Angry and scared, Mass. students join Florida survivors in gun control fight
Growing up in an age when mass shootings have become a tragically familiar part of American life, 18-year-old Riley Korhonen said the fear that her school will be next is never far.
“I don’t know how it could not be, seeing all this stuff on the news,” the Massachusetts high school senior said. “We’ve already seen several [mass shootings] this year, more than have happened in other countries in decades.”
Now, Korhonen, a senior at Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, is channeling her fear into political action, organizing a walkout of classes next month to demand stricter gun laws in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead.
As grieving survivors of the Florida massacre make searingly personal appeals for an assault weapons ban under the rallying cry “Never Again,” a surge of high school and college students in New England are joining the cause, determined this time will be different.
“I don’t want to have to be afraid that whenever a car drives by, [the occupants] could kill myself or my classmates,” Korhonen said. “I don’t want to see these shootings as weekly events.”
Korhonen said she wants to see tougher restrictions on who can purchase a gun. The suspect in the Florida shooting, Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly gunned down 17 people in just six minutes with an AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle.
Massachusetts bans the sale of Colt AR-15s and duplicates, one of seven states to restrict weapons that had been the focus of the lapsed federal ban on assault weapons. Despite the state law, many copycat weapons continue to be sold, the state attorney general’s office said after the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016.
At a rally outside the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday, one survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School said, “The law has failed us.”
And, at an emotional meeting at the White House, students and parents delivered appeals to President Trump to act on school safety and guns.
Andrew Pollack, the father of slain Florida student Meadow Pollack, yelled, ‘‘Fix it!’’
He said: ‘‘It’s not about gun laws right now. We need our children safe.’’
Sam Zeif, a Parkland student, fought back tears as he told Trump, ‘‘I don’t understand why I can still go into a store and buy a weapon of war.’’
‘‘How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon?’’ he asked, referring to the AR-15 used in the shooting.
In Massachusetts, Korhonen is organizing next month’s walkout, part of a nationwide protest, with her friend, senior Emily Podgorni. Podgorni, 18, recalled the sadness she felt after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which killed 20 children and six staff members, and she voiced frustration that little has changed since.
“It’s sickening, and honestly I’m incredibly upset and appalled by the things people will put ahead of children’s lives,” Podgorni said. “I’m shocked by the fact that we haven’t been able to get anything done, even after these shootings and deaths. I hope that by staging a walkout at Parker, we can raise awareness and we can pressure our government to change something.”
It’s a hope shared by many students in Massachusetts and beyond.
On Friday, more than 100 students at Andover High School walked out of classes and gathered on the floor of the school cafeteria for a 40-minute discussion on potential solutions to gun violence, a protest that was supported by school officials.
Nationally, organizers behind the Women’s March, an anti-Trump and female empowerment protest, have called for a national student walkout on March 14 to protest gun violence.
And a number of youth marches are planned
for March 24 in Washington, D.C., Boston, and other major cities.
The youth marches are being organized by a coalition called March for Our Lives, which describes itself on its website as “created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar.”
Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said the young activists have already influenced the debate. Berry noted that Trump, who had lately shown “little sympathy” for stricter gun control, directed the Justice Department on Tuesday to issue regulations banning devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.
At the same time, Berry said, “That’s a long way from real legislation with teeth.”
He cited Tuesday’s vote in Florida, in which state lawmakers struck down a motion to consider an assault weapons ban, as evidence that the issue remains deeply polarizing.
“It’s really a very partisan issue,” Berry said. “It’s hard to see an issue, with the possible exception of abortion, where the political parties are so fundamentally divided.”
One of the Boston march organizers, Julian Lopez-Leyva, a sophomore at Bunker Hill Community College, said the demonstration is meant to build public support for “common-sense legislation and solutions that can decrease this American epidemic of gun violence.”
Kim Pettingill-Long of the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an advocacy group that will have a presence at the Boston rally, said she hopes the march will shake political leaders out of their complacency.
“People are coming into their school and shooting them, and adults are not doing anything,” Pettingill-Long said. Even if students are too young to vote, they “still have a tremendous amount of power to persuade our lawmakers,” she said.
In the aftermath of the Florida shooting, high school students are beginning to contact her group for advice on how to talk with school administrators about forming advocacy groups and participating in marches, she said.
“I believe we’re going to see a lot more students coming forward as we move closer” to the March 24 rally, she said.
Leah Sagan-Dworsky, 19, a freshman at Brandeis University, spoke at a rally for tighter gun control Tuesday in Vermont, her home state. Lawmakers there are considering gun control measures, including a bill to require background checks for all firearm sales in the state.
“I’ve kind of had enough,” she said. “I’ve grown up in this world of mass shooting drills and [wondering] will my school be next?”
The shooting in Florida has deepened her resolve, she said.
“Since the Parkland shootings, it’s sort of hit me, how I can be shot, how easy it is to be killed by a gun in this country,” Sagan-Dworsky said. “And I think that’s the thing driving me — that I don’t want to worry about being killed on a daily basis, and I don’t want my peers to worry about being killed on a daily basis.”