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Nine teenagers explain why they’re joining the fight against guns

From walkouts to crowdfunds: these powerful accounts pinpoint the moment young people became passionate gun control activists

Where were you when you heard of the Parkland, Florida shooting? 17-year old Ariana Ali was under a table in Stoneman Douglas High School. “I sat in a dark corner under a table for what felt like several hours,” she tells me. “In reality was probably around an hour. All the while I heard loud noises, helicopters, sirens, and yelling from my teachers’ walkie talkie, and the silent sobs of my peers.” 

Her story is shocking, but is just another devastating case in America’s gun violence epidemic. US teens are 82 times more likely to die from gun violence than in other wealthy nations. Since Columbine over 187,000 students have experienced school shootings. Most teenagers across America learned about Parkland through phone notifications or scrolling through Twitter. Some of them are unnervingly numb to hearing about school shootings.

But in the weeks that followed, students from Stoneman Douglas started to organise rallies and protests against guns which led to a now famous press conferences where Emma Gonzalez condemned Trump. Then came the chain reaction. Several national school walkouts have been organised via Twitter hashtags, the biggest so far taking place on March 14. Students in Altanta who were barred from taking part silently knelt in their halls. While thousands of teens streamed into their school yards or nearby neighbourhoods to make their voices to heard – some employing memes as an agent of protest.

Today, there are thousands of young people preparing to tell their government that they have had enough of feeling numb or unsafe. The March for Our Lives, is the culmination of the anger and unrest that has been building since February and sister protests are taking place on almost every continent, all in the name of telling lawmakers: #NeverAgain.

Seeing teens nationwide get vocal about the issue is heartening. Many have been personally affected by gun violence; others are just desperate to make sure they never will be. We caught up with some of them to find out how they became involved in the movement and why they’re protesting tomorrow:

ARIANA ALI, 17, FLORIDA

“I had just finished taking a math test when the fire alarm rang, I thought it was a real fire because we had a drill earlier in the day and there’s no way there’d be two drills. We went outside to walk to our evacuation point, which is the parking lot in front of the freshman building. As we were walking toward the stairs I heard the rapid pops of gunfire and screams of absolute terror and that’s when people were yelling to go inside a class. Me and my best friend were stuck in the hallway with 10 other students because all the doors were locked.

“After a minute or so an English teacher opened her door and let us all in. I sat in a dark corner under a table for what felt like several hours but in reality was probably around an hour. All the while I heard loud noises, helicopters, sirens, and yelling from my teachers’ walkie talkie, and the silent sobs of my peers. I texted my family goodbye, because I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. When the SWAT team came to evacuate us the guy aggressively opened the door, giving us no indication that he was there to save us. In those few seconds, all I saw was the barrel of a gun, and a man, walk through the door and I thought the shooter was coming to shoot us. I closed my eyes and braced myself but then I heard him tell us to put our hands up and that we’re safe. I was shaking so hard I couldn’t even stand up for a moment, we ran outside with our hands up and sat next to the front red gates until the police said we could. I texted all my friends during and after the shooting the make sure they were okay. Unfortunately a few of my friends were shot, and one of them died.

“I heard the rapid pops of gunfire and screams of absolute terror and that’s when people were yelling to go inside a class” – Ari

“This day has affected me severely. I sleep with the door locked, I had to sleep with the lights on until recently because even the dark reminded me of hiding in that dark corner. The sounds of helicopters and sirens make me uneasy, and any loud noises even slightly resembling the sounds of gunshots send me into complete panic. In class, loud noises in the hallway or hearing the door knob jiggle makes me paranoid beyond belief, I can never focus in class. In my APUSH class, all I can do is stare at where Helena Ramsay once sat.

“Lot of groups have been formed at my school such as, Students for Change, March For Our Lives, Never Again, and Branches of Bravery. The majority of us students were already very politically aware even before the shooting so that just made it easier to get involved in speaking out. Our protests and voice and cause aims to help everyone, because we all share similar views in the sense that we need gun violence and mass shootings to end.”

REUBEN GLASSER, 17, MICHIGAN

“On February 20, 2016, Kalamazoo was struck by the Uber Shooting. I will always remember that night, and the flood of texts I received from friends and family to see if I was safe. Members of our group lost close friends and family in the shooting, and have felt the implications of gun violence first hand. After the Parkland shooting, we all felt that we had done nothing for too long, and needed to be part of the movement for change.  

“Over the past few years, the polarisation of politics has become very concerning. The issues we face in America aren’t red or blue and need to be addressed unilaterally between the parties. Because of party lines, the issue of gun violence has been pushed to a standstill in a Republican-controlled Congress in our state (Michigan) and federally. Competent bills addressing gun violence aren’t even being introduced and debated in congress. It's become increasingly challenging to create real change when politicians care more about a party line then their constituents.”

KERO LOZADA, 17, MARYLAND

“After the shooting, my heart sank into my stomach and I felt so much exhaustion. I took part in the nationwide walkout on March 14, but I honestly felt kinda scared going out, because I was worried that maybe something was going to happen – that somebody was going to get hurt somehow. Luckily, I was surrounded by very encouraging and uplifting people that were fighting for the same cause I was. My parents don't really know that I'm doing this, they're die hard conservatives and I've argued with them enough times in the past to realise that they are never going to change their opinions on anything. Just because they're that way doesn't mean I won't stand up for what I believe in though, I'm still my own person with my own opinions but this situation only means I have to think smarter about my presence.

