By De Elizabeth
On March 24, 2018, more than a million people took to the streets in protest of gun violence for the first-ever March For Our Lives (MFOL). Student activists and survivors of the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, organized the official event in Washington D.C., while peer activists staged sibling marches in cities around the globe. Many students involved have not stopped fighting for gun reform in the following months, and the topic continues to be on the minds of young people every day. And while tangible change has occurred in the form of new gun safety laws and even more proposed proposed legislation, one fact remains clear: There is still a lot of work to be done.
In the early planning stages of MFOL, student organizers had a seemingly straightforward outcome in mind: Raise awareness, and motivate others to get involved. “We hoped that the march would be a flashpoint that people saw as a moment they decided to fight before it was too late — before they, too, lost someone to gun violence,” Ryan Deitsch, co-founder of MFOL and MSDHS graduate, told MTV News. “Our goals were to ... empower others to stand up and demand an end to gun violence in all communities.”
Charlie Mirsky, MFOL’s co-founder and Political Director, agreed, adding that they aimed to “show that all these pent-up feelings that the country had [about gun violence] could be represented on a stage for everyone to see at one moment.” According to Mirsky, organizers wanted to build upon the momentum from the world’s response to the Parkland shooting in order to showcase the gravity of the U.S.’s gun problem. “We wanted to create that moment that everyone could remember, and show how many people cared about this issue,” he explained.
Gabriella Socio, a 16-year-old who attended the D.C. march and later worked with a local chapter in Middlesex County, NJ, told MTV News that she was drawn to the event after her little brother was so afraid of gun violence, he refused to attend school. “He was only in kindergarten and was scared of getting shot in school,” she said. “I didn’t grow up scared of school, but my brother does.”
Socio, whose entire family accompanied her to the march, described the event as “amazing,” adding: “To be around other passionate people is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to let my voice be heard, which was something I have never felt before.”
Today, MFOL is more than just the event that took the world by storm last spring. The organization equips young people with the necessary tools to take action against gun violence, such as guides for contacting elected officials, or tips for starting coalitions at the local level. Mirsky, who soon became the organization’s D.C. representative, has been busy building a team of student lobbyists all under the age of 21 who are talking directly to lawmakers about gun reform. “In the past year, we’ve built a strong, structured organization to the point where we can continue to mobilize ... and be a real player in this progressive movement,” he said. According to Deitsch, who currently oversees the organization’s content production and partnerships, MFOL now has more than 200 chapters all across the country.
For the students who have joined MFOL at the local level, the feeling of being on the frontlines of history is palpable. “I was drawn to [MFOL] as I was inspired by the Parkland activists’ drive to spark a change in terms of gun violence,” Quinn Bosselman, who served on the organizing committee in Huntington Beach, California, told MTV News. “After [the march], I couldn’t entirely describe the feeling of gratitude I had for my community and their dedication to such an important topic, along with the hope I had for this movement’s future.”
Jacob Martínez felt similarly after serving as one of the lead organizers at a march in Arizona. “It was an overwhelming feeling of unity and strength as ... [we] descended on the state Capitol to say ‘enough is enough,’” the 17-year-old explained. Inspired by that solidarity, Martínez went on to work as a National Field Organizer for MFOL, and today, is planning to run for city council in District 3 of Mesa, Arizona.
“A big issue in my run ... is ensuring the city has a good relationship with our public schools, and is providing adequate resources for student both relating to their learning and mental health,” the 17-year-old told MTV News. Martínez attributes his desire to further enact change to the initial MFOL. “After [the march], there was a sense of accomplishment, knowing we were making an impact larger than ourselves,” he added.
“We’ve seen a further rise in activism among young people,” Deitsch remarked, adding: “We need everyone to demand action, and be the catalyst that causes real change.”
Members of the organization are also building on the momentum they’ve felt in the months since the inaugural MFOL. “Things have changed for the better since last year,” Deitsch said, noting that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been steadily losing political power “because kids asked the country to have a moral compass.” Mirsky added that progress has been made “on paper,” citing the H.R.8 and S42 bills designed to strengthen background checks on gun purchases; Socio noted that things have improved in her state of New Jersey, highlighting the eight new laws passed by the state in 2018, including a ban on “ghost guns,” or untraceable 3D-printed firearms.
“These federal bills that are being pushed now have a very strong support from the new House of Representatives,” Mirsky said. “So there’s certainly some movement here.”
For some students, the fact that people are simply talking about gun reform is progress in and of itself. “MFOL has kept the topic of gun violence in our daily discussion for over a year,” Bosselman said of his community, which recently elected Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat who supports gun reform, while voting out former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman with an “A” rating from the NRA.
However, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth journey for these student activists, especially in Washington. “There is still a lot of work to do in terms of expanding voting rights and putting people in the Senate — and the White House — who are not corrupted by special interest groups, like the NRA,” Bosselman noted.
Mirsky agreed. “The answers are there,” he said. “It’s just getting money out of the hands of corrupt politicians.”
Of course, one powerful metric of change will ultimately be a decline in gun violence, which is something we sadly haven’t seen yet. According to the CDC, there were nearly 40,000 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2017, which was the highest it had been in more than 20 years, and 2018 was reported as the worst year for school shootings in the U.S. on record.
With the grave reality of gun violence statistics, some students are less optimistic about the future. Dylan Caçador, who attended the MFOL rally in Boston, Massachusetts, told MTV News that while awareness and proposed bills are a step in the right direction, he worries about “guns in the hands of more people in more places.” The 20-year-old noted that many states allow concealed weapons in places of worship, despite tragedies such as the Emanuel Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Many states have also expanded ‘stand your ground’ laws, which allow the use of deadly force against a perceived threat,” Caçador pointed out. “So we’re left with this spectrum of states with very tough restrictions, to states that continually put more guns into more hands.”
Socio believes that the ultimate solution lives within a reframing of what firearms are — and what they aren’t. “The honest answer is that we need people to change their minds about guns,” Socio said. “Guns are dangerous. They aren’t toys that anyone can have. Making the rules stricter ... helps save lives.”
And the MFOL organizers are keeping their eyes on the progress made by other countries in the wake of gun violence, especially given that gun homicide rates in the United States are 25.2 times higher than other high-income countries, and many politicians continue to accept money from organizations like the NRA to fund their reelections, only to offer “thoughts and prayers” at every gun-induced tragedy. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced “our gun laws will change” as a direct response to a mass shooting at two mosques. In 1996, the U.K. began the process of drafting new gun legislation in response to a school shooting, and Japan rarely has more than 10 gun deaths each year due to its strict gun laws. Change, as these countries have shown, is possible, but it does not yet seem like enough American politicians want it.
“The end goal is to make our country [reflective] of all these major countries that have passed these common sense gun laws and have far, far less shootings and gun related deaths,” Mirsky explained to MTV News.
Still, the fight marches on — and these MFOL organizers and participants aren’t ready to give up any time soon. “More than anything, this country needs a revolution of compassion and common sense,” Caçador said. “It’s far too easy for dangerous people to get hold of firearms. That’s hardly an opinion at this point; it’s been proven true far too many times ... and the consequences are catastrophic.”
Bosselman agreed, listing “universal background checks, closing loopholes, banning assault weapons, and funding the CDC’s research on gun violence” as several logistical steps needed to end the U.S.’s mass shooting problem.
For Deitsch, the work has only just begun. “We are in a better place today than last year, but that doesn’t mean hit the breaks,” he said. “There is so much more that must be done on these issues. To stop now would be unthinkable.”
We can all take action to prevent gun violence. Visit enough.mtv.com for ways you can take action.