Since the teenaged March For Our Lives organizers departed on their summer bus tour in June, here’s a short list of what reporters have wanted to know from them: Are they tired? How have they changed since the tour began in June? What are people around the country really saying about their movement to legislate common sense gun reform?
Two months, 33 cities and countless media interviews later, Matt Deitsch — a March For Our Lives organizer and Stoneman Douglas graduate — is still willing to patiently answer all of those questions. But these days, he’s more interested in talking about time, and how it’s capable of distorting the sense of urgency surrounding gun violence in the average American’s mind.
“We talk about Columbine like it was more recent than Virginia Tech, and we talk about the Charleston church shooting like it was decades ago,” Deitsch said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We talk about Las Vegas like it was years ago, but we were in Las Vegas talking to survivors, and they’re still getting surgery to have bullets pulled out of their bodies to this day.”
On Aug. 12, the young organizers completed the summer leg of their “Road to Change” tour, a coast-to-coast get-out-the vote initiative aimed at raising awareness around gun violence prevention and registering young voters, ahead of the midterm elections. Six months after a 19-year-old gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and committed a mass shooting that left 17 students and faculty members dead, the most clarifying lesson for the teenaged survivors of the attack has been that no corner of the country is untouched by the scourge of gun violence in America.
After emerging on the national stage in the wake of the attack as some of the most authoritative voices on the need for gun reform policy, the teens began to organize, starting with themselves. They formed March For Our Lives, an initiative dedicated to eliminating gun violence in America’s cities and schools, and then expanded that movement into inner city communities nationwide. The “Road to Change” tour, which began on June 15 and rolled through cities that included Sioux City, Iowa, and El Paso, Texas, was designed as an outreach tour that veered through NRA strongholds, amplifying the voices of gun violence survivors along the way.
“In the beginning of this whole thing, it was about the 17 people that I had lost at Stoneman Douglas,” 17-year-old “March For Our Lives” co-founder Jaclyn Corin said in a phone interview. “But now it’s about so much more than that. I’ve heard this same story from everyone I’ve met, and all the people who I’ve been told about, I carry their stories with me as I go. That’s what March For Our Lives is about for me now.”
Two days after the bus tour’s official conclusion in Newtown, Connecticut, Corin returned to Stoneman Douglas for the first day of her senior year of high school. But she — and the March For Our Lives movement itself — have evolved since tragedy struck her high school last February.
Corin likes to say that while she has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland — one of the deadliest school shootings in American history — the friends she’s made in inner cities across the country experience “current traumatic stress disorder,” in that gun violence has become a daily, inevitable part of their lives.
”They understand that it’s still going on — some people have to deal with gun violence once, and others have to deal with it every day,” Corin said.
Although Parkland is an affluent, mostly white community, the March For Our Lives organizers quickly realized that any movement seeking to reduce senseless gun violence would necessitate an intersectional approach to reform that utilized the voices of activists in communities that look far different from their own.
Deitsch said that one of the most transformative moments along the tour was a stop at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, which became the site of a massacre in 2015 after an armed 21-year-old white supremacist stopped by for bible study and then murdered nine members of the all-black congregation in cold blood.
“That place was just full of so much love and appreciation of life, and to know what happened there, to be in that room and see where such evil existed, and to see the pain on these people years later, that have to live knowing that that extreme hate is out there, and has hit them ... we’re not that far removed from so much of this pain and trauma, but yet as a nation we’ve completely moved on,” Deitsch said.
All along the “Road to Change,” Deitsch said that organizers encountered a steady drip of counterprotesters set on evangelizing against the titular “change” being alluded to. But after taking the time to explain their positions, he said that organizers could always reliably find common ground with even the most fervent of their detractors.
“A large misconception is that we’re against gun ownership, when actually we’re for responsible gun ownership,” he said. “People tend to not understand the policies that don’t directly affect them. People in Janesville, Wisconsin, have no idea what the day-to-day gun violence is like in Milwaukee. When we actually bring them into the reality of what’s going on day-to-day in America, these people are not only shocked, they’re moved emotionally and politically.”
From the beginning, “March For Our Lives” organizers have made expanding background checks in order to prevent domestic abusers and others with a history of violence from obtaining guns a signature part of their platform. But according to Deitsch, those positions have since expanded to include more granular policy recommendations — like a push to digitize the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “so that they can actually enforce laws and do their jobs.”
“There’s a lot of aggressive people who come out trying to intimidate us, trying to harass the people at our event, but when we actually break down what we’re fighting for, not only do they agree with us, but they enthusiastically agree with us,” he said. “That’s something that everyone agrees on — that we want less people dying in this country.”
Although the summer leg of the tour has come to an end, the young coalition’s fight to prevent senseless gun violence is far from over. On Tuesday, March For Our Lives announced in a press release that it will reboot the bus tour beginning in September, when organizers will travel to “college campuses, districts where young people can make an impact in the election, and communities that are deeply affected by gun violence,” to continue to encourage youth voter turnout and push for gun reform.
According to Corin, winning in key congressional districts and enacting concrete gun reform legislation is still “100 percent possible” as the midterm elections draw near.
“It’s always been possible — those who said it wasn’t before haven’t been paying attention,” she said.