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'Am I Next?': Students take leadership in national movement against gun violence

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By Leandra Bernstein

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — After the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead and over a dozen injured, scores of students, many not even old enough to vote, have been pushed into a position of political leadership in the national debate over gun violence.

David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Douglas Stoneman (MDS) High School, recorded video of last Wednesday's massacre and reactions from fellow students during and after the incident. When the lockdown was lifted, he told reporters, "This is why people need to be politically active. This needs to be a turning point."

Political leaders tried to quiet the immediate, emotional calls for action on gun control. Florida Governor Rick Scott insisted "there's a time to continue to have these conversations" in the future.

Students and survivors of the mass shooting agreed. On Sunday, survivor and MDS Junior Cameron Kasky told ABC News, "People are saying that it’s not time to talk about gun control. And we can respect that. Here’s a time: March 24th in every single city. We are going to be marching together as students begging for our lives."

According to organizers of March for Our Lives, children and adults will march on Washington, D.C. next month to demand elected officials take action to "end this epidemic of mass school shootings."

In the days since the tragic shooting, activists around the country, both young and old, have organized gun demonstrations urging Washington to take action to protect students from gun violence and impose tougher gun laws.

On Monday, a group of activists staged a "lie-in" at the White House. The protest was organized by two 16-year-old girls who spread the word over social media. Dozens of activists showed up, including kids as young 8-years-old, to demand President Donald Trump and other elected officials put childrens' safety first.

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Activists chanted, "We want safe schools," and held signs that read "Protect kids not guns." Some protesters called for reinstating the ban on assault rifles or universal background checks. A minority expressed concerns about mental health and did not want to see changes to the nation's gun laws.

One young girl held a sign that read: "Am I Next?"

"This is not an issue you can sit around and hope for change for," said a local high school Sophomore advocating stricter gun laws. "You have to go out and make the change happen yourself."

Another high school student chimed in, "We can do that!"

Previous efforts to address gun violence and stop school shootings have fallen short, even after the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 or the largest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas last October. "We're the ones who can make a change," said a teenage activist.

Teenage activists organize a lie-in at the White House. (Photo: Victoria Sanchez, WJLA / @VictoriaSanchez)

A number of survivors of the Parkland massacre have committed to turn their grief into action. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, MDS Freshman Christine Yared insisted, "We can’t let innocent people’s deaths be in vain. We need to work together beyond political parties to make sure this never happens again."

Civil rights activist and CEO of the Soze Agency Michael Skolnik believes that the Florida mass shooting will be a turning point because young people have mobilized so quickly and effectively.

"This is a remarkable change," Skolnik said. "Unlike in the past, we haven't seen young people in this kind of leadership so quickly after a tragedy."

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In the hours and days after the shooting, survivors were speaking out on social media and traditional media to express their shock and horror, but also to demand accountability from elected officials.

"These young people realize they have to take their future into their own hands because the elected officials are not going to protect them," Skolnik explained. "That is a sad reality of our nation, but an inspiring reality that we have these young people who are so brave."

Richard Martinez, whose 14-year-old son Christopher was a victim of gun violence, said he is "inspired" by the actions the students are taking.

In the days after the shooting, some MDS students targeted their frustration at President Trump and other Republican leaders for failing to keep their schools safe. A number of Parkland survivors have argued that Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have failed to act because of political contributions from the National Rifle Association. One student argued that in future elections a politicians' acceptance of money from the NRA should be a "badge of shame."

The NRA has not yet issued a statement on the February 14 shooting.

Another student lashed out at Trump directly after he sent a tweet offering "prayers and condolences" to the victims.

"I don't want your condolences," wrote Sarah Chadwick, a 16-year-old student at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. "Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But Gun control will prevent it from happening again."

On Wednesday, President Trump is scheduled to hold a "listening session" with students and teachers. The White House has not yet said whether Trump will meet with Parkland students. The president is also scheduled to meet with state and local officials on Thursday to discuss school safety.

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Two students and shooting survivors who have been thrust into leadership positions have said they are not interested in Trump's listening session.

"He should have taken the first invitation. We are not going to come to him, he needs to come to us," said Alex Wind, a Junior and survivor of last week's shooting. He was referring to a Wednesday town hall meeting with parents and survivors of the Parkland massacre which is being hosted by CNN.

President Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott have both turned down invitations to attend the event. Emma Gonzales, an MDS Senior, said the president is not attending the town hall because "he doesn't want to have to face us."

Skolkin has offered his help to the young people organizing to take control of the gun violence debate. In conversations he has had with Parkland survivors, Skolnik noted that they don't believe that President Trump is "on their side." He explained further, "These young people feel abandoned by their elected officials."

After a weekend of demonstrations and pleas from children and parents affected by the Parkland massacre, Trump appeared more open to gun control legislation. On Monday, the White House issued a statement saying the president supports stronger background checks.

According to the statement, Trump was in contact with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut about their bill to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to prevent ineligible persons from purchasing guns.

"While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system," press secretary Sarah Sanders said in the statement. The president has also said his administration is committed to working with state and local leaders to secure schools and tackle the mental health issues.

Sen. Murphy responded to the White House's announcement saying it was "another sign the politics of gun violence are shifting rapidly." He added, however, that the bipartisan FixNICS bill alone is not an adequate response to the gun violence epidemic.

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Before next month's March for Our Lives on March 24, other groups are planning local and national demonstrations. Organizers with the Women's March are planning a national school walkout on March 14. More than 18,000 people around the country plan to take part in the 17-minute walk out.

Over the weekend, WPEC news in Florida spoke with one of the event's organizers in Palm Beach County.

"We are done, we are fed up," Maria Torres Lopez told WPEC. "Our children need more than our prayers, need more than our 'let's see what happens.' They need our actions."

It is yet to be seen whether the Parkland shooting will be a turning point away from the increasingly deadly mass shooting incidents of recent years.

In previous decades, the Congress and president have taken action in response to spikes of gun violence. In the 1990s, lawmakers passed the Brady Law, to enforce stricter background checks after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. And in 1994, in response to a number of high-profile mass-Skolnik shootings, Congress passed the Assault Weapons Ban. The prohibition on assault weapons and high capacity magazines was in place for ten years before it was allowed to lapse in 2004.

Skolnik and others are hopeful that after so many other attempts to affect change in Washington have failed, the young students in Parkland and around the country will succeed.

"My expectation is that young people will lead," Skolnik said. "The kids see through it, they see through things that have blinded us for decades."

He noted that by next month when students and gun violence survivors participate in the March for Our Lives, more politicians "can find the courage to stand with young people and be as courageous as they are."

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