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A week ago, Delaney Tarr was thinking about prom. Now she’s trying to change gun laws.

“We are teenagers who have nothing to lose.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Delaney Tarr speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on February 17, 2018. AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Delaney Tarr will turn 18 in July, old enough to vote in the 2018 midterms. “I’m so ready to vote,” she said, “and people keep saying that ‘you guys need to go out there and vote,’ but most of us that are speaking are not legally old enough to vote.”

“We are just waiting for that moment that we can,” she added.

Yet Tarr, a 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is still trying to navigate her and her classmates’ newfound political platform. On Valentine’s Day, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, massacred 17 of Tarr’s fellow students.

Less than a week later, survivors have transformed into activists.

It is surreal, this movement that began not even a week ago, Tarr says. She and others are still trying to navigate the world of activism, even as they’re sure of the message. They will take a bus hundreds of miles to Tallahassee to speak with legislators, and to rally. They will join a CNN town hall for a dialogue on gun control. Next month, they march on Washington, DC.

“We are still, of course, grieving, and we do lash out at moments,” Tarr says. “But ultimately, we are not making this a partisan issue. We are making this, like I said, a life-or-death issue.”

Tarr says she and other Parkland activists are taking as many opportunities as possible to talk to politicians and the public through social media. They are using what power they have for now, until they can go to the polls themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jen Kirby

What is motivating you to take on this advocacy now?

Delaney Tarr

For starters, getting shot at is a big motivator for trying to prevent that from happening again. But this has always been an issue that needs to be fixed. It’s been decades of us just not doing anything about the gun legislation. People have tried to act out, but ultimately, we are given this platform.

The media is paying attention to us, we have social media at our advantage, and we are educated, we are loud. It’s just giving us this chance to promote such advocacy that hasn’t been able to be promoted before.

Jen Kirby

What do you think it is about this group of students in this particular moment that feels like a break from the past?

Delaney Tarr

There’s a whole array of factors that have played into us making this a different change because if you look at previous shootings, say Columbine was the first, so it wasn’t as much of a push; there wasn’t as much technology for them to use to their advantage.

Sandy Hook, unfortunately, was the children who passed. So ultimately it wasn’t the victims speaking up for themselves. It was the parents trying to make a difference. But we are teenagers who have nothing to lose. We don’t have jobs to protect. We don’t have anything that we need to conserve right now. We are just teenagers who were victims, and we are ready to speak out.

We are lucky enough to come from a very affluent neighborhood. We go to an amazing school that’s been giving us so many opportunities to learn about government, to learn about policy, to learn about social issues. We have so many clubs and classes dedicated to this type of thing, so we know what we’re talking about. And we’ve always been ready to speak out about it, but this has hit so close to home that we have to speak out about this, right now.

Jen Kirby

It sounded a bit as if you guys might have already been pretty politically active — if that’s the right word.

Delaney Tarr

It’s absolutely true. One of our members of the House of Representatives, Ted Deutch, he actually came down just weeks before [the shooting] to speak to us because we’ve been so politically involved. So many of us are in politics clubs. So many of us are in AP government.

We dedicate ourselves to this. We dedicate ourselves to learning about this. So we are in a place where we are lucky enough to know what to say, to know what to talk about, and to know what changes need to be made. And it’s sad to think about us being lucky at a time like this, but we have the ability to do something that others may not.

Jen Kirby

Do you guys feel a sense of responsibility now that you’re speaking out — or do you feel as if you have nothing to lose? Can you describe your mentality going into this?

Delaney Tarr

It’s a mix of emotions because ... even though it feels like it’s been months, it happened days ago. And ultimately, I know that for a lot of us, this is how we cope. But this isn’t obviously just about coping; this is about making a change.

But we are throwing ourselves into this because we have to. If we don’t throw ourselves into it, then it feels almost like these people were murdered in vain. There is nothing that can come out of this to keep more people from dying, and it is a lot of responsibility, but ultimately we are only speaking out now for those who cannot and for those who are not ready yet.

I know that the moment people who are more directly affected than me are ready to speak out and ready to step up, I will sacrifice my platform to let them come out and tell their own stories because every person at that school on Wednesday has a story to tell. We’re just telling ours right now.

Jen Kirby

You have this platform, and yet perhaps the worst possible thing that can happen to any human happened to you and your classmates last week. How do you balance the strain of advocacy and healing?

Delaney Tarr

It is so hard to balance it. Our peers are still being put to rest. There are funerals still happening.

It’s so surreal to think about because literally a week ago, my main concerns were going to the beach, figuring out prom, getting good grades on my projects, and now everything is on this monumental scale. I haven’t been able to put down my phone because it’s been blowing up with calls and emails and offers to speak. It’s a very surreal experience. You never think you’re going to say a sentence like, “Oh, yeah, let me direct message Zendaya,” or, “Let me give Justin Bieber a call.”

It feels so strange, and it feels like we’ve aged so much in such a short time. We’re all adults now because we haven’t been able to sit and grieve for more than probably a day. We had to jump into action, and ultimately, this is the only thing that is going to heal us.

