Young People Are Once Again Leading the Response to Mass Shootings

Sara Fleming
Maisha Fields speaks at a press conference pressing Cory Gardner to support common-sense gun control on August 9.
In the wake of two separate mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend, student activists are once again leading rallies, vigils and press conferences to call attention to gun violence and push lawmakers on the state and federal level to take steps toward regulation.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, spurred a new wave of student-led activism, there has been a proliferation of various youth-led organizations. Some groups have phased out, while others have come into the forefront, but many of the same faces are involved, and they have stuck to the same main message pressuring those in power to pass common-sense gun laws.

The newest leading group is the Colorado chapter of March for Our Lives. On Friday, August 9, it organized a press conference in front of Senator Cory Gardner’s office, to push him to support universal background checks. At an event in Aspen earlier this week, Gardner told the audience that “I don’t support gun control,” and when activists confronted him regarding universal background checks at a meet-and-greet on August 7, he asked them not to “partisanize” the issue. They also knocked Gardner for taking large campaign contributions from the NRA and Rocky Mountain Gun Organization.

"We’ve seen a summer of violence and no action out of Congress to remedy the situation," says Ethans Somers, an Evergreen native, student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Giffords Courage Fellow who helped March for Our Lives organize the August 9 event. March for Our Lives is asking members of Congress to come back from recess to pass a pending bill on universal background checks. "Someone like Cory Gardner, who hasn’t moved on this issue in the past, and who has refused to listen to any calls for gun safety…this is one that we feel should be an easy one for him," Somers says.

Many of the speakers at the August 9 press conference had been directly affected by gun violence, including state Representative Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora Theatre shooting; Sullivan says he's seen the movement gain substantial momentum in the state in the past few years. Maisha Fields, the daughter of state Senator Rhonda Fields, lost her brother to gun violence in 2005.

Other young activists spoke about how they live with the indirect threat and normalization of school shootings — a threat that is, for reasons experts have yet to determine, more common in Denver than any other metro area. Emi Ambory, the executive director of the Colorado chapter of March for Our Lives and a recent graduate of Fairview High School in Boulder, said, "There have been 139 mass shootings [nationally] since I started high school in the fall of's fundamentally changed our relationship with violence. We check exits when we walk into rooms, we flinch at the sound of a textbook hitting the floor, and we crouch under a desk during lockdown drills knowing that the day that it's not a drill is not that far away."

Fields drew attention to the prevalence of "everyday" gun violence, especially in communities of color. "Within twelve hours, we have had three shootings in Colorado," she said. Three people were killed in four apparently unrelated shootings. "I just left a mother in Montbello, who is personally connected to me, whose son was murdered," Fields said.

Last summer saw its own tragedies, activism and a bit of drama within the student groups leading it. In late July, Tay Anderson, the young candidate for Denver Public Schools school board, unexpectedly stepped down from his leadership position in Never Again Colorado. Soon afterward, the group took a hiatus, according to Evan Davis, a former board member who still supports the movement but has since stepped away from organizing.

Meanwhile, another leading group, Students Demand Action (a subgroup of Everytown for Gun Safety) pulled out of organizing a “March on the NRA" after the group received threats on social media, provoking confusion after the Denver Post reported that the march itself would be cancelled. Soon after that, Anderson joined Students Demand Action as the Director of Outreach. But in the early fall, after March for Our Lives Colorado booted up, the members of Students Demand Action made the decision to affiliate with March for Our Lives, seeing “better resources and better connections” there, according to Ambory.

“Instead of having these three regional competing activist groups, it made a lot more sense to step back and let [March For Our Lives] lead the charge,” Davis says.

As Davis explains, part of the reason for the reshuffling and shifting organization is that the student-led gun control movement is relatively new, and part of it is just the nature of being a movement led by young people who are at pivotal movements in their lives, where they may move away or go to college in another state. "I’m sure if we were all in a position to sit down to make it our full-time gig, we would, but we have college, other opportunities, internships, jobs, work study," he says.

For Somers, being a leader in this movement comes with its own challenges, the foremost being that the movement is a response to often sickening and random tragedies. "The reason I know [most of the people here] is because mass shootings happen so often," Somers says.

Still, both young people and adults who have worked on gun control advocacy with organizations such as Colorado Ceasefire and Moms Demand Action, recognize that momentum is building — even President Donald Trump, to the NRA's dismay, has voiced support for background checks and extremist protection orders this week.

"[This] is an opportunity for students to set the tone for the coming years," Ambory says. "Even those who aren’t of voting age recognize the importance of having their voice heard…to make it clear that this movement isn’t dying out. And it’s impossible for these kinds of things to die out when we continue to be plagued by mass shootings at such frequency."