I was a sophomore in high school when the shootings at Columbine happened. That was 19 years ago. I was a student at Littleton High School, a few miles down the road from Columbine—close enough that many of the afternoon school buses were cancelled that day, and students weren’t allowed to walk home from school, close enough that many of my classmates had friends at Columbine.
Today, when I see the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School rallying the support of hundreds of thousands of people across the world participating in March for Our Lives events, I am reminded of the spirit of solidarity that I felt with my fellow students after Columbine, but I am also reminded of the failures that have seen these kinds of tragedies repeat themselves over and over in the intervening decades.
The day after the Columbine shootings, my friends and I joined with many others from all over the area who converged on the school to show our support. This had been an attack on our community, and we were moved to action, even if it was only to say, “we’re here for you.” It didn’t occur to us—or at least not to me—at the time that we needed to ask for anything, or demand any change.
Despite this new sense of community solidarity, I also felt an intense and longer-lasting sense of helplessness. I broke down in tears at the dinner table one night telling my parents that I didn’t want to have to go to school with armed guards at the door (Charleton Heston, then-president of the NRA, had claimed that armed guards would have prevented the Columbine shootings). For years following the shootings, every time I introduced myself as being from Littleton, Colorado people would respond with, “I’m so sorry.” Without asking for it, and without my permission, the tragedy of Columbine had become a part of my identity.
Even though receiving unwanted sympathy is nothing compared to the pain and trauma of surviving that attack, or losing a friend or loved one, I came to resent it. I wasn’t the one who needed the sympathy, and there was more to me, and more to my community, than this one horrific moment. But as much as I may try to distance myself from those memories, I remain inextricably linked to those events.
Everytime there is another mass shooting I remember how I felt after Columbine, and I wonder why nothing has changed. I think of all the new people who will now be forever linked to the memory of a mass shooting. I think of the senselessness of the loss of so many lives, and the intractableness of a political system that has enabled this happen over and over and over again.
And that’s why I find so much hope and so much pride in the students who stood up in the wake of yet another tragedy to say enough is enough, to demand action, to hold our leaders accountable, and to finally achieve some change.
Today’s high school students were born after the shootings at Columbine, which means mass shootings, and especially school shootings have been a regular occurrence for their entire lives. They’ve grown up with active shooter drills the way my generation grew up with fire drills. They’ve watched as my generation, and those that came before us, have done nothing to stop these all too common, but all too preventable tragedies. Rather than actively pursuing solutions, they’ve watched us allow the normalization of gun violence.
Every time one of these tragedies occurs we’re presented with only piecemeal or half-hearted solutions. All too often, gun advocates present “good guys with guns” arguments, like the recent proposals to arm teachers. To that suggestion, I would simply respond that the supposed “good guys” shot an unarmed black man 20 times in his own backyard in Sacramento on Sunday (and that’s only the most prominent recent example of a trend that is all too common). Or consider the example of school district officials in Broward County, Florida who will require Stoneman Douglas students to carry clear backpacks at school in the name of “security,” forcing these students to carry a physical reminder of their trauma with them every day.
It’s no wonder that young people have grown impatient with our inaction. Kids deserve safe schools, and all of us deserve to be able to go to work, go to a religious service, go to the movies, go to a concert, go to a nightclub, walk through our neighborhoods, drive home from work, stand in our backyards, or just exist in our bodies without fear of being shot.
So I stand with these students. And I stand with Black Lives Matter. And I stand with Moms Demand Action. And today Americans took the streets to say that they do too.