WILL THE KIDS BE ALL RIGHT? A New Generation Takes the Lead in America’s Gun Control Debate
1,624 mass shootings in re United States in 1,870 days. Parkland, Florida feels different for everyone, including Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard who offers advice to Parkland Students.
On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooter killed 17: 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff; 35-year-old Scott Beigel; 14-year-old Martin Duque; 17-year-old Nicholas Dworet; 37-year-old Aaron Feis; 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg; 49-year-old Chris Hixon; 15-year-old Luke Hoyer; 14-year-old Gina Montalto; 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver; 14-year-old Alaina Petty; 18-year-old Meadow Pollack; 17-year-old Helena Ramsay; 14-year-old Alex Schachter; 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup; and 15-year-old Peter Wang.
The following morning I sent a message to my friend, Colin Goddard. On April 16, 2007, Goddard was shot four times in his Virginia Tech classroom. Goddard was one of seven of his classmates who survived. 32 were killed. Every time there is a mass shooting, I think of Colin. Unfortunately, I think of Colin too often. What must he be thinking? Have we failed him? Have we failed other victims of gun violence by not doing anything? Did Colin’s classmates and other victims of gun violence die in vain?
I sent him a message the morning of February 15th. I wanted to know what he thought about everyone becoming so desensitized to mass shootings? Did he think America’s youth have accepted mass shootings and gun violence as our new normal? Goddard who became active in gun violence prevention issues two years after being shot did not respond. We ended up chatting a week later. I am glad he did not get back to me the morning of February 15th. What ended up unfolding that day and the days that followed was not typically what happens after every other mass shooting. It felt different. That is what he and I ended up discussing.
THIS TIME FEELS DIFFERENT
We’ve heard it before: “This time feels different.” However, this time, ten days later, does feel different. It feels different from the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 last year. It feels different from 2016’s Orlando nightclub shooting that left 49 dead. The same goes for 2007’s Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 dead. And 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 27 dead including 20 6-7-year-olds. The aftermath does not feel the same as 2017’s Sutherland Springs that left 26 dead or 1999’s Columbine High School massacre that left 13 dead. Nor does it feel the same as 2012’s Aurora shooting that claimed the lives of 9. This time feels different. But why?
It started with student David Hogg. He recorded interviews with some of his classmates as they hid from the shooter. Hogg asked two students “so what’s your message?” Watch:
Then came the retweeting and reposting of posts from survivors. Many students were live tweeting from under a desk or locked in a closet. It was that rare moment we do not typically see. We usually see the shooter’s face first. Therefore we associate each mass murder with the shooter. Not this time. It was survivor’s faces that we instantly associated this tragedy with. Fearless faces. Faces of students worried about their fellow students. I do not have children, but I do have nieces and nephews who I love very much. And I have a heart. To say I did not get emotional while watching these videos and reading their tweets would be, as Emma Gonzalez said, “BS”. I have not become desensitized. I continue to grieve after every mass shooting much like I did following Columbine.
Responding to President Trump’s tweet offering “prayers and condolences to the families of the victims,” 16-year old Sarah Chadwicktweeted, “I don’t want your condolences you fucking price [sic] of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. 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.”
A couple of days later Chadwick responded to Senator Marco Rubio on Twitter. She tweeted: “Dear Marco Rubio, As a student who was inside the show while an active shooter was wreaking terror and havoc on my teachers and classmates with an AR-15, I would just like to say, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
Another Tweet read: “We should change the names of AR-15s to “Marco Rubio” because they are so easy to buy.”
Hogg, Gonzalez and Chadwick are not the only Stoneman Douglas High School students speaking up. There is also Morgan Williams, Cameron Kasky, Sheryl Acquarola, Delaney Tarr, Alfonso Calderon, Jaclyn Corin, Sofie Whitney, Ryan Schachter, Michelle Lapidot, Ryan Deitsch, Samantha Grady, Robert Schentrup, Brandon Abzug, Gabriel Edenbaum, Chris Grady, Annabel Quinn Claprood and Diego Pfeiffer. Many of whom are becoming household names.
CNN hosted a live Town Hall Wednesday evening with the Parkland community. Participants included Stoneman Douglas High School students and their families, teachers, family members of those killed, Florida Senators Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D), Congressman Ted Deutch (D) and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch. It was the first time, so soon after a tragedy that I can remember survivors and victims were able to confront their elected officials and the NRA in such a public manner. It’s emotional. It is worth the watch. You can watch it in its entirety here:
LIVING FOR THOSE WHO WERE KILLED
I met Colin Goddard in 2009 through my filmmaker aunt, Maria Cuomo Cole. Together they were working on a film about Colin called Living for 32. On a snowy April Day in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007, Colin Goddard dialed 911 as the sound of gunfire came close to his classroom door. As the first bullet penetrated his body, he passed his phone to his classmate, Emily Haas. Six minutes later, thanks to this call, police showed up to the building. Colin was wounded four times. 32 of his classmates did not make it.
Two years later, Colin decided to volunteer for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where he met board member Maria Cuomo Cole. Together they went undercover with hidden cameras and walked into gun shows across America. He showed just how easy it is for anyone to buy a gun, with no background check, no identification, just cash. Living for 32 is a story of a young, somewhat optimistic survivor who sets out on a journey, at times alone to raise the critical questions about the effectiveness of current gun laws and the efforts to curb gun violence in America.
“Colin was very much advocating on his own. He didn’t have the community, the communication community at that time,” Maria Cuomo Cole tells me via phone from Parkland, Florida. “Colin’s efforts in my view is the breakthrough voice, as a survivor demanding attention and change.”
“In 2009, too, right after Virginia Tech, there were some families that got involved,” Colin tells me. “Certainly not at this coordinated level of Parkland but it was small, there were no real groups that were doing this work. This issue still a difficult third rail that not even the Democrats were able to support this unanimously. It was stuck. I would like to think that the work I have been apart of with so many other people in the time since has unstuck the issue. It’s certainly not where it should be, rolling as fast as it should toward progress.”
So how is Colin been feeling about this new stage of the movement that seems to be moving quickly?
“It’s been incredible to watch the [Parkland] students at the school come together and step forward like this and talk about the same thing with the same intensity and the fervor and calling people out and being confident about it,” Colin tells me. “They slapped the issue in the face. It slapped all the old talking heads, pundits, probably myself included who has this, ‘here we go again, it’s going to get us back to the same place, and it was just a slap of ‘ hey, wake up! This is insane. We have to do something about this.’ The sincerity and the innocence and the determination that they bring with what they are trying to say is what we all needed to hear again, to realign and to clarify the issue again and not have it be so hazy and hopeless.”
“Listening to how they talk about this,” Colin goes on, “they are, ‘we are going to march, we are going to meet with all these people, we are going to have these conversations, how can they say no to our faces? Let us go up there and talk, if you adults can’t figure it out, we will figure it out. That’s exactly what I said to myself when I joined in 2009.”
But Colin learned over his years advocating for gun safety that not everyone is as driven to make some change. That is a tough pill to swallow especially when you still have a bullet logged in your body.
WILL THE KIDS BE ALL RIGHT?
“I don’t know how to say it, ” Colin says to me and take a view pauses, “but part of me is concerned at how early these students have engaged in this in such an early way. It’s certainly a coping mechanism for a lot of them and a way to make sense of something so insane, but I would also say they need to pause and reflect and deal and go through the phases of grief without all the other stuff so they can heal and deal with things in a fundamental way. It took me two years to get to the point where I was engaged in this in any similar way as they are and those two years allowed me to get everything internal squared away.”
“I have seen a lot of survivors over the years in advocacy jump their whole bodies into this from the beginning and at some point run out of steam and collapse and can’t do it and have to take a break,” Colin says. “They delayed all the other natural trauma processing that they have to do. I hope these kids can take some time to do that part of it but also realize as I am sure many do, the benefits that this advocacy can bring but they can’t lean on this as their only crutch so to speak.”
According to Dr. Daniel Schachter who spoke to NBC this week, that desire to speak out and organize is an effective coping mechanism, “trying to find a solution and actively trying to affect the world — and their close interpersonal world was very damaged — and they’re trying to repair that.” They are trying to bring meaning to what just occurred. They genuinely do not want this to happen to anyone else. So they may be suppressing or putting off some necessarily healing to ensure this does not happen again.
Colin knows the uphill battle, “part of me wants to reach out to these students and say ‘this intensity is going to move the needle, but don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow. Don’t think it is going to happen next month. And God, you can’t tell them that. You can’t say that. No matter how realistic you think that is because you want to have hope that you are wrong, one. Two, because you can’t just crush someone like that again on this thing in another way. I just hope when they realize how big this mountain is and how steep it is that they will still commit to climbing it. And realize that ‘holy shit there are so many other people here who have been climbing this for a long time and know a little bit of the road ahead and what to do and say ‘let’s go join them and not redesign the wheel.”
As I listen to the Parkland students, I hear a lot of 2009 Colin in them. I recall a conversation I had with Colin in 2010 during the world premiere of Living for 32 at the Sundance Film Festival. Colin who had just spent the morning snowboarding told me about a debate he had on the chairlift. In the few minutes up the mountain, he convinced an NRA-member who never considered understanding the other side of the issue, that we should close the gun show loophole and we should make it harder for people to obtain assault rifles. I remember how optimistic Colin was. He was able to change one person’s mind. Since he was able to do that, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish.What is Colin’s advice to the Parkland Students on how to stay engaged?
“Advice to them, first of all, is they have to have incredibly thick skin to do this. I have already heard things out there that they are actors, and they are getting paid and trained by George Soros and just crazy things and personally attacked for something that can scare a lot of people way. They have to develop a thick skin and have this mentality that if what they are saying didn’t make any impact, didn’t make any sense that nobody would give them the time of day. But the fact they are getting all this heat they should use it as fuel to keep fighting, and keep talking and keep doing it and not run away from it all. They know the fight is on the state level and that’s great.”
WHERE THE FIGHT NEEDS TO GO
For anyone watching the CNN Town Hall or who has been in this fight for some time know that elected officials in Washington D.C. are ineffective. “Not to be a pessimist but realistic,” Maria Cuomo Cole tells me as she travels around the Parkland community with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, “the assault weapons ban has already lost momentum [in D.C] it’s the states that can implement the assault weapons ban.”
It is easy to start throwing stones at Washington D.C. In many ways, if you can get D.C. to pass something federally, that will save a tremendous amount of time and money trying to push all 50 states to get there separately. However, for many reasons, D.C. has not budged. In fact they have only made it easier for people to obtain guns. “Maybe they will break through [in D.C.],” Colin says. “It’s exactly the same sentiment I had, and I realized ‘wow this is much bigger than just having these conversation’ because ultimately what they will realize is there is no combination of words that you will say to members of Congress that are currently in their seats that will make them legitimately change their opinion.” However, the fight, according to Maria and Colin, is local.
“I’ve already heard them articulate the need to get involved locally,” Colin tells me. “I think they realize that’s where they can make the most amount of change in the shortest amount of time, in the immediacy. The fact that they articulated that they wanted to engage on the state level is phenomenal. That is the long hard strategy that the gun safety movement had to learn over years of going to Congress and beating their heads against the wall. And they already know that. And they are already engaging in that, and that puts them way ahead of the past people who have had to learn that over several years.”
Florida has very relaxed gun laws. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action via CNN, you don’t need a permit or license to buy a gun. You don’t have to register that gun either nor do you need a license to conceal carry a rifle or shotgun. You do however, need one to conceal carry a handgun. A person can buy as many guns as you want to at one time and gun sellers don’t have to get a state license to sell firearms. Florida does not regulate assault weapons, .50-caliber rifles and large capacity ammunition magazines. Florida also has the Stand-your-ground/Kill-at-will law where defendants can “stand their ground” and use force without retreating, to protect and defend themselves or others against threats or received threats. In other words, you can shoot at someone you see as a threat to you.
These are Florida laws, and many states have similar laws. To bring about any systemic change and ensure as Emma Gonzalez bravely said that “we are going to be the last mass shooting,” state laws need to change. One way to do that is to vote current elected officials out. Students throughout Florida are mobilizing and setting their eyes on making changes in Tallahassee. I asked Colin if that’s the right approach. “That is what has to happen, or we are going another round around the roundabout,” Colin tells me.
Will these students stay engaged through every election cycle that it’s going to take to bring about change? “For all that you have seen you think they are going to,” Colin says. “You just hope once they realize how fucked up the whole thing is right now, the whole system is and the people who are there that that doesn’t discourage them so much that they throw their hands up, but that’s okay because that happens to people and that’s natural, and that’s okay. Because of how intensely emotional this is for all of them that if they have to step back and realize they can’t do it that’s okay. But I hope there is enough of them there that wants to stick this out and fight the long fight that this is going to be.”
To illustrate how defeating this fight can feel, almost ten years after Colin highlighted the legitimate threat the gun show loophole holds in America, he told me nothing has changed, “I have no doubt in my mind that I can go to any gun show happening in Virginia this weekend and waltz in and buy an AR-15 or Glock 9milimeter with cash, no paperwork, no nothing just like I did in 2009 and be the same dangerously easy transaction today.”
MAYBE, THERE NEEDS TO BE A NEW APPROACH?
Maybe it’s the decade-long fight where he hasn’t seen the change he set out for or perhaps it’s the inspiring Parkland, Florida Students who have changed the way he is looking at this fight, but at the end of our conversation Colin said, maybe this fight needs a new approach.”These kids are light years ahead of where I was back then,” he says. “Certainly they are going to learn a lot about the issues and the policy, but maybe that’s the wrong thing. Maybe they don’t need to be there. Maybe they just need to be that strong, hard voice that says ‘this is fucked up and you need to fix this’ and not get into the details of long policy.”
Perhaps this time, these students can lean on one another and push one another and remain unapologetic together. Unlike Colin who took the time to understand what happened to him and who researched the hell out of this issue before speaking out publicly and who had to do it at times alone, maybe this new approach will break through. Students, unlike adults, have time on their hands. They are fearless. They see a broken system and want to fix it. Maybe that is what we need. Perhaps that is what leads us to safer communities where parents don’t have to worry about their kids dying at school and where students don’t have to go through active shooter drills and code reds.
THERE WILL BE A POSITIVE CHANGE FROM THIS
Nicole Hockley, the mother of Dylan Hockley a Sandy Hook Elementary victim, said in the award-winning documentary Newtown, “while I fear the empty space in my heart may never be filled, I take comfort in the knowledge that his death will have meaning. There will be a positive change from this, and we will be part of it. Newtown will be part of it.
We owe it to Colin and Nicole Hockley. We owe it to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Columbine High School, and Sandy Hook Elementary. And we owe it to those who were killed and those who survived in Las Vegas, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, San Bernadino, Binghamton, Aurora and every day in every state. We need to ensure that those we have lost to gun violence did not die in vain. Our actions need to signal that we see them. That we remember them. That we will honor them as we continue to fight in their names. Because they are already fighting for us.
I asked Colin if he plans to attend March for our Lives in DC next month. He told me his wife is due with their second child four days before. However, he quickly said, “I think my wife understands the moment that this is going to be. The importance of me attending. Hopefully, that can happen. I really want to take our oldest daughter there too. She is old enough not to be freaked out by the entire thing.”
Editor’s Note: The authors aunt, Maria Cuomo Cole produced Newtown and Living for 32. The author saw both films through the editing process. He traveled with the Living for 32 crew as they premiered the film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The author has also worked for companies that at the time of his employment worked with gun control advocacy groups. They include: Brady Campaign, Everytown, and MoveOn.org.