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Christopher Underwood
Christopher wears t-shirt his ownPhotography Ryan McGinley, styling Emma Wyman

Student activists on America’s gun control movement

Christopher Underwood

The new generation on the power of collective action, and what must be done to bring about change

PhotographyRyan McGinleyStylingEmma Wyman

Taken from the summer 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

On the morning of Wednesday 14 March 2018, pupils from classrooms across the US began emptying onto the streets. It was National Walkout Day, a moment organised by young America in the name of gun control reform. For one of our summer issue covers, Ryan McGinley lensed a group of inspiring student activists at the core of this movement. Read Adam Eli’s powerful roundtable piece with five of them here, and below, we hear more from the wider group. 

DANIELA PAZ

“I have always been a very large activist, and I’ve always thought that this country needs common sense gun laws, but I got really into activism and very passionate about making a change after the Parkland shooting. I think that this shooting was what changed and sparked my action because it hit close to home. My friends lost loved ones. All of the brave and amazing students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have also sparked a change in me. They have shown me that no matter how young you are, you are never too young to make a change and that there isn’t an age limit.

What needs to be done socially, is that as a society, we must get on the same page about what we want. The gun control movement is not a movement to take away all guns, instead it is a movement to put restrictions on who can buy guns and what guns should be open to the public eye. A lot of people are not aware that this is the goal, some think that all guns want to be taken away, which is why they are not supporters of the movement. As for the leaders of America, they need to stop being scared of the NRA. The NRA has too much power in this country and it bribes many GOP senators. The government needs to realize what needs to be done and they need to realize that the lives of humans are move valuable than a gun.

I think that this current movement is incredible. It is bringing so many people together and it is sparking a revolution. This movement also shows the beauty of democracy that this country has. This movement is what America looks like and what makes this country so great. It is very important for everyone to be involved in this. Especially those of my generation, we are the generation of the future and soon, we will be the ones in the Oval and change needs to happen. The change is going to start with us and together, united, we will never be divided.”

@dpazzzzz

“This movement is what America looks like and what makes this country so great” — Daniela Paz

MINA ZANGANEH

“For me, my identity has been something that has made it so that I have always been involved in activism for as long as I can remember. Activism came naturally to me, when, as an Iranian American, I could relate easily with a multitude of issues or try to relate with other people. I’ve always poured struggles and conflicts about my identity into activism that relates to me, both as a woman and an Iranian American, but activism as a whole has taught me how to be an overall more empathetic person. The activism I have partaken in over the course of my fifteen years has instilled in me a certain mindset that quite simply strives for justice and equality. And thus, the issue of gun control was something that seemed so blatantly obvious to me. In my mind it seems like the most clear step to take, once I see something so atrocious and unjust, to try to do something, anything about it.

Doing something began with educating myself as much as possible, by listening and learning. One of the most often overlooked yet also one of the most important parts of activism is simply listening. It’s not just about shouting as loudly as you can or making your voice the loudest. There is so much I don’t know and so much I have to learn, and recognizing that has helped me exponentially. But as I went to marches, participated in debates and signed up to email lists, I began to feel like there must be something more I could do. I didn’t really begin to take initiative myself until about three months ago, when I, along with my fellow organizers at NYC Says Enough, decided that we wanted to do more than show up, and really pour as much time and energy as possible into creating a future with fewer mass shootings and fewer abhorrent racist incidents of police brutality. I’ve always been taught that if I saw something wrong in the world, I should go out and fight to fix it, but I think throwing away the notion that my age somehow inhibited me from being able to do more than just show up actually enabled me to do this.

In terms of politics, 1: America’s leaders have to recognize that their power lies in the hands of the people, and that if they refuse to yield to our various legislative demands, that power will be short-lived. So many young people will be able to vote in the mid-term elections this year, and even more will be able to vote in the Presidential election in 2020. Children are no longer some far-off promise of the future, but we are also very much the present. And we will continue to fight until we see the change we want to see enacted be enacted.

The current movement is a testament both, I think, to both the passion of America’s youth, but also of our privilege. While March for Our Lives is doing incredible work, it is important to realize that this current movement was sparked by a shooting in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in Florida. Make no mistake, that shooting was atrocious and abhorrent. It makes me feel sick, and the thought of it made me cry so many times. But we cannot forget the work of Black Lives Matter, or sideline voices disproportionately affected by gun violence. We have to be able to take a step back and listen. I’m still learning every day.” 

CHRISTIAN CARTER

“Growing up, it was a norm to see headlines (about) my neighborhood. I grew up in a community where families had to bury their youngest. I really started taking big action after the Parkland tragedy, but gun violence didn’t just affect schools. This movement is necessary because this has affected so many people.

It’s time for us to really hold the people we elect accountable for what they’re standing on. Stricter gun laws are needed and necessary. No one should have to plea for their life, this is a demand. We have to have these conversations, this is not a taboo topic. This is a tragic narrative that no one should have to live with, but we have to uplift those affected and give them time to process. We have protested and have made noise, but it’s time to take the polls and vote them out!! It’s important for the youth part of this movement to be registered to vote and make it a duty to get others registered, too.

The current movement has sparked a conversation that is necessary and vital for the future of our country. The movement has to be intersectional and has to uplift those communities who have been long-affected by this narrative. Black communities have been long-affected by gun violence and many black activists have fought (against) gun violence, but their voices were never making national news, their faces never made the front page of The Times. Police violence is gun violence and addressing that in this movement is important.”

@carterxretac

ALEXA DOYLE

“In the past few years, I have been involved with gun control activism, but I became more involved after the Parkland school shooting. I was never able to fully comprehend how devastating and traumatic mass shootings are as I was too young when events like Sandy Hook happened, but after Parkland I saw friends in my school who lost loved ones, and I felt more connected to the issue. Seeing the damage that guns cause — and the lack of initiative from our government to make substantial changes for the betterment of the people — is what got me involved. I think that if the government is going disregard the catastrophic impacts these events have had on this country and said their “thoughts and prayers” and move on, then we need to be the ones continually advocating for change in hopes of impactful reforms. This is extremely necessary going forward, because the gun violence statistics in America are alarming, and what has become an everyday reality for Americans needs to stop. 96 people on average each day in America lose their lives due to guns and change needs to be implemented to ensure the safety of citizens.

There are many things that can be done to enact change. First off, many officials in our government have not cared about this topic or shown any interest in gun control. One thing we need to do in the 2018 elections is to vote them out. Politicians in office are meant to represent the people, and our plea for gun control has not been acted upon in the federal government. I think that one of the first things we should do is ban AR-15’s which is the gun used in multiple mass shootings and also make background checks are more comprehensive, to make sure that guns only go to those who are responsible and would not commit crimes and harm other citizens with them. I think socially this movement must continue until we get gun control laws put in place and shootings cease to exist. This should not even be an issue that we face, and sometimes I think it is ridiculous how people are still so attached to a gun, that they don’t even care about innocent lives being lost.

This movement has been incredibly inspiring to me, and I am amazed at how many people deal with gun violence every day. Gun violence is not just mass shootings, but events like people being shot in lower class communities on the street that rarely make the news. We have become so desensitized to guns that somebody’s life is just forgotten by the news, and it is just something we deal with on a regular basis. This movement has been lead by many different types of people, which I think is so important because it shows that gun violence affects everybody. It does not matter who you are, gun violence can still affect you. This movement is so crucial, because it shows how many people have lost loved ones due to gun violence and how it has shattered their lives forever. This shows how significant the impact of gun violence is on communities and how we must put an end to these murders.”

@alexa.doyle

CHRISTOPHER UNDERWOOD

“I have been advocating for five years against senseless gun violence, and I believe my generation will get things done. After what happened at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we felt a shift in this conversation. I saw young people like me from all across the fifty states standing up and saying “no more”. This movement is important, because we are the first and we will make sure that these elected officials are held accountable, because our lives are worth saving.”

ANNA TENDER

“I first was introduced to gun control activism when I was in the seventh grade, just after the Sandy Hook shooting. I had always been told that school was a safe place, but I suddenly found myself spending class-time thinking of the appropriate place to hide if there were a shooter. After that travesty occurred, I was distraught, with seemingly nowhere to direct my fears, until I realized my own potential to enact change and took action. I found solace in the fact that through protest and political action, I could help to eliminate the fear that I felt and still feel concerning gun violence. In America, we stigmatize almost everything: sexuality, mental illness, social status. However, on the other end of the spectrum, weapons are often glorified, and are worn proudly about one’s waist. I think it is time for America to finally step up and stigmatize the gun.

America’s leaders need to step up and listen to their constituents when they say the names of those killed under their weak gun legislation. They need to understand that people’s lives should always be prioritized over inter-party competition and campaign donations. This movement is important because thousands of Americans lose their lives to gun violence. It was not called “March for Our Lives” for nothing; we are scared that ourselves, our loved ones, or anyone will be the next ones to die in the name of an amendment that, in the end, infringed upon our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, this movement must work to tell every story involving gun violence. We cannot simply focus on the single narrative of school shootings, because the reality is, people die due to guns every single day in America and the media ignores them. It is imperative that this new age of the gun legislation movement insists that we cannot have a conversation about gun violence without acknowledging how it disproportionally affects the queer and trans communities, or how it affects black and brown communities; we cannot have a conversation about gun violence without talking about police brutality. This movement is important, but must adapt itself to represent all communities affected by heinous acts of gun violence.”

@annathxresa

ETHAN HALPERN

“I have always been very interested in politics and activism, but never really got a chance to act. With the result of the February 14th tragedy, I knew the time had come for me to actually show my voice — as a 18 year old, but also as an American citizen. I think ever since leading my high school’s walkout with Harriet and Anna, my life has changed. I have since gone to many rallies in New York City to fight against all different injustices.

We are living in a really pivotal point in American history, and while this is really exciting, it is also really upsetting. I say it is scary, because we are the ones that will be talked about 10 years from now in history books. And while that’s thrilling, it’s sad because we are the ones who are advocating for such extreme and important issues, that should have and could have been prevented years ago. It is terrible that it took so many mass shootings for people to become aware of how bad of an issue this is in the United States. This movement of youth activism and resistance is so important, because WE ARE THE CHANGE. More importantly, my year (people born in the 2000s) are the most important right now as we head into the 2018 mid-terms. To any GOP lawmaker who still supports Mr Trump and his policies, we will vote you out.

All of the recent events in the US has led me to create an organization called The Rise Up Initiative, or Rise Up for short. Rise Up is a initiative created by three Generation Z (born between 1995-2003) students to advocate on behalf of students and young people across the nation. Such issues include, but are not limited to, gun and immigration reform, LGBTQ+ issues, issues of racism and criminal justice, and female reproductive rights.The goal of Rise Up is to bring together other young, people passionate about these issues and hopefully bring about change. We are strong. We are loud. We are Rise Up.”

@ethanxsh

MAYA BRADY-NGUGI

“I got involved in gun control activism right after Parkland, by being invited to join a Facebook group chat with some other high school activists from around New York City. I think that the push for the end of gun violence is necessary for America, because the people have fundamental rights to peace and safety which are currently not being protected.

I think that to enact change, we must push for policies in the American government that will get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We need to provide resources such as mental health services, job training, mentoring, and better educational resources.

I think it’s really empowering to know that I am a part of a generation that can come together for our communities, and the communities around us that face gun violence. However, I think that as we continue to work for the end of gun violence, all of us need to work on being better listeners and promoters of our noble cause.”

@maya.brng

MEGAN KRAUT

“I got involved in gun control activism within the past three months, but I had been very involved in activism involving feminism in the past. I got involved because I have seen how devastating gun violence is in so many communities, and not doing anything would only contribute to the problem; I want to stand up and fight for everyone who is not able to. I think gun control activism is necessary for America, because gun control is something that needs to happen, and no changes will be made if no one is protesting.

As a first step to gun control, America’s leaders need to implement much stronger gun laws and background check laws. This could easily prevent many deaths caused by gun violence, and is only a small step. Later on, the leaders of this country should work to ban automatic weapons and weapons of war, as they are not needed by the ordinary individual.

The current movement of gun control activism is what I believe will finally make a change. Young people around the country are getting the chance to have their voices heard. We are the generation that will vote out leaders who are taking money from the NRA, or are the obstacles in the way of gun control. The leaders and politicians of this country will eventually realize that we are right, and will start to make a change. Small steps can prevent the loss of hundreds of lives, and if there is no change, the blood will continue to be on the NRA.”

@megankraut

“Small steps can prevent the loss of hundreds of lives, and if there is no change, the blood will be on the NRA” — Megan Kraut

JESSICA HELLER

“I got involved in gun control activism when my friend Bella and I decided to make sure that the national gun control walkout happened in our school. This then put us in touch with many other people across the county who were doing the same in their schools. We then worked together to create a coalition of students with the same beliefs. This issue is very necessary for America, because of the rapid increase in mass shootings within the past year. This puts many people and young children in a danger they do not deserve (to be in).

One thing that can be done by the government is to enforce better background checks, as well as lower the maximum magazine limit nationwide. They can also raise the age limit to purchase these weapons, and take automatic rifles off the market to the general public.

This movement is very important for many reasons. The main one, to me, is that this movement is run by the younger generation. This is the generation that will grow up in the world that is currently being created, and we should not have to worry for our lives in places of education, or at all. This empowering movement will let our generation create the world we want to live in, and bring the future generation into.”

@jessieeheller

ARIELLE GEISMAR

“After seeing the traction from Parkland students, I decided to organize a walkout on March 14th at my own school. I asked about interest, and the response was overwhelmingly in support of participation. I began to talk to other class-mates about organisation and emailed the principal. We organized fast and effectively, and the result was a beautifully striking walkout for 17 minutes on March 14th. As I was planning this, I was also looking ahead for a potential April 20th action. So, on February 26th, I put out a short request for people to contact me if they were interested in collaborating school efforts for April 20th. That humble group chat turned into a national organization, well on the road to legal incorporation with hundreds of members no more than three months later. On April 20th, almost 8,000 students from NYC left their education behind to speak for those who cannot. I quickly learned that education is meaningless without acting on what we have learned. And for our entire lives, we have learned fear.

By the young age of seven, I was well trained in soft and hard lockdown drills should there be a threat in the school building. The idea of someone coming into the place I thought to be safe and taking innocent lives became commonplace — it was a concept that was normalized. I was told by my parents that after the Columbine shooting in 1999, the country stopped for a few weeks and paid attention to the issue at hand. By 2018, that pain and shock has transformed into an everyday part of our society that many brush off or don’t pay attention to. I am no longer in shock when I see a shooting, and my first response is usually, “How many lives were lost?” I’ve lost count of the number of horrendous shootings I’ve lived through, because at this point there are too many to count. I know it is only a matter of time before there is another attack, another vigil, another moment of silence, and another state of inaction from our administration.

Our country has a problem. It’s impossible to ignore, and I’m tired of having it swept under the rug. If we want to be Americans trying to fix our country, we first need to acknowledge the problem. It is possible to believe in this country and also want to change it for the better — the two are not mutually exclusive. We have to be able to open a conversation. I’m not saying either side is going to entirely concede, but we need to start by getting in the same room and opening up the conversation. There is no way that our country can continue without our politicians trying to foster bipartisan discussion. That discussion will lead to small pieces of legislation, which will pave the way for larger and more significant pieces of legislation. I wish we could make the laws we want right away, but there is another side that we must listen to and work with, whether we like it or not. The purpose of this united, national movement is to demonstrate students’ intolerance for inaction and demand that those in positions of government create bipartisan and effective pieces of legislature that contribute to the conclusion of this national crisis.

I, along with thousands of students nationwide, feel that this is truly a fight for our lives. Too often I have turned on the television only to see another mass shooting, and think, “that could have been me”. Lives have been destroyed, families torn apart, and yet we are met with silence from those who have the power to change it all. As part of Generation Z, I have grown up in the world of fear and violence. I’m not the only one who feels this way. This movement would not exist in the nationwide scale it does if my generation wasn’t terrified. We have been forced to feel the utmost fear in the place that was supposed to offer us the ultimate protection.

My answer of why I’m involved is because when I see a shooting, I know very well that it could have been me, should I have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m tired of being accustomed to one of this country’s most preventable tragedies. I’m learning that the government I once assumed would always protect me has miserably failed time and time again, and that politicians would rather receive a large donation than put restrictions on the one thing that destroys thousands of lives per year. Their thoughts and prayers that once assured a naive version of myself now anger and infuriate me. We have a responsibility to this movement and the people in it to be intersectional, and to acknowledge that gun violence disproportionately impacts communities of colour.

I, and so many other people my age, are ready for change, and will not stop until we get it. We are no longer accepting responses from politicians that include “in the future” or “soon”. We are the future, and we are those who make politicians’ skin crawl — because we vote next, and are prepared to oust them of their comfortable seats in government. The silence of politicians and the nation will no longer be tolerated — as youth across the country present themselves as a frontier of students united in standing up and declaring that we are the generation to end gun violence.”

Hair Jawara at Bryant Artists using Davines, make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using Lovecraft Beauty, set design Ian Salter at Frank Reps, activists Ruby Noboa, Adam Eli Werner, Christopher Underwood, Jewel Cadet, Harriet Rose, Sydney Teller, Anna Tender, Ethan Halpern, Sonia Chajet Wides, Maya Brady-Ngugi, Mina Zanganeh, Duncan Freeman, Christian Carter, Nia Arrington, Alexa Doyle, Daniela Paz, Megan Kraut, Jessica Heller, Gideon Weiner, Arielle Geismar, Brandon Wolf, photography assistants Paul Strause, Chris Parente, lighting design Jordan Strong, choreographer Luisa Opalesky, styling assistants Jessica Aurell, Rhiarn Schuck, Devante Rollins, Tabbytha Janeen, Alex Varrichio, Trevor Munch, Nikki Freyermuth, hair assistants Tiara Keith, Jessica Hwang, Yasu Nakamura, make-up assistants Tadatoshi Horikoshi, Kaori Yamamoto, Ayana Awata, set design assistants George de Lacey, Adam Fisher, digital operator Travis Drennen, production Mary-Clancey Pace, Eric Jacobson at Hen’s Tooth, talent coordinator Phoebe Pritchett at Ryan McGinley Studios, production assistants Katie Tucker, Luis Jaramillo, post-production Two Three Two, special thanks Smashbox BK Studios