“I will have a chance at exercising my rights to vote when I am 18. I want absolute reassurance that shootings like this will never happen again. I need the president to tell me that real and actual change will happen, that the generation of mass shootings will stop, because everything that (he is) doing right now isn't working. Thoughts and prayers don't do anything. And if you tell me that you're making change, tell me why you and other congressmen still take money from the NRA.”

EMILIE SMITH, 18, FLORIDA

“MSD is 7 miles from my school, and many of my closest friends go there. That day was absolutely devastating for my entire community.I quickly started texting my friends, who had run of the campus or where stuck hiding in a closet. There was nothing I could do and this day will haunt us forever.

“I am marching on Washington DC on March 24. Our trip is sponsored by the Giffords Foundation. I have seen politicians do absolutely nothing about school shootings ever since I was born. It has infuriated me and I have had enough. If we, the children, are being killed, we deserve to have a say. We are the victims. We will not stop until we are heard. I think if I met Donald Trump face-to-face I would ask him to tell the truth. I would ask him if he valued money more than my life.”

JALEN SMITH, 17, MICHIGAN

“The biggest argument I’ve seen is that ‘teenagers can’t make good decisions’, but I know a lot of adults who can’t make good decisions, yet still vote, so why can’t we? I truly believe that politics will change with our generation.

“A few friends and I sat down and created a petition. It gained a lot of support, and we followed it up by creating our page (@studentsforGL on Twitter) and networking with other student groups across the US. (We receive) negative comments, but they are actually funny to read because most of the time they make no sense. You can tell that these people are scared of change. But it’s also sad to see how easily someone will attack people who have gone through trauma.”

“My parents don't really know that I'm doing this, they're die hard conservatives they are never going to change their opinions on anything. That doesn't mean I won't stand up for what I believe in though” – Kero Lozada

JAKE FALES, 18, MICHIGAN

“When I learned about the shooting in Parkland, I was sitting at my desk doing homework and got the notification on my phone. At the time, I just kind of looked at my phone, sighed, and kept working. The next day when reading articles and watching the videos that came from the students at Stoneman Douglas, I realised that my reaction the night before was symptomatic of the gun epidemic that is plaguing our country. These types of mass shootings happen so frequently in the United States that they lost a lot of their shock value. I hate how numb I have become to these shootings, and I refuse to let them be normalised, which is why I’ve become involved in the movement.

“Every developed country has significantly less gun violence and mass shootings than we do – they choose to take action when tragedy strikes. So, how can we call America great if we are the only developed nation that refuses to protect its citizens due to our love of guns?”

JOHN REIS, 17, FLORIDA

I know three of the victims that were involved in there, and it just hits very close to home because our school is situated in the same county as Marjory Stoneman Douglas so this is basically in our backyard. But this isn't just about schools. This is about movie theatres, hospitals, anything and everything. We're just fed up and we're saying this is unacceptable, so if it takes buying a plane ticket and going all the way to Washington to make our voices heard as Floridians then that's what it takes.

“We created GoFundMe pages and got some awesome supporters who have donated their personal, hard-earned money to help us in our mission. Without them, we honestly couldn't have done this cause Broward County isn't the richest area. The average student cannot afford to go to Washington DC in this area so without them this wouldn't have been possible. It's going to be a very large event – we just had to be there.”

VALERY LENTI-NAVARRO , 15, FLORIDA

“I've had to go to funerals, I've had to go to wakes ands vigils. I’m only 20 minutes away from Stoneman Douglas. We don't feel safe anymore. Like, I've had friends come to me crying ‘cause they've found out their friend Carmen or their friend Peter didn't survive or that their friend is in the hospital now going through their ninth surgery. Even my teachers, I came to Science class – my first period the day after, my teacher could not look at us. She found out her co-worker, her friend of 13 years, did not survive; he died protecting his own students.

“The day after the shooting, a couple of students on social media, we actually raised a protest right outside our school. Then we went to the speech with Emma Gonzalez. Seeing her speak – that just lit a spark.”

JAMISON ROHAN, 16, MASSACHUSETTS

“I got involved with this movement because it is truly a kids’ revolution. Gun violence affects everyone, but school shootings are so prevalent and constant to us that we have to speak up and be the voices. The specific moment I decided to really do something was watching Emma González’ speech off of Twitter while sitting in the car with my mom and saying ‘I need to do something.’So I am organising a free bus trip to the march in Boston and can't wait. I raised (I technically still am raising) $1200 so that students (and adults) from my community can go for free.

“When I got the news alert that there was a school shooting in Florida, I was sitting in my kitchen doing math homework at the breakfast bar. And it’s sad to say but I honestly wasn’t that concerned. I kind of just shrugged it off and went on with homework. This sounds bad but it speaks volumes about why this movement is so necessary. I, like so many, have been desensitized to school shootings. It wasn’t until I heard the stories and saw the screenshots of texts between students and families that I was devastated. It was then I realized that could be me. I was motivated to make a change.”

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