode Island’s governor signed an executive order to institute such a policy after Parkland.
Washington state banned bump stocks, devices that effectively let semiautomatic weapons function like fully automatic ones. Cincinnati, Ohio, wants to do the same. Illinois is trying to pass a measure that would require criminal background checks for all gun shop employees; the Parkland shooting has reanimated debate over the legislation.
And some states have backed away from loosening gun control laws. Iowa is letting a bill die that would have removed the permit requirement to carry weapons.
The Trump administration took steps to ban bump stocks in the wake of Parkland and just released a school safety plan. It calls for “risk protection orders” to confiscate weapons from those deemed a threat and has a proposal to arm teachers.
It also calls on Congress to pass the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill introduced after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting to strengthen the background check system. The White House’s plan is largely NRA-friendly — but the White House did not take similar action in the wake of massacres in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs.
Students activists said they’re open to different ideas and debates about the Second Amendment. Geismar said she and her fellow activists are just looking for middle ground. “It’s not Republican or Democrat; it’s about keeping people safe,” she said.
Talaba said she and her fellow students were focused particularly on mental health. She believes tighter background checks will help. But she also sees that as a first incremental, achievable step.
The walkout is a chance to stake out their role in this debate. “I just don’t like how congressmen, or these older people, just don’t see that even us kids, we can have these very serious conversations,” Talaba said. “We know what we want from our society: to have less guns and, at some point, no guns at all.”
It is also a reminder for lawmakers to listen and take these student activists seriously. All they can do now is lobby for change. But soon they’ll be the ones with the power to decide politicians’ fates — if not in 2018, then in 2020.
But it’s bigger than elections, and uncomfortable conversations. As Nardi, the senior from Richmond said, “This is literally matter of life and death.”