It started with a text message from a friend.
Dani Miller, a 17-year-old junior at Winston Churchill High School, looked down at her phone and saw that a friend from Springbrook High School had just added her to a group text chain with two other Springbrook students. Miller quickly added 17-year-old Montgomery Blair High School senior Brenna Levitan, who added some of her friends, who added their friends, who would add theirs, and so on.
Before long, the exponentially-growing group included students from 22 schools across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia who began meeting frequently at places like Rockville Town Center and the Silver Spring library.
The goal, Levitan explained, was to organize a countywide walkout for March 14, taking advantage of Montgomery County’s geographic, socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural diversity to bring attention to the need for stronger gun laws. As the date grew closer and plans began to solidify, an organization emerged from their efforts – MoCo For Gun Control – which the students hope will become not just an ad hoc group to organize the walkout, but a vehicle to organize in a way that forces elected representatives to listen to them, giving them some combined clout as they begin taking responsibility for the world they will soon enter.
“This is a really great step for us to continue to show that we are not going to let politicians keep putting money over our lives. Our lives are important and they should be important,” said Miller. “Generations before us had the opportunity to change the laws and they hadn’t, I think that at this point, we are shouldering what generations have passed down to us and we are the generation that’s going to stop this.”
MoCo For Gun Control members explained that their organization has no president, no board of directors and – other than one or two students in charge of organizing at each of their schools – no formal leadership structure. Instead, decisions are made by consensus and everyone has a role to play to carry them out, including filling out and filing permit applications, liaising with the different police departments students will encounter, maintaining the nascent group’s social media accounts, liaising with other aligned organizations to line up speakers and drafting press releases.
The plan, according to the group’s press release, is for students to leave class and make their way downtown to the White House by 10 a.m. for a moment of silence lasting until 10:17. After 17 minutes – one for each of the 17 who died in Parkland, Florida last month – the students will march up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for a rally, where they’ll be joined by guest speakers.
The effort that gave birth to MoCo For Gun Control continues a movement that began when students from Parkland’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School began organizing and speaking out in favor of new gun laws last month after a former classmate killed 17 people there with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. While conservative media figures and gun rights activists have dismissed students’ efforts as born out of naiveté or simply a desire to get out of school, 16-year-old Michael Solomon warned that anyone who dismisses the power of engaged youths does so at their peril.
“I feel like something that’s important that some adults aren’t recognizing is, even in the Civil Rights Movement, most protest, demonstration, and movements of disobedience that lead to actual change, were led by younger people,” said Solomon, one of the Springbrook students whose text message chain jumpstarted the entire effort.
“A lot of people think that what we are doing is just saying like “we hate guns” and I think that we need to focus on the more realistic message, so what we are more targeting are specific things like a ban on bump stocks and a ban on semi-automatic rifles,” added Levitan, “but politicians are prioritizing the donations from the NRA over children’s lives and that’s what we have a problem with too.”
While the students of MoCo For Gun Control hope their efforts, along with the March 24 “March For Our Lives,” bring attention to the need for new gun laws, neither event will be the last thing the group does. Instead, they plan on refocusing their organizational skills to make an impact at the ballot box. Springbrook High School – where the group’s organizing efforts began – will have voter registration tables set up at their school after the march and for most of the remainder of the school year.
“Although demonstration is important to try to get change, the most tangible…the most direct way to get change in policy and things like that is voting,” said Solomon, who added that one reason he and his friends are speaking up is because their silence could be taken as an indication that they are content with the status quo.
“If people are just quiet and people don’t say anything…it implies that the people are OK with what’s going on,” said Solomon. “Protest and demonstration is important especially when the government is ineffective and not doing their job because if we don’t say anything, they’ll just keep things how it is and they won’t be doing anything because they won’t feel any pressure.”