On Feb. 13, 2018, our son Joaquin Oliver watched his idol, Shaun White, win another gold medal at the Winter Olympics. He tweeted: “I love you Shaun White.” That was his last tweet. Then he asked his Dad to help him put together some flowers that he was bringing to Tori, his girlfriend, for Valentine’s Day. Joaquin was shot four times by a 19-year-old boy who used his credit card to purchase a Smith and Wesson AR-15, plus enough ammunition to kill our son and 16 others as well as injure 17 more during a rampage of less than 7 minutes inside his high school in Parkland, Fla.
Joaquin (“Guac”) was 17, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A fun, happy kid, always surrounded by friends and by us.
Having left Venezuela in 2003, we decided to look for a better future in America. We expected our family to be safe in Parkland, which was known for having some of the best public schools in the nation. Weeks after Joaquin was killed, we began to learn more about gun violence in this country. While the national laws are weak and result in nearly 200,000 gun deaths and injuries each year, some states have passed gun laws that work to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. Unfortunately, Florida is not one of those states.
Your state, Massachusetts, has some of the most effective gun laws and is continually among the states with the lowest gun-death rates in the nation. Massachusetts has renewable licensing and registration for all gun owners, just like for automobiles. Massachusetts also gives police chiefs discretion in issuing gun licenses and keeps guns legally out of the hands of dangerous individuals with a known history of violence.
We learned that if Florida had enacted the same gun laws that Massachusetts has, our son would likely be alive today. So we partnered with Boston-based Stop Handgun Violence to install a billboard in Boston’s Back Bay with a picture of our son and the words: “If I had attended high school in Massachusetts instead of Parkland Florida, I would likely be alive today.” In fact, if every state had the same firearm fatality rate as Massachusetts, over 27,000 lives lost nationally each year would be saved.
Since we lost our son on Valentine’s Day 2018, our lives have changed forever. We now dedicate every day to Joaquin and helping prevent senseless gun violence from happening to other families. We are working to hold our elected officials accountable, and we’re fighting to replicate your state’s strong laws across the country. We started an organization, Change the Ref; we have spoken at events, marched with students, and have showcased more than 35 art installations with a message to disrupt the current inertia to protest gun violence in this country.
Sometimes our activism makes people uncomfortable. People tell us that we are being too aggressive and confrontational with elected officials and gun rights enthusiasts. We do not care. Our son was taken from us, and we no longer get to be comfortable. A child is shot every 30 minutes in America, and every three hours another kid under 19 is killed by firearms. There is a mass shooting every single day in America. We refuse to put up with the status quo any longer. Whatever it takes to save another family from this pain is worth whatever discomfort we may impose upon elected officials who refuse to stand up to the gun lobby and enact gun laws.
This afternoon, in New York City we will be unveiling our 17th wall, and it is a colossal one.
But we’re not done.
We will continue to partner with student activists, elected leaders, victims, and survivors who share our pain and understand our loss. We will continue to highlight Massachusetts and partner with advocates like Stop Handgun Violence who have the institutional knowledge from years of work and have proved the gun lobby’s worst nightmare: Gun laws save lives. We will also continue to partner with courageous elected state leaders like Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Governor Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey, who responsibly prioritize the lives of their constituents over the blood money donations from the gun lobby.
Five years before Joaquin was killed, he was 13-year-old and wrote a paper for his class in middle school: “I am writing this letter to talk to you about how we are going to solve this gun law movement. . . . Why are you mad about that there is a background check? May be you are fond with having crazy people with death machines. You shouldn’t have anything against background check if you are innocent”
We are fighting for his vision of a safer America.
Our son will not just be another victim of gun violence in this country. Joaquin Oliver will be an eternal activist, and together we will dramatically reduce gun violence in America.
Manuel and Patricia Oliver of Parkland, Fla. are the parents of Joaquin “Guac” Oliver (2000-2018).