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The day that teenagers changed America forever

For the first time in recent history the victims of gun violence are being heard

The 1999 Columbine High School Massacre, during which seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered 13 of their fellow students and teachers and injured 21 others, is widely considered to be the first mass school shooting of the modern era. Over subsequent decades, they’ve become a grimly regular occurrence. A peculiarly American phenomenon (though other countries have experienced mass shootings at schools, they’ve tended to be isolated events and have often prompted changes in legislation) the combination of a lobbying money and a national cultural attachment to firearms seems to have left lawmakers unable, or unwilling, to act.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many gun control advocates gave up hope that the problem would ever be solved. If the public could watch children as young as six-years-old be gunned down in their classrooms without being driven to demand change, what could possibly make them act? No terror would be sufficient to persuade Second Amendment enthusiasts to alter their priorities or convince them that the most important civil right is the right to stay alive.

Six years later, though, something feels different. And it has to do with who is being heard.

After most school shootings, we’ve learned about the victims. Their names and ages. Perhaps their hobbies and extracurricular achievements. Those that were killed had their ability to speak stolen from them, but the survivors were also rendered oddly silent. Discourse was instead dominated by supposed experts: politicians and advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association, which has received millions in funding from firearm manufacturing companies.

“A generation of kids who’ve grown up with the constant threat of campus gun violence are reaching voting age, and they’re going to be the ones to change things”

The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day this year is the first in which survivors have been centred in media coverage. A couple of days after experiencing the most traumatic event of her life, 18-year-old senior Emma Gonzalez gave a speech that resonated around the world. She vowed that Marjory Stoneman students would go down in history as the last to experience a mass shooting at their school. That a generation of kids who’ve grown up with the constant threat of campus gun violence are reaching voting age, and they’re going to be the ones to change things.

Earlier today, in an attempt to make that promise a reality, hundreds of thousands of people across the US participated in March for Our Lives protests. Their demands were simple: a ban on the assault weapons that are frequently used to carry out mass shootings, restrictions on the amount of ammunition that magazines can hold and the implementation of laws requiring stricter background checks on every gun purchase.

At the largest such event in Washington, DC, a succession of teenagers took to the stage and were greeted with cheers as they announced the specific horror they’ve survived. The recent Parkland massacre. The everyday gun violence of Chicago and Southside LA. Many had lost friends, siblings and even parents. All spoke with the charisma and poise of public speakers twice their age. It was obvious that the young victims of gun violence have never really been silent, it’s just only now that the world is listening.

“It was obvious that the young victims of gun violence have never really been silent, it’s just only now that the world is listening”

Pre-prepared video packages played on giant screens in the streets surrounding the White House and other government buildings. The slick production values felt appropriate for an event that could have only ever occurred in the digital age. Mainstream media outlets did not spontaneously decide to grant Parkland students exceptional access to a platform. Their media savviness made them impossible to ignore. In viral clips they spoke with passion, conviction and detailed knowledge of statistics and legislation. They used social media to spread their message, rapidly amassing six and seven-figure followings. When the NRA attempted to speak on their behalf, they immediately answered back.

At times, the rally took on a bizarrely pantomime atmosphere as prominent anti-gun control figures were shown on screen and a chorus of boos and jeers ripped through the assembled throngs. However, everyone in attendance seemed deadly serious about bringing about change. Protesters spanned all ages, but there was a noticeable concentration of children and young adults. Several carried signs identifying themselves as survivors of particular shootings. Teachers were accompanied by whole classes of children dressed in matching slogan t-shirts. Many had travelled hours to be there. 

Looking around at the determined faces that surrounded me, I found myself believing Emma Gonzalez. Her generation really might be the one that achieves something that was widely assumed to be impossible: ending gun violence in the United States.

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