March For Our Lives (left) Sean Sugai (middle) Prolific Films (right)
President Joe Biden signed the first major gun reform legislation in decades on Saturday. The move came one month after a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.
While Congress may be getting the attention right now, students around the country have been working to push legislation like this for years. In 2018, after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students nationwide took to the streets and propelled March For Our Lives and Students Demand Action into the national spotlight. The two organizations are now major forces in the gun control movement.
The wave of support for bipartisan gun legislation comes as these student-led groups are returning to in-person events — which for the most part came to a stop during the pandemic. Thousands of young people gathered at the Washington Monument earlier this month for the first March For Our Lives rally since 2018.
NPR spoke with five high school and college students who have been impacted by gun violence and who are now working to make sure others won’t be.
March For Our Lives
Zoe Touray, 18, Oxford, Mich.
It was the Tuesday after Thanksgiving break when Zoe Touray jumped out of a school window to safety.
She was lucky that day: that short jump meant a quick escape from a fellow student with a gun. But some of her classmates at Oxford High School, about an hour outside Detroit, were not. The 15-year-old shooter killed four students: Hana St. Juliana, 14 Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17,and Justin Shilling, 17. The rampage left six more students and a teacher injured.
A lot has happened since November for Touray: she graduated from high school, started advocacy work for gun-violence legislation and, more recently, traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 2022 March For Our Lives. She wore the names of her lost classmates on a gray custom T-shirt as she marched.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, she says, she didn’t know how to heal. March For Our Lives reached out to her on Twitter about talking to lawmakers through an upcoming rally in Lansing. She decided to try it.
“At first I didn’t think it was such a great idea, but my mom and my dad reassured me that I should do it to kind of get out of the funk that I was in,” Touray recalled. She thought it would be daunting to be at the Michigan Capitol, but lobbying in Lansing for secure firearm storage and increased mental health resources in Michigan schools energized her and made her feel like she was making an impact. “So I just kept moving.”
After the Michigan rally, Touray returned home and focused her attention on spending time with friends. She tried to stay off social media, but then the Uvalde shooting happened. Touray felt angry that more students would have to go through the trauma she did. “It definitely pissed me off,” Touray says of the Uvalde shooting.
Ultimately, she’s glad she’s working to change things, and encourages other students to get involved, too – but she also says young people need to make sure to “take care of yourself mentally and physically and emotionally.”
Touray has found that, for her, this means traveling with a small bluetooth speaker and her “Bad B****” playlist. She goes back to her hotel room every night, sometimes after days of crying in meetings, and she’ll press play on her playlist, “and I just dance around my room.”
It’s the pick-me-up she needs to keep pushing forward.
Eliyah Cohen, 20, Los Angeles
Less than two weeks after Uvalde, Eliyah Cohen was among dozens of UCLA students laying on the ground in demonstration.
For Cohen, who was a high school sophomore in Los Angeles when the Parkland shooting happened, the Uvalde shooting was painful to learn about. “For so many of us on campus, it was so hard to process,” says Cohen, a rising junior studying public affairs. “It felt like, yet again, we’re here.”
Two UCLA students from Texas – Anna Faubus and Emma Barrall – organized the lie-in. “They speak about how back in Texas, a lot of people don’t share the same views as them around gun safety, but they felt like at UCLA, even though many of their peers agree with them, they felt like there was a lack of action and response,” says Cohen.
For 337 seconds, Cohen and others laid in silence to honor the 337 children victims of school gun violence who have died since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, when two teens went on a shooting rampage and killed 13 people in a Denver suburb. The lie-in has since turned into a “movement” on UCLA’s campus, says Cohen, who aims to turn student’s pain and outrage into policy demands. He’s part of an organization that lobbies local, state and federal representatives to advocate for policies UCLA students care about.
“Traditionally, [gun safety] hasn’t been part of our advocacy,” says Cohen. “We’re usually focused on very student-centered policies. But I’m passionate about making the case that this is absolutely a student issue and an important one.”
Taina Patterson, 21, Miami
Taina Patterson was relaxing at home one day when she heard loud bangs at the front door. It was her mother’s ex-boyfriend. He said he had a gun and demanded to be let into the house. Patterson was only 15, but she instinctively gathered her 3-year-old sister and hid with her under the bed.
No shots were fired that day, but the experience of being threatened by a firearm spurred her into action.