Personally, I’m not going to heal unless I can rest easy knowing that the people that are around me can go to school safely, can go to church, can go to clubs, can go anywhere safely. That is the only thing that’s going to heal me.

While it may be hard to balance this grieving process and speaking out, we are being given this platform right now. And this platform is very much temporary because so many things are happening in our country that it needs to move on. But we have to take advantage of it while we still can.

Jen Kirby

How did you guys decide that the March for Our Lives would be an effective way to keep your activism?

Delaney Tarr

I may not have been there the moment that we decided to do the march, but it makes sense. Because this has all been about making ourselves so loud, making ourselves so prominent that the government and the politicians can’t ignore us anymore. That the NRA can no longer sweep us under the rug.

And 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.

Jen Kirby

You and your classmates are part of a sorrowful sisterhood and brotherhood. Have you been in touch with others who’ve experienced this very specific tragedy?

Delaney Tarr

I’ve had people messaging me from all over the country, saying that they’ve experienced similar things and they appreciate us and what we’ve done and that they feel this is different, that this is the time that things can actually change. It’s so good to hear that people have that faith in us.

To hear that we are helping people feel safer, helping them feel more positive, more hope about the future of our country. It’s not just us doing this — this is a movement. This is not about us. But just to know what we are helping, it’s such a good feeling.

Jen Kirby

Do you feel a lot of pressure because of that?

Delaney Tarr

I do feel a certain degree of pressure. It is one that I take on willingly. I know that I could easily, at any point, I could stop doing this. I could just grieve like a normal teenager and not pursue this advocacy, pursue this activism.

But it just feels wrong to not do anything. I’m in a place where I can speak out, where I have the ability to speak out and make people listen, to cause that difference, so it is a stress that I take on very willingly. No matter how overwhelming it gets, I know that it is for a good cause.

Jen Kirby

What about the opposition — are you getting attacked by pro-gun groups and others who disagree with your stances?

Delaney Tarr

We get all of that hate. Sometimes I like to look at the most entertaining ones — because we have such an outpouring of support from so many people that those are just dust in the wind. It doesn’t make a difference to have these people saying that they’d rather support the NRA, that we’re taking away their guns, which we do not want to do.

They’re either misunderstanding our movement or they’re just complaining and they’re not doing anything — which, ultimately, a couple of complaints aren’t going to hurt the cause. It’s an inevitability when you are doing something this big and this controversial for so many people. Even though it shouldn’t be controversial.

So we just ignore it. We look at some of the entertaining ones, we laugh at them, but we just let it happen. We don’t engage because ultimately engaging just brings us down to their level. We try to clarify those who don’t understand, those who seem upset because they’ve misinterpreted one of our statements. But ultimately, we can’t pay attention to all of that because that would take too much time away from actually making a difference.

Jen Kirby

But at the same time, it all feels so intractable. And you sound so hopeful.

Delaney Tarr

We have a certain level of cynicism to us. We literally have taken some of the words of our hate comments and we have said them to each other as a joke, just because that’s all you can do. We’ve been trying to find these moments of joy, these moments of reprieve in all of the chaos that’s occurring.

But we are hopeful because we have so much support right now. We are in such a great place for creating this change. We are going to Tallahassee. We are going to Washington for the march. These are things that are just so big that you want to be doubtful, you want to guard yourself a little bit, but it feels like change is coming. We can all agree that this does feel different. This feels like something is going to happen.

Jen Kirby

What would be at the top of your wish list — the number one policy you’d like to see change, for example?

Delaney Tarr

We like to use the term “commonsense gun reform” because I think a lot of people think we want to ban guns, which is not what we want to do. We understand that a lot of people treasure the Second Amendment; they treasure their right to bear arms.

But ultimately, we want to make it harder to access a semiautomatic rifle, especially in our state. The fact that you can buy an AR-15 at 18 but you can’t buy a handgun until you’re 21 is absolutely absurd.

I personally think that it should be 21 for any weapon, any gun. But we are willing to compromise. We know that we need stricter background checks. We need mental health checks.

Nikolas Cruz legally bought that AR-15. He passed that background check. But so many signs should have played a role in him not being able to access a gun. So we know that those things need to be tightened up.

We know that privatized gun selling needs to be more regulated because you can literally walk into a gun fair, put down some cash, and walk out with an AR-15. If you really want to, you can do that. You don’t need the ID; the waiting period is far too short.

There are so many things to address. We are ready to have that open dialogue with our politicians, with ideally even our president, to convey what we want to change, what difference needs to be made, and have them work with us on creating that bill.

Jen Kirby

I spoke with a crisis counselor who said the more adults act like children, the more children act like adults. A lot of people have made similar comments about your cohort.

Delaney Tarr

I know. I know. It’s so strange because I try to look at it from the outside in. Think about it — I’m still a teenager. It’s my senior year. I just got my prom dress delivered. I shouldn’t be worrying about this.

But it feels so wrong because you know that there’s so many bigger things that could happen, and I like to think that ultimately so many people’s goal is to make the world a better place, and we’re being given this opportunity to do something like that. So we can’t refuse it, and we know that we can’t go back to the way things were, so the best thing we can do is to keep other people from having to turn into adults in a matter of days.

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