A year ago 17 students and staff members lost their lives, gunned down in what should have been the sanctity of their own high school. But gun violence knows no sanctuary.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., now know that better than most. It changed their lives. It turned many of them into activists, preaching the gospel of stricter gun control laws. And they in turn have kept up the pressure on their elders. Today that activism is beginning to show results.
Last week the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on gun violence prevention in more than a decade. This week the committee, now chaired by Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, will mark up H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which requires checks prior to all firearm sales and most gun transfers. It’s a start. And a start is what is desperately needed. In the year since the Parkland shootings, another 1,200 young people in this country have lost their lives to gun violence.
Of course, before Parkland, there was Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown Conn., where 20 students and six staff members were shot to death. There was the 2016 Orlando night club shooting that killed 49 people, the October 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting where 58 people lost their lives, and the November 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 people. Each time there were renewed pledges to do more, to do something. People wept and mourned, and most people moved on.
But the Parkland students – and many of the parents who lost children in that massacre – have not moved on. For many, moving on is impossible.
This is how Aalayah Eastmond, now a senior at Marjory Stoneham Douglas, described that day in testimony last week to the Judiciary Committee:
“I was in my 4th period Holocaust history class. We were presenting our projects on hate groups found on college campuses. . . . When the gunman shot into our classroom, Nicholas Dworet was in front of me. The gunman’s bullets hit and killed him and Helena Ramsay. As Nicholas fell, I matched his every movement and hid beneath his lifeless body as bullets riddled my classmates. I thought I was going to die. . . .
“I will never forget that day. What I saw. What I did. What I experienced. What happened to my classmates. I will never forget Nicholas Dworet who, in his death, protected me. He saved my life.”
No, Eastmond and many of her classmates will never forget, but they have found a way to channel their pain and their anger — helping the nation’s adults find their way to sensible solutions to curtail gun violence.
When it comes to gun safety laws, Massachusetts has always been ahead of the curve.
A Back Bay billboard sponsored by the locally based Stop Handgun Violence and unveiled last November makes the point. “If I had attended high school in Massachusetts instead of Parkland, Florida, I would likely be alive today.” Beside it is a photo of Joaquin Oliver, who was among those killed that day.
Those who live here certainly would like to believe those words are true. And there has been progress here even since Parkland. Last year the Legislature passed the Extreme Risk Protection Order bill, providing new ways to take guns from dangerous individuals.
But there’s more to do. One bill, proposed by Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston and supported by Police Commissioner Willie Gross, would require all Massachusetts police departments to enter ballistics information for every gun crime into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. That could help spot patterns and help prioritize investigations. Another would fine owners of vehicles found to contain illegal firearms.
The so-called SAVE Students Act, filed by state Senator Barry Finegold, Democrat of Andover, and supported by, at last count, 18 of his legislative colleagues, would support programming in middle and high schools to help students and faculty recognize and deal with the kind of mental health issues and social isolation that too often lead to violence. It would also ensure that each school has a threat assessment team.
And there are local proposals to restrict private gun sales so that all sales are subject to federal background checks. Of course, evading such a law would be as easy as a trip over the New Hampshire border — which is why the real heavy lift remains with Congress.
There can be no better memorial to those who lost their lives in the Parkland shooting and those students and parents who picked up the cause than to make this the year that sensible solutions to the problem of gun violence become a reality.