On February 14th, 2018, at 2:21 pm, after being dropped off in an Uber, nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz, used an AR-15 style rifle to shoot into classrooms and hallways at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. By the time Cruz had completed his seven-minute shooting spree (Cruz had begun shooting at 2:21 and at 2:28 was seen running out with other students in an attempt to blend into the crowd), 17 lives had been snuffed out. By 3:41 pm, Cruz was in police custody, and America had gained another addition to its ever-growing list of mass shootings. This one becoming the second deadliest school mass shooting (the FBI defines a mass shooting as one where four or more people, not including the perpetrator, lose their lives) on record, second only to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 when 27 lives were taken. As the news broke, and as a community reeled from the horrific tragedy, politicians began their outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” via social media outlets.
“My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school,” tweeted President Trump at 12:50 pm on February 14th. Florida politicians added their own version of prayers and condolences as well. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted “In the world, you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world – John 16:33,” on February 15th in reference to the shooting. “Just spoke with @POTUS about shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” tweeted Governor Rick Scott “My thoughts and prayers are with the students, their families and the entire community.” Senator Bill Nelson also chimed in, tweeting “Praying for everyone at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Just spoke with Broward Undersheriff to ensure they have everything they need. And just spoke to FBI to make sure all federal resources are being made available to help.”
Less than six months ago, politicians were sending out a similar round of prayers and condolences messages in regards to the Las Vegas shooting, where 58 people lost their lives to a gunman firing into a crowd, and less than two years ago I listened as politicians communicated similar sentiments in regards to the Pulse night club massacre. The Pulse shooting happened two blocks away from my apartment complex and like so many I watched and waited to see if there would be any action to accompany those thoughts and prayers.
Eight days after the Pulse shooting on June 20th, 2016, multiple proposals were brought forward, by both Republicans and Democrats in regards to gun control. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed strengthening federal background checks while Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) proposed expanding background checks to include gun show and internet sales. Both failed. There was then a proposal by John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would have given investigators 72 hours to prove a citizen on the no-fly or watch list had no ties to terrorism before being able to purchase a gun. That proposal failed along with Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s proposed amendment that would have barred any individual on a terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun. It failed 47 to 53. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio voted against the amendment. Omar Marteen, the Pulse shooter, was listed on the terrorist watch list but was still legally able to purchase a 223-caliber AR-type-rifle and 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.
After the Las Vegas shooting back in October 2017, there was talk of legislation to ban bump stocks. Bump stocks are an accessory used on AR-15’s and other semi-automatic assault rifles. Bump stocks are not banned under federal law despite the fact that the adaption allows a semi-automatic rifle to fire nearly at the rate of a machine gun without technically converting it. Twelve of the rifles Stephen Paddock had in his hotel room in Las Vegas were modified with bump stocks. Politicians vowed changed, beginning with banning the public sale of bump stocks to private citizens. By November no legislation had been proposed and the conversation, seemingly as always, fizzled out. And now here we are, another day, another mass shooting, and another round of thoughts and prayers that no doubt will fuel the conversation of gun control for a few weeks before we become distracted by our everyday lives. While the conversation fades, the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting will be laid to rest and the survivors and families of the dead will attempt to piece back their lives that will never be the same again.
The cycle continues, but this time might just be different. The teenage survivors of this latest mass shooting are speaking out, despite their pain and grief, and are organizing. This week, during the Sunday morning political shows, a group of survivors made the nation pay attention, calling out the stagnation and hypocrisy of politicians who send thoughts and prayers but lack the ability to take concrete legislative steps towards change. “My message for the people in office is this: You’re either with us or against us,” said survivor Cameron Kasky during a live interview with CNN “We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”
On March 24th students will converge on Washington D.C for a march entitled March for Our Lives. According to the March for Our Lives’s mission statement the event is student-driven “March For Our Lives is 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.”
March for Our Lives will take place in Washington D.C, but will also have sister marches around the country. Additionally, two school walkout events are planned. One on March 14th, which will mark a month since the shooting, and another on April 20th, which marks 19 years since the infamous Columbine high school shooting in Colorado. Both walkouts are encouraging students to calmly and quietly leave their classrooms for a pre-determined amount of time in protest. So far more than 22,000 students have signed an online petition agreeing to walk out of their classrooms at 10 am on April 20th.
In a fiery and emotional speech delivered at a gun control rally this past Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, survivor Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, denounced the perpetual cycle of thoughts, prayers, and inaction stating, “Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”
Gonzalez’s speech, which has been uploaded to various outlets, has racked up 1.1 million views through CNN’s YouTube account since it was uploaded on February 17th. It is a small indication that perhaps, people are finally willing to listen and perhaps this time will be different. The survivors, more so than perhaps any other shooting, are not backing down. These survivors, these children, most of whom have yet to graduate high school are demanding a break in the cycle. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting,” said Gonzalez during the rally this past Saturday “Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students.”
With Gonzalez’s speech and the events planned in response to this latest tragedy, there is an undeniable undercurrent of hope that these survivors may be the ones to break the gridlock once and for all, but only time will tell if elected officials will respond to their grievances with more than thoughts and prayers. Yet, one thing is clear, these survivors will not be giving up the fight anytime soon and if elected officials do not respond with more than thoughts and prayers, their days in office are numbered. “We’ve sat around too long being inactive in our political climate, and as a result, children have died,” David Hogg (a survivor who appeared with Gonzalez and Kasky on CNN) said, “If our elected officials are not willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to continue to take money from the NRA because children are dying,’ they shouldn’t be in office and they won’t be in office because this is a midterm year and this is the change that we need.”
Article originally written on February 20th, 2018
Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images