United States

“We'll be voting in November for the first time.” Parkland teenagers push to turn their anger into gun control laws

The Stoneman Douglas high school students have given birth to a #NeverAgain campaign and plan to march on Tallahassee this week, then Washington DC in March. They have grown up amid news reports of mass shootings nationwide, but it hit home this time as they mourn the loss of friends and teachers. These Florida students are refusing to let Parkland become another name in the list of school massacres.

PARKLAND, Fl – At 4:43 pm, when he wrote on Facebook that he had survived the Parkland school shooting, Cameron Kasky did not give thanks for being alive. He began unloading his anger on opponents of gun control.

Less than three hours later, at 7:12 pm, he wrote that he was “tired of the prayers from people who accept money from the National Rifle Association (NRA),” adding an expletive for good measure. After five more posts along those lines, he managed to get some sleep.

Kasky, 17, was one of the more than 3,000 students who survived the shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schoo l in South Florida Wednesday. Less than 48 hours later, he had become a national voice demanding more gun control.

In the days after, this fresh-faced teenager who has a way with words, mobilized hundreds of friends to seek to transform their personal drama into a political discussion to address the scourge of gun violence, which claims almost 100 lives every day in the United States.

“Before the shooting I complained on social networks, but I had not stepped up. Unfortunately, the problem had to hit me directly,” Kasky said in an interview at his home. “I cannot allow this to be just another shooting. There's already been too many.”

In just 36 hours, he appeared on CNN, Fox News and the front page of the New York Times. He's become known as the student who founded NeverAgain, a spontaneous movement to demand measures to prevent school shootings that has already gathered more than 36,000 followers on Facebook #NeverAgain on Twitter).

Kasky and other students at the Parkland high school are leading the charge, which includes meeting with state leaders in Tallahassee on Wednesday and a "March For Our Lives" rally in Washington DC on March 24.

He was joined by other well-spoken students.

They include: David Hogg, an aspiring journalist who recorded a video during the shooting in which he asked other students what they thought of gun control; Isabelle Robinson, who dreams of one day working in a socially conscious TV show; and, Lewis Mizen, 17, an immigrant from Coventry, England, headed to university in the fall to study political science with a plan to be a political speech writer.

Then there is the unmistakable figure of Emma Gonzalez, a bundle of energy with a shaved head, who is delivering her progressive message in ways she never dreamed of. Her speech at a rally in Parkland at the weekend quickly went viral when she attacked the NRA and President Donald Trump for not doing enough to protect school children from deranged gun owners, such as Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old perpetrator of the Parkland massacre.

They are all members of a generation that grew up amid news reports of school massacres and active shooter drills, and found a voice on social media, which was quickly picked up by mainstream TV news networks.

They say they have has enough of watching, massacre after massacre, as each time everything remains the same. They are not going to let that happen, they add. Parkland was not just the the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, it was personal. They lost friends, teachers and coaches. And they want to turn that pain into change.

“This attack was on our turf, in our classrooms. He (Cruz) chose the wrong school,” said Mizen.

“The students speaking out makes a pretty big difference,” political analyst and former Obama campaign strategist, David Axelrod, write on Twitter. “These Parkland kids are so powerful and compelling! Could they actually spark common sense reforms long overdue or will we slide back into indifference and business-as-usual until the next tragedy?” he added.

Trump has said he is "supportive" of improved gun checks, but it's unclear how far he, or the Republican Party leadership, is willing to take on the NRA.

But pressure from public opinion - fueled by the students' activism - may be hard to ignore, according to some early indicators.

“So far, Parkland is *not* fading from the news the way that mass shootings usually do,” noted statistician and editor of @FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, using a graph to show google searches for the term “gun control” in recent days. “The students speaking out makes a pretty big difference.”

The role of social media

The Parkland students started posting their criticisms on social networks the very afternoon of the massacre, especially on Twitter as #NeverAgain, but also on Facebook and Snapchat. The most active students created a group Friday to exchange text messages and organize a response.

They asked, among other things, for an end to the politicians' messages of prayers and condolences, instead demanding action and changes in the law. They were especially indignant when Trump made no mention of how the shooter, who was known to have behavioral problems, was able to purchase the semiautomatic AR-15-style rifle used in the massacre.

For many, such as Kali Clougherty, 2018 is her last year in high school and November will be her first opportunity to vote in a congressional election. She said she wants to lead “a major effort” to make sure that all the students vote in November for often overlooked state legislators and governors.

“I will look into all the candidates to make sure they are not financed by the National Rifle Association, that they support increased gun controls and that they want to help our generation,” said Clougherty, who sheltered in her theater class during the shooting.

Despite the teen energy, many survivors of the Parkland shooting are barely trying to figure out what happened and how to overcome it.

Brazilian-born Gabriel Carvalho, who lost two close friends and two coaches in the shooting, said he's been trying to avoid social media because he's afraid of seeing photos and videos of the massacre.

When he returned to the school Friday to pick up his car, the high school senior who dreams of playing professional soccer said he started to shake and cry. He cannot stand to see the building where he survived the massacre or even think about a return to class.

He agrees that access to guns must be controlled, but finds it difficult to believe the student movement will lead to anything. “When it happened in an elementary school they did nothing,” he said of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 27 dead, including 20 children under the age of eight. “Why should we think they will do something for us?”

But this time is different say the Parkland students. “At Sandy Hook those kids were too young to talk about what happened,” said Mizen. “The students at our school are so gifted, right now there are 3,200 brothers-in-arms,” he added.

He does worry however about the issue becoming politicized by Republicans and Democrats. “I’m scared that is going to drown out what is happening here. It’s not about politics, it’s about kid’s lives,” he said.

Gonzalez believes she is part of a “very inspiring” movement that is deeply committed to bringing change. The 18-year-old has spent the past few days demanding tougher gun controls with a passion that brings tears to her eyes.

“We all just want something be done this time,” she said. “We're just trying to be safe.”

She realizes the risk of expectations overcoming the small group of students just starting to organize.

“We're just students. People tell us that we have to run for president and legislators, that we're the future,” she said. “But we're just people who are suffering. Don't glorify us as poster boys. We're just trying to be safe, and that those around us are also safe.”

Gonzalez, the daughter of a Cuban father and American mother, is already preparing for her first big event. She will join a group of other Stoneman Douglas students who plan to travel to the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee to demand urgent laws restricting the purchase and possession of weapons.

That's not the only protest planned. After the Parkland shooting, several groups are organizing protests around the country, such as a rally in Washington DC on March 24 and April 20, the 19 th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, to address school shootings.

They will be the first tests for a movement forged abruptly and dramatically after another school shooting. Its future is difficult to foresee, even by many of the students who have yet to understand what happened to them on Valentine's day at 2:35 pm

This group of survivors is clear on one thing, however. They will not forget what they lived through when they vote for the first time in November.

“They have no time to save theoiro skins….” Said Gonzalez.

David Adams contributed to this report