On March 24, thousands gathered on Public Square to remember the 17 lives lost in Parkland, Florida, and to stand in solidarity with the March for Our Lives movement. I was one of them.
I had no idea, and wouldn’t fully understand until days later, the impact this experience being among the crowd and chanting along would have on me.
As we left Tower City Center and stood on Public Square, my friends and I spoke with many high school students who came downtown with the same basic request for lawmakers — the right to attend school without the fear of being shot.
My friends and I listened to impassioned speeches. The words of our peers were frightening yet empowering. They feared they might one day experience a mass shooting in their own schools. They expressed helplessness at having to beg our politicians to do something, anything, to help.
“It’s crucial for gun owners to understand that this movement is not about repealing the Second Amendment,” one said. “It’s not about taking away the right to bear arms.”
They advocated for banning AR-15 and assault-style weapons such as those used in shootings in Orlando, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut.
“The rifle’s sole function seems to be to allow someone to spray as many bullets as possible in the shortest amount of time.”
Among the crowd was Democratic candidate for governor and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich. I spoke with him, and he chanted along with us: “Hey, hey, ho, ho the NRA has got to go!”
Kucinich told me he was happy to support our cause and us. We talked about organizing school walkouts and other tactics to make sure March for Our Lives doesn’t become just another forgettable social media trend or a disposable hashtag, as it did with #NeverAgain or #EnoughIsEnough.
“Hurt people hurt people,” another speaker said. “Mental health should be taken into consideration with every case, but someone who is mentally unbalanced cannot possibly kill or injure as many people with a knife. Strict background checks will make it difficult for those with a history of mental illness [to obtain] a gun.”
As I listened to each speaker, every one exploring a different side of the gun control issue, I realized that I have never known a time when mass shootings weren’t a serious concern. From 8 years old, I have been required to practice what to do in case an active shooter came to my school. I remember how, in second grade, my classmates and I participated in our first drill.
We very quietly crawled under our desks and pretended to hide. I watched as my teacher shut the door. The principal stood in the hallway. She walked to each classroom and shook the door handles, checking to see if they were properly locked.
Eventually, an administrator came on the school PA system, telling teachers to resume classes as normal. As if one could just snap back to a regular day, as if it were all normal.
When I got to high school at St. Joseph Academy, I underwent ALICE, or “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate” training. The program teaches students to quickly decide on the best options for survival. In the course of my training, I was taught how to barricade a door and secure a classroom from a hypothetical shooter.
We start by pushing all of the desks and bookcases up against the door. We shut off the lights and close the windows. And then we remain absolutely silent. Teachers assure us that there is no reason to be afraid.
“Don’t worry,” they say, “you’ve been trained in active shooter drills.”
Yes, we have been trained. But while crouching there in a dark classroom, listening, waiting, we have time to think about what we would actually do were this a real attack.
Would we really become the brave souls who sacrifice ourselves to save others? Or would we run, screaming? In our teenage minds, most of us probably imagine standing helplessly in the middle of a hallway, while someone takes aim and fires.
During these drills-of-death-made-routine, another question often comes to my mind. Is it so unreasonable for students to expect to be safe from someone brandishing a semi-automatic weapon? But then I remember that no public space is immune from this epidemic of violence. Nightclubs, movie theaters, shopping malls and music venues are all targets too.
That means change is needed for everyone, not just us students. But change begins with honest dialogue, and we are reminded endlessly that, in the wake of another shooting, “Now is not the time to talk about gun control.” I disagree.
Now is the time for adults from the Ohio Statehouse to the White House to engage with us in a frank conversation about this issue, one with a focus, a goal and a realistic proposal as its outcome.
Many Americans can agree on some reforms. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll showed majorities of gun owners and those who do not own guns actually want common sense reforms, such as better background checks, closing the gun show loophole and barring those on the no-fly list from buying guns.
Sound bites should not and will not stop us from pushing for practical, common sense changes to gun laws. My friends in Cleveland believe it’s time to talk about guns. Students across America believe it’s time to talk about guns. If we can’t talk now, then when?
Some have argued that my friends and I are not old enough to speak publicly. Many of us are too young to vote. I am 15 years old, but I am not too young to be politically active and speak out. And I do intend to vote soon — and for a very long time to come.
We may be young, but we are old enough to fight on our own behalf. The only way to see progress on this issue is if inspired individuals make their voices heard, as we did on Public Square. We must show the government and powerful gun lobbyists that we are sincere in our desire for change.
This fight, I realize, will take an enormous amount of hard work, as well it should. But those of us on the front lines need to continue fighting for our own safety and continue supporting those who organize movements like the marches that happened downtown and across the nation March 24.
In Cleveland, on that bright afternoon, I decided that no matter how hard the fight, no matter how small I sometimes feel, I will not allow this movement to become another missed opportunity for reform.
My classmates and I marched along the square and through Mall C, chanting as loudly as we possibly could. We chanted with anger and frustration, but most importantly, with hope. When the crowd fell silent, my friends and I started new chants. Everyone soon joined in.
And then suddenly, in the cold lake breeze, as we all waited for the arrival of spring, tears welled up in my eyes. I sensed a genuine commitment from the people around me. Change was coming. For the first time that day, I felt optimistic about the future.