I have seen two people die in my life so far, the first when I was 21, a violent, instant death. There is something about seeing that kind of death so young. When it happened to me, I had been around the edges of the Vietnam war protests for about a year. It made a kind of abstract sense that I, as a decent person, would be against that war’s senseless killing. But when I actually saw someone killed before my eyes – so instantly and violently and irrevocably gone -it was no longer abstract. It put fire in my spine to stand up to the old white men sending kids to be killed in Vietnam – the faces of those men, blathering on before tv cameras – totally clueless about what actually happens when someone is killed! I think the kids who survived the machine-gun massacre at Marjorie Stoneman High School must be experiencing that kind of white-hot understanding.
Less than a week after a madman struck at Stoneman High, a bill banning machine guns was defeated in the Florida Legislature. Student survivors from Stoneman Douglas and parents of children slaughtered had spent 2 days lobbying their representatives before the vote, but it wasn’t even close. 36-71 against the ban.
The representatives probably felt underappreciated because they did manage to raise the age to buy a machine gun in Florida from 18 to 21 – bravely placing some restrictions on some underage homicidal maniacs. But the Stonemason Douglas kids, having witnessed what they witnessed, were looking for an Australia-type response. I hadn’t heard about this, but in 1996 when a mad man machine gunned 35 people to death at an Australian seaside resort, the country’s leaders flew into action outlawing machine guns and creating a massive buy-back program to get rid of the guns already out there. And that was the end of mass murders in Australia.
That’s what the kids at Stoneman Douglas want. I want that too. A lot of people do. I know good, intelligent people who rightly feel more secure because they own guns, some of them really love guns, but nobody wants these machine guns all over the place. This is not an outlandish request, this is common sense.
The MARCH FOR YOUR LIFE was called by the Stoneman Douglas survivors in Washington, last Saturday. There were 800 sibling marches all across America. Peter and I have been sick all week so we stayed home and watched it on TV. I am so glad we did not miss a minute. Every single speaker was a high school kid, except for the ones in middle school and grammar school. They knew what they were talking about because they had survived gun violence in their schools and neighborhoods. They had lost family members and friends! They said things like, “I learned to duck bullets before I learned to read!” The youngest speaker was a little girl who’s grandfather, Martin Luther King, had been killed by gun violence. She said, “I have a dream that enough is enough!” One of the speakers was a middle-school boy who had cowered in his 3rd grade classroom at Sandy Hook while his 1st grade sister was mowed down. He said they were supposed to make gingerbread houses that day in first grade. He said his little sister had been so excited. Every one of these kids grew up with “active shooter” drills. They were poor kids and affluent kids, all colors, classes, sexual orientations. They were united as a steel wall over this gun plague that has haunted their childhoods.
Two things from the march that I can’t get out of my head:
Emma Gonzalez shared the timeline – it took the killer just 6 minutes and 20 seconds to render his destruction on Stoneman Douglas High. Only machine guns do that… She spoke personally of her friends who were lost:
“…My friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice again…
Aaron Feis would never call Kiera Miss Sunshine again,
Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother, Ryan, again,
Scott Beagle would never joke around with Cameron at camp,
Helen Ramey would never hang around with Matt after school,
Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Lliam at lunch again,
Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan,
Helena Ramsay would never
Cara Louren would never
Chris Hixon would never,
Luke Hoyer would never,
Martin Duque Anguiano would never,
Peter Wang would never,
Alyssa Alhadeff would never,
Jamie Guttenburg would never,
Meadow Pollack would never…
With the last name, Emma Gonzales was quiet. Tears were streaming down her face, she closed her eyes, she stood still. The camera swept the crowd, people were rapt, some were praying, crying, taking cellphone pictures. It went on and on. Some people started a chant, “Never Again” It caught for a minute, but Emma just stood there. The crowd got so quiet, hundreds of thousands of people, totally silent. It was getting to be an awkward silence. Another chant tried and fizzled. A friend came out from the wings and said something to Emma, but she stood motionless, eyes closed, tears streaming. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who feared she might be suffering a mental breakdown. Who could blame her- any of these kids. But then Emma’s cellphone timer chirped. She opened her eyes. “That was six minute and 20 seconds,” she told us. And we got it, at least a hint of it, how long 6 minutes could be, how much longer if you were cowering, being killed or surviving.
Samantha Fuentes is a Stoneman Douglas student who was shot in both of her legs and fell next to her friend, Nick Dworet who was killed. At the march, she read a poem where she described hiding trapped behind a file cabinet “…I was crying tears and blood at the same time…” she read. And later when she met authorities who fended off requests for gun control she said, “…they would not meet my eyes.” At these words she was hit by a wave of nausea. She tried to push it back but it was too powerful. She doubled over vomiting hard, and when she tried to straighten up, it hit her again. The audience’s heart was breaking for her – hundreds of thousands of people – praying she could go on. A fellow student came out and stood by her, whispering encouragement. And Samantha pulled it together. As she regained her composure her anguished face turned into a wide teenager’s grin. “I just threw up on international television,” she called out “…and it felt great!” A huge cheer came up and she laughed and beamed before turning serious again. Then she told us that her friend, Nick, who died beside her – today would have been his 18th birthday. Samantha asked the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to him and they did. And for me, that was the whole thing – the unprecedentedly adult power to call forth hundreds of thousands of people coupled with the broken hearted teen wanting to sing happy birthday to her friend, one last time.
A smart smart friend of mine remarked that it doesn’t seem fair to expect these kids to take on such a huge wrong. I think that too, but I don’t think they have a choice. You see senseless death this young, it commands you to act. It also shatters you to the bone, so I’m praying for all the people who are around these kids, families, friends, teachers, strangers who are blessed enough to cross their path. May we all say prayers and hold them close, strong as they are, they need tenderness. And if there is any justice in this world, they will heal. If there is any justice in this world, we will follow their lead to sanity about machine guns in this country.