One by one, the teenagers tearfully shared their stories: a South Florida high school student with a relative who accidentally shot himself; her classmate, who calls herself part of the “post-Columbine generation”; a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student with green streaks in her hair, who recalled leaving campus “not knowing if you were going to make it out alive.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., sat at the head of the long table in his wood-paneled office as the teens – four students from Stoneman Douglas and four from South Broward High, in Hollywood, Florida – explained Friday why they had traveled to Washington to lobby for better gun control. They spoke about how they feared they would live in a country where mass shootings – like the one that shattered their community – would become more common.
“I don’t really now how to put into words what it felt like,” said Madelynn Dittman, an 18-year-old senior at Stoneman Douglas, describing the day a gunman killed 14 of her classmates and three adults. Her voice cracked. “But it’s a feeling no one should have to go through.”
Saturday, these students are joining thousands of other young people to rally for greater gun restrictions, an event certain to be boisterous and loud. But on Friday, they quietly shared their grief and pain with lawmakers in Congress behind closed doors.
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The students were part of a group of 200 young people who arrived in Washington from South Florida to meet with lawmakers and share their experiences with gun violence and to attend the March for Our Lives. The trip was organized by Giffords, the gun-control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot at a constituent event in 2011 in Tucson. The organization also arranged for students from several other cities to come to Washington, including Tucson.
Friday’s event came less than 12 hours after Jaelynn Willey, a 16-year-old shot by a classmate at her school in southern Maryland, was taken off life support, succumbing to her injuries just before midnight. She marked the third school shooting fatality since the massacre at Stoneman Douglas.
The day started off with a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol, where a bevy of students stood behind lawmakers. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., credited teen activists for encouraging Congress to confront the issue of school shootings. Wednesday night, as part of a spending bill, it allocated $50 million for school security improvements and approved money to bolster the background check system used to screen potential gun buyers. It also lifted a provision that barred the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence.
“The Stoneman Douglas students have energized the nation. High school students, college students from around the country will be marching here in Washington and in more than 800 cities all across this country and across the globe,” Deutch said.
Students from Stoneman Douglas and from Chicago and Minneapolis spoke Friday, urging members of Congress to take action to stop gun violence.
“We students have become victims of our government’s glaring inaction,” said Demetri Hoth, a Stoneman Douglas senior. “But never again. We have come here today to hold accountable politicians and their disturbing inaction. Never again will our voices – student voices – be shunned into silence.”
In the crowd with them was Lori Alhadeff of Coral Springs, Florida, wearing a thin sweater despite the brisk winter-like weather. She hugged a framed portrait of her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was one of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas. As she listened to the words of young people whose lives were undone by gun violence, she stroked the frame as if caressing Alyssa. She struggled not to cry.
She carried a backpack in bubblegum pink, a bulletproof model she purchased for herself and her other children after Alyssa’s death.
Had Alyssa survived, Alhadeff said, she would have been in Washington alongside her classmates advocating for greater gun control. Alyssa, a natural leader and captain of her soccer team, once famously left behind instructions for her soccer coach when she could not make a game.
“Absolutely,” Alhadeff said. “She would be the loudest one. She was the smallest one with the biggest voice.”
In the private meeting, Kaine told the students what other Democratic lawmakers had said all day: They had already made a difference, advancing efforts to keep people safe from gun violence.
“You have started something that is incredibly powerful,” Kaine said. “I just say, just keep it up, please.”
He compared them to African-American children who marched in Birmingham to protest segregation in 1963. The images of police officers setting fire hoses and dogs on their small bodies and the news of their arrests marked a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
At the meeting’s close, Dittman asked Kaine for a favor: “Can you pass a message on to your colleagues from me?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “tell me.”
“So obviously, not all of you agree on gun control. Obviously, it’s controversial,” Dittman said. “But I just wanted to say that when you really think about it, it’s not a political issue.”
“It’s a human issue. It’s a life or death issue.”
On Saturday, Dittman rose early to travel with the crew to the National Mall. She said she was heartened by the number of protesters supporting their cause. As the crowds began to disperse in the afternoon, she lingered in front of the White House. Her feet ached and she said she was drained – “physically and emotionally.”
“Today was really emotional and it’s been powerful,” Dittman said. She was moved to tears when her former classmate Sam Fuentes, who was shot in the leg, delivered a speech. Fuentes has withdrawn from the school. “Today was just raw proof that change is coming, you know?”