“When it actually happened to me, and it was in my home, that’s when I kind of felt – for the first time – scared for my life because of a gun,” says Patterson, who grew up in Oceanside, Calif., where she says guns were normalized and gang violence was common. The incident in her home, she says, is “when I realized there was an issue in our society when it comes to how we perceive guns.”
Patterson was introduced to a member of Moms Demand Action, who helped her start a San Diego chapter of Students Demand Action, a national, grassroots group of college and high school students that educates communities about gun safety and advocates for changes to federal and local gun policies. Now, Patterson is a rising senior studying political science at Florida International University in Miami, where she hopes to establish a Students Demand Action chapter.
She often speaks with other survivors of gun violence through online webinars. She also mentors middle and high school students who are victims of gun violence. “I let them know that I understand where they’re coming from,” she says, “and just give them the support that they may not have known they needed, or that they wanted but didn’t know where to get it from.”
Patterson writes spoken-word poetry and recently wrote and performed “Don’t Look Away,” in which she demands that Americans “wake up” to the nation’s alarming rates of gun violence. “Welcome to America, where 110 Americans will be shot and killed by the end of the day. Where more than 200 Americans will be shot and wounded by the end of the night,” she states in the poem.
“Many of us, we don’t think that gun violence is going to be in front of our faces or is going to happen to us or impact us until it does,” says Patterson, who hopes to become a broadcast news journalist after college. “And so I encourage you to speak up and speak against this epidemic that we are facing in America. Just don’t look away.”
Peren Tiemann , 17, Lake Oswego, Ore.
Peren Tiemann can’t remember a time when the effects of gun violence weren’t present in their life. The recent high school graduate recalls practicing lockdown drills as far back as elementary school and, as a result, feeling the chronic impulse to find the closest exit inside any classroom.
But news of the Parkland shooting hit Tiemann differently. “That was the first time I heard something that shook me so deeply,” says Tiemann. “I commonly refer to that as the first time I started paying attention to what was actually on the news.”
And not only was Tiemann paying attention, they decided to do something.
A shy and anxious high school freshman at the time, Tiemann signed up for the Students Demand Action Texting Team, which helps mobilize other students by sending them text messages with opportunities to advance gun reform. Texting was a way Tiemann could take action while avoiding talking to people.
“The idea of speaking out loud and asking people to help me was absolutely terrifying,” Tiemann says. Instead, they opted to stay within the bounds of texting, where they could read and reread each message, fact-checking and verifying over and over that they were delivering accurate information.
But now, Tiemann says they’re confident speaking to just about anyone about gun violence. Whether that’s fellow students, policymakers, or a reporter from NPR. Tiemann’s shift towards speaking out began in their own high school, where they created a Students Demand Action chapter with the help of a couple classmates and a teacher.
The local chapter has worked with school administrators to reform active shooter drills so that students, parents and administrators receive notice of the drills in advance. “I’ve had experiences in my school district where we have not been notified [of] a drill which causes extreme amounts of panic,” says Tiemann, who is now part of the organization’s national advisory board.
Tiemann will attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, this fall, with the long-range goal, they say, of “running for office or being an organizer for the rest of my life.”
RuQuan Brown, 20, Washington, D.C.
On June 11, RuQuan Brown woke up feeling excited. Brown is a rising junior at Harvard University, but was back in his hometown of Washington, D.C., for the week. That day, he joined thousands of activists at the Washington Monument, where they urged Congress to take action to address gun violence.
“I’m a former football player, and so this feels like game day a little bit,” Brown told NPR before the start of the march.
Brown’s path to activism was driven by a series of events while he was in high school. In 2017, he lost a football teammate, Robert Lee Arthur Jr., to gun violence. Hardly anyone, Brown says, seemed to be talking about it.
“I felt like it was my responsibility to pick up a microphone and make sure that the world found out about his life, but also the lives that would be taken after his.”
The following year, Brown’s stepfather was taken by gun violence too.
In the wake of these tragedies, Brown created a merchandise company called Love1 – for Arthur’s jersey number. It sells clothing, like tees and sweatshirts, along with accessories including branded face masks and stickers. Brown donates a portion of proceeds from the company’s merchandise to charitable causes. Things like funeral costs for victims of gun violence, a public art project pushing gun violence prevention, or helping Washington’s public school students access therapy.
As he got ready for the March For Our Lives rally at the Washington Monument, Brown ruminated on what he thought he – or all the other activists – might get out of it. He’s in this for the long run, he says: “We don’t just want to save people for the next five or 10 years. We want people to be safe, far after our lives. Far after we are hopefully naturally gone.”