Students take charge of gun-safety movement with some help from existing groups

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A half-dozen students from Iowa City High School began planning their first-ever protest for gun safety Sunday evening, logging into a group chat and saying they wanted to do something in solidarity with the students in Parkland, Fla., who had survived the mass shooting there that killed 17 people.

“We need concrete actions, not just walking out cuz we’re angry and then go back to school the next day like nothing happened,” Esti Brady, 16, wrote in the chat. More than 250 students braved cold rain the next morning and marched 1½ miles, giving speeches using a megaphone borrowed from Women’s March organizers.

Students also walked out of high schools in Illinois and they participated in a “die-in” at the White House. In Tallahassee on Wednesday, survivors of the Parkland massacre rallied legislators for stronger gun control and implored the nation’s adults to do something.

Such displays have given gun-safety advocates fresh hope that the Parkland shooting — and the widespread response to it among youths — could create new momentum across the country to enact firearms restrictions. And the grass-roots campaigns that have sprung up in high school hallways among angry and tearful teenagers are now attracting attention from national groups demoralized after a string of shootings prompted no political response.

Students staged walkouts demanding new gun control laws after 17 people were shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. (Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The students have attracted political attacks from advocates for gun rights, who have accused them of being shills for anti-gun, left-wing lobbyists. And while the students have claimed little to no involvement from national advocates, the gun-control groups are entering the fray behind the scenes, aware of how quickly such a moment can fade but also wanting to avoid tainting what they describe as an organic, youth-driven movement.

Anti-gun groups are going out of their way to claim distance from the student activists while praising their efforts. Everytown for Gun Safety, the group founded by Michael Bloomberg in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in 2012, connected some of the Parkland students with its “survivor network.” The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is starting to talk to students about rallies planned for March and expects to set aside money to help students who can’t afford to travel to the events. Giffords, formerly known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, shared “some context on gun violence protection” with students who requested it, according to Peter Ambler, the group’s executive director.

“It’s important to recognize that in every single way possible this is an authentically grass-roots, student-led movement,” Ambler said. “Of course we’re reaching out and trying to lift them up, and give them the resources we can muster to make them successful. But we have been sort of at arm’s length, in the background doing whatever we can to support them.”

Major donors already have stepped up to bolster the marches, from George and Amal Clooney, who have pledged $500,000. Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg vowed matches.

In Florida, student organizers have been coordinating with the leadership of the Women’s March — which is helping them plan a march on Washington that, like their own back in 2017, will be accompanied by other rallies across the nation. They also have met several times with parents of the children killed in Newtown as well as several students who survived that shooting.

“The amazing thing about this specific movement is that it’s run by the students, and the students are at the forefront of it all,” said Dylan Baierlein, 18, who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas last spring and has been working with Never Again MSD. “And the people and groups who have reached out to help understand that, they’ve given us advice and support without taking over. And I think that’s invaluable.”

The students in Iowa City said they put together their rally with no outside help, no funding and promotion only from a student newspaper. The organized student efforts in Parkland began the day after the shooting, when several groups of friends from the school’s drama and journalism programs met up at a vigil and vowed that something had to be done.

Frustration is boiling over among Americans on both sides of the political spectrum at the nation’s inability to stop mass shootings. But large swaths of the country still can’t agree on a way forward. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Students have been organizing at the same rapid clip across the country. Lane Murdock, a 15-year-old at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut, started the National School Walkout campaign last week with a Change.org petition. When the questions started to come in, she teamed up with Paul Kim, the 17-year-old student-body president, and created a joint email account to help organize what, by Tuesday, was more than 78,000 students pledging a walkout on April 20.

“I hadn’t told my parents when I started it,” Murdock said. “My mom came home that night and was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ My dad was at a restaurant where he overheard people talking about the walkout, and he said, ‘Hey, that’s my daughter!’ ”

The worry that students could come under political attack was well-founded. On some fringe conservative news sites, the highest-profile students from Parkland were probed for evidence that they were being coached. David Hogg, a Douglas senior and student journalist who did several bracing interviews, was attacked by the far-right site Gateway Pundit as “the child of an FBI agent” willing to be “used as a pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation.”

“This kid is a shill,” tweeted Republican strategist and commentator Bradley Blakeman.

Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman and current CNN commentator, said the students’ rapid organizing raised questions about whether they had been “hijacked by left-wing groups that have an agenda.”

“Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” Kingston asked. “Organized groups that are out there like George Soros are always ready to take up the charge, and it’s kind of like instant rally, instant protest, and those groups are ready to take it to the streets.”

And this week, the aide of a state lawmaker from Florida accused two Parkland students who were interviewed on television of being actors who travel the ­country.

Such attacks do not — yet — appear to be gaining steam. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) quickly retorted this on Twitter: “Claiming some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”

Even the aide’s boss, Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison, felt compelled to issue a statement rebuking his staffer — and he later fired him.

Several of the activist students said the group has yet to discuss fully how they’ll handle it if their members come under sustained political attack. But they insist they’ll be able to lean on one another as a support system.

“We know that we don’t have to take anything from anybody. We are survivors,” said Diego Pfeiffer, 18, a senior at Douglas who helped organize Never Again MSD. “We understand that there are trolls and there are people who are going to work against our goals.”

Several students have gone viral after giving interviews in which they called for new gun-control measures or sent tweets ridiculing the responses of pro-gun politicians. They attacked the president by name and accused Rubio of callousness. On television, they were given a platform nearly equal to that of the political class, and they used it.

“We needed to capture the faces of the movement,” said Alex Wind, 17, a junior who was one of the first three members of Never Again MSD, which has quickly ballooned to several dozen ­members.

Among those faces were Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior and Wind’s best friend, and Hogg, whose interviews on CNN on Thursday and Friday were shared widely. On Saturday, the world met Emma González, an 18-year-old junior whose infuriated address at a gun-control rally quickly became Twitter’s top trending topic and perhaps the most widely shared moment from the shooting’s aftermath.

“I was trending number one on Twitter and I didn’t have a Twitter account,” said González, who has since started an account that has amassed 263,000 followers. “Now I’ve got this platform that just whipped itself up out of ­nowhere.”

And student organizers say members of their group have decamped to New York and Los Angeles to hold meetings with other activists and organizations who have offered support, although they have declined to say with whom they are meeting.

“These kids know they are plugging into a political movement that is growing in power, and they are laying bare the gun industry mythology that you can’t talk about changing the laws after a mass shooting,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It used to be that Republicans would respond to mass death and destruction by stubbornly insisting that there was no possible legislative route that could save lives. But things have started to change.”





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