Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Meet two teen gun reformers who are done waiting for politicians to address school shootings.
Whitney Bowen has been bracing for gunfire at school all her life. Thanks to a decade’s worth of mass shootings at places like Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech, and Umpqua Community College, the Northern Virginia high-school junior is a veteran of lockdowns and duck-and-cover drills. When she hears a loud noise in class, she looks for the nearest exit.
Then, on February 14, a 19-year-old armed with an AR-15 killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This time, Bowen and her classmates took more direct action, even if her legislators refused to. Within days, she and Eleanor Nuechterlein, a fellow junior at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, were gathering friends on Facebook to plan a President’s Day die-in in front of the White House.
They weren’t alone. Last week, it seemed like teenagers suddenly assumed the highest moral authority in the land: Young survivors of the Parkland shooting directed trenchant outrage and legislative demands to the president and Congress, giving lift-off to anti-gun violence demonstrations organized by high-schoolers around the country. Bowen and Nuechterlein’s Facebook page has drawn thousands of followers, and last Monday, hundreds of real-life protesters turned out with flags and posters to support the young bodies laid down at 1600 Pennsylvania. “Am I next?” read one sign.
Bowen and Nuechterlein spoke briefly with me after class let out Friday about their motivations, the disconnect between American high schoolers and political representatives, and what they’re planning next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Laura Bliss: In response to Parkland, young people are wielding social media in a way that seems almost second nature. For example, news of your White House die-in spread rapidly on Facebook and drew an impressive real-life crowd. How did that happen? Were there other platforms you used?
Whitney Bowen: We started out hoping just to get 17 of our closest friends there to represent the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. We made a Facebook page on Friday, Teens for Gun Reform, and an event under that page. Within a couple of hours, it had reached a ton of people just through shares. It exploded into something a lot bigger than 17. I think we had around 400 people turn up on Monday.
We also created a Twitter, but mainly we focused on the Facebook page, because we were also able to attract a lot of media attention there.
What is the most important change you’d like to see?
Eleanor Nuechterlein: In terms of legislation, what we’re really pushing for is background checks for all gun sales. At a bare minimum. For every gun sold. That would help close the gun show loophole.
What spurred you to protest?
Nuechterlein: Both of us attended the Women’s March, last year and this year, in Washington, D.C. