Published June 9th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
They are the generation that flooded Twitter after the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting in 2018, typing out the hashtag #IfIDieInASchoolShooting.
In concise yet gripping detail, each student predicted how their early deaths by a similar mass shooting would crush their dreams and shatter their families.
Some stated that they would never experience their first kiss. Or be present to guide younger siblings following them into high school. Or that they would never enter college or start exciting careers.
Many admonished their grieving survivors to “politicize” their deaths, even showing their bullet-riddled bodies, so the public would be forced to consider the gore of gun violence.
Those teenagers are now young adults. They’re still trying to reform America’s gun laws and alter attitudes about gun safety.
Many now have college degrees and mature takes on social and political culture. They remain motivated by the relentless toll of mass shootings that have shadowed their lives.
On May 20, 2018, Nicholas Clark wrote: “#IfIDieInASchoolShooting I will never be able to fulfill my dreams and ambitious (sic) and make my parents proud. My life will have ended on the cusp (of) boundless opportunity and none of it would be fulfilled.”
Clark was a freshman at Olathe East High School when he shared the post. He was also one of the more than a dozen young people who organized Kansas City’s March for Our Lives rally in 2018.
The event was this area’s contribution to a global response after the deaths of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Kansas City turned out an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people at Theis Park on March 24, 2018.
Clark is now studying architecture at Kansas State University, focusing on affordable housing. He has rejoined other returning members of the original March for Our Lives group to plan a repeat.
Kansas City’s March for Our Lives 2022 will be held 1-3 p.m. on Saturday at the south end of Gillham Park, at about 43rd Street and Gillham Road. The gathering will be followed by a march to Theis Park at about 47th and Oak streets.
This time, a major catalyst is the recent mass shooting in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.
A recent legal twist connected the grim dots between Parkland and Uvalde.
Last week, attorneys in Florida tried to delay the ongoing sentencing phase of the former Parkland student convicted in the Marjory Stoneman shooting.
Their reasoning? A recent spasm of mass shootings made emotions too raw to seat a fair jury to consider a possible death sentence.
In Uvalde, 19 fourth grade students and two teachers were murdered at Robb Elementary School. The Uvalde shooting came just days after a white gunman in Buffalo, New York, targeted and killed 10 Black people in an apparent hate crime at a grocery store.
Such horrific violence has become almost the norm for march organizers.
They’ve never known a period unmarked by mass shootings, especially highly publicized incidents in schools.
“We are trying to get to a thing that we haven’t experienced, but that everybody else older has,” Clark said. “It makes it feel idealistic. We know that we’ve been there before, just not when we were around.”
Sakina Bhatti was about 12 years old when 20 students and six adults were murdered in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
She was a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy when she helped organize Kansas City’s first march.
The period following the Parkland shooting can become muddled in her memory, difficult to distinguish from one shooting to the next.
“I feel like I’ve put a lot of it out of my memory,” Bhatti said. “We were also faced with a lot of gun violence in our community then. I think a lot of us just stopped thinking.”
Bhatti still sees a need to engage more young adults from the urban core in the gun safety movement, as so much gunfire affects their neighborhoods and families.
National organizations pressing for gun reforms point out that the life expectancy of Black Americans is reduced by an estimated four years, just due to gun violence.
“And yet, the U.S. largely ignores the external, systemic factors driving inequality and violence in Black neighborhoods,” according to Brady United Against Gun Violence, one of the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention groups.
Understanding that trauma, however, deeply informs Bhatti’s reasoning for being involved again, rejoining the organizing group to plan the June 11 march.
She has just graduated from Colorado College with degrees in political science and feminist and gender studies. She will start law school at Penn State University in the fall.
During her undergraduate studies, many student conversations focused less on individual mass shootings. Rather, she and her peers questioned why Colorado had seen so many incidents. It’s systems thinking, a broader way of addressing public policy.
“When it was isolated, it was very easy to be like ‘it’s just one person who went out on a rampage,’ rather than systems that allowed it to happen,” Bhatti said.
Uvalde, in particular, shows how many factors can play into the catastrophic number of deaths, she said.
The most obvious example is the highly criticized decision-making by some in law enforcement that day, who held off on confronting the gunman.
Questions are also being raised about why the emphasis went toward telling the children to hide, rather than to run first. As they hid under tables, pretending to be asleep, the gunman killed them, according to news reports.
Also, there is the factor of Texas’s loose laws around gun ownership. The now-deceased gunman is believed to have planned the attack, knowing that he would be able to purchase military grade firearms, along with the 1,657 rounds of ammunition he purchased, as soon as he turned 18.
Grasping the scope of these issues can be daunting.
“It makes for less hope to realize that the systems are what is broken, and people aren’t working to fix them,” Bhatti said. “And it takes away the organizing power of people to be desensitized to the issues.”
March organizers see the political chasm in Congress as a challenge, not an insurmountable obstacle to achieving gun reform.
“All of these movements ride off the back of political momentum,” Clark said. “I’m optimistic about what we might be able to achieve.”
Clark makes the effort to engage in dialogue with people whose views differ from his own. He often comes away with confirmation of broad agreement on many specific gun ownership reforms.
That tracks with national polling, which finds widespread support in the American public for many basic measures. Those include expanding background checks on gun sales, increasing attention to mental health, and at least temporarily keeping high-powered firearms out of the hands of someone who has exhibited indicators that they might take their own life, or that of another.
They also include raising the age required for purchase of rifles with high-capacity magazines, the weapons that are often associated with mass shootings.
“It all comes back to voting,” Clark said. “If there aren’t the right people in office, these things are going to get filibustered.”
In fact, getting the U.S. Senate to end the filibuster, which stalls so much legislation that Democrats have the support in their chamber to pass, is a goal of the national March for Our Lives.
Both Clark and Bhatti see value in the growing network of support between student-led and more adult-focused groups, such as the local chapters of Grandparents For Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America.
One of Tara Bennett’s children helped organize Kansas City’s first march.
The work eased nightmares that the then-teenaged Elvarea Bennett experienced after the Parkland shooting. The dreams were of a shooter entering Park Hill South, trapping students on a stage.
From that, Bennett’s mother Tara Bennett became involved with Moms Demand, leading its legislative efforts.
Hers was the voice and face that dotted every local newscast last weekend, during heavy coverage of a Moms Demand rally at Berkley Riverfront Park.
“Don’t Look Away” was the mantra, a call out to members of the U.S. Senate who are contemplating a number of measures largely supported by Democrats.
Judy Sherry, who organized the local Grandparents For Gun Safety in 2013, believes the deaths of the young children in Uvalde is a tipping point for the general public, heightening their sense of anger and frustration with gun violence.
But it is not what will ultimately move Congress, she believes. That, she said, will take more time.
The young adults behind the March for Our Lives tend to agree. Several state outright that reforming gun laws could well be an issue that defines their lifetimes.
Rachel Gonzalez now works for Brady United, one of the leading nonprofits focused on preventing gun violence.
The organization’s founding, dating back decades, predates her birth.
“I was born a few months before Columbine, so my entire life has consisted of school shootings,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez made headlines in 2016 when she was elected as the youngest Democratic National Convention delegate in the country.
She was a member of the original committee that planned the 2018 march and is involved again.
This time, the 2021 graduate of Missouri Western State University comes with a degree in political science and a job as a national organizing manager for Brady United.
“I am not a one-issue voter. In many ways, most of them intersect. But I am very passionate about the gun violence prevention movement and am inspired by the people I get the honor to work with every day,” Gonzalez wrote in reply to questions about her work.
“Most of my colleagues are gun violence survivors and people who have lost loved ones, and yet they take on this role to prevent the same thing from happening to other people and destroying more lives.”
Organizations like Brady United show that change can occur, but also illustrate the long road ahead.
The group takes its name from the late Jim Brady, the White House press secretary, who was shot in the head and partially paralyzed during the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, Brady and two members of law enforcement were all shot.
Brady’s injuries were so severe that when he died 33 years after the shooting, at age 73, his death was declared a homicide.
And it took until 1993, through seven years of steady advocacy and three presidencies, for the organization to achieve one of its most storied achievements. Congress created the Brady Background Check System, required for all handgun purchases from federally licensed firearm dealers, a first for the nation.
Today one in five gun sales occur without a background check, due to the popularity of gun shows, online sales and person to person exchanges.
That fact is considered a loophole in the Brady law.
Further, the reality that many mass shooters are able to acquire their firearms legally is part of the broader look at reforms that many younger activists cite among their goals.
They’re committed to countering misperceptions and inaccuracies, both about America’s epidemic of gun injuries and deaths and within the soundbite political messaging that so often surrounds the issue.
Again, this is the generation that grew up practicing lockdowns in case a deranged person walked into their classroom with an AR-15, intent on murdering as many students as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Their familiarity with video of other children tumbling out windows, then running across playgrounds and parking lots to safety is deeply personal.
“I often get asked why I continue to do the work I do when nothing is changing, but I get a lot of comfort from the idea of going to sleep each night knowing that I did everything I could,” Gonzalez said.
It’s a sentiment shared by many of her fellow march organizers and by those who will turn out at Kansas City’s March for Our Lives 2022.
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Flatland’s Cami Koons created the graphics for this story.