She hid in a dark classroom closet, as the world outside was only beginning to learn about the murder of 17 students and teachers at her high school, and quietly told a classmate that she could no longer imagine doing what she’d planned to do on her 18th birthday: Go to the gun range and learn how to shoot.
“I personally have rallied for gun rights … but this experience has changed my viewpoint,” said the student, a young woman speaking to David Hogg, a student journalist who captured her real-time reaction to the violence on video Wednesday afternoon.
She spoke in a hushed tone, her face hidden by the darkness. “I wanted to be a junior NRA member. I wanted to learn how to hunt. I was always fascinated by guns as a young girl, but this experience was so traumatizing to the point where now I can’t even fathom the idea of a gun in my house or on my bodice.”
As an uncomfortably familiar American narrative of tragedy, mourning and self-examination unfolds once again, this shooting has spurred a predictably fevered gun-control debate that resurfaces each time someone takes multiple lives with a firearm.
But whether it was during the chaos of the shooting or the grief of the aftermath, the strongest voices in the reaction to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were those who lived through the trauma. Young survivors immediately became their own best advocates, eloquently directing their demands for change at state and national lawmakers. In the aftermath of the horror in Parkland, several survivors have sent consistently clear messages on social media and television interviews.
They feel that President Donald Trump and Congress should focus less on “thoughts and prayers,” quit mincing words and take heed: This conversation needs to be about U.S. gun control laws.
“No amount of money should make it more easily accessible to get guns,” another young woman hiding in a classroom closet whispered to Hogg, the student journalist.
Now, the nation struggles with questions over how 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz — a young man who appeared to struggle with mental health — could purchase an AR-15 assault rifle, walk into his former high school and kill so many of his peers. At a vigil Thursday night, the heartbroken community had something to say about it, loud and clear.
“No more guns! No more guns!” they chanted, their faces illuminated by candles at Pine Trails Park in Parkland.
“There is absolutely no reason anyone at any age should have access to assault-type weapons. They are meant to kill,” said student Spencer Blum. “I hope this finally is enough to make a change. When is it going to stop?”
For politicians, he had a simple demand.
“They are elected to serve our country. Now do it,” he said.
Similar commentary cut through the typically partisan noise on Twitter. In particular, a few students pushed back when Fox News pundit Tomi Lahren took aim at liberals in a tweet Wednesday night.
“Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My goodness. This isn’t about a gun it’s about another lunatic,” she wrote.
She received pointed responses from two survivors.
“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt,” tweeted a student named Carly. “Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”
Another student, Kyra, echoed the sentiment.
“A gun has killed 17 of my fellow classmates. A gun has traumatized my friends. My entire school, traumatized from this tragedy. This could have been prevented. Please stfu [shut the f*** up] tomi.”
A scan of responses on social media show that members of the Stoneman Douglas community are overwhelmingly calling for changes to gun laws.
One student had different commentary in a Facebook post Thursday.
Vincent Valdes wrote that “specific teachers should have the right to protect students” and he plans to apply for a concealed carry permit.
“If you wonder what a kid who experienced it first-hand thinks … before I always said I’d never conceal carry — the day I turn 18, I’ll be getting paperwork filed,” he wrote.
The voices calling for change are speaking directly to Congress and the president himself. One student who blasted Trump’s response to the shooting invited the president to have a conversation with her about how she feels.
“hello I’m the 16 year old girl who tweeted you that I didn’t want your condolences, I wanted gun control, and went viral because of it. I heard you are coming to my community soon. I would love for you to hear my opinions on gun control in person. - a survivor,” wrote Sarah, who includes the hashtag #NeverAgain in her screen name.
When Trump sent a tweet suggesting that Cruz’s neighbors and classmates should have spoken up more about his erratic behavior, he faced a rebuke from student journalist Ryan Deitsch.
“I can accept the ever building wall that American murderers always need to have a mental condition, but how is it so simple for a person with such conditions to buy and use guns?” he wrote back.
In an interview Friday with CNN, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky said mental illness was “being used as a way out of discussing gun control.” The survivor emphasized that mental illness is an important part of the conversation, but better that someone like Cruz should not have been allowed to access the weapon he used.
“I’m not trying to take everybody’s guns away, but there was a 19-year-old who legally bought an AR-15, which is a weapon of war. And if he had been the least bit screened, somebody would’ve said, ‘This person doesn’t need a weapon like that.’”
At Thursday’s vigil, even some of the youngest among them expressed their disbelief and criticism of this country’s gun laws.
“Other countries don’t allow people to get guns,” said Gabriella Meyer, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Riverglades Elementary. “It’s crazy a 19-year-old was able to get a gun that easily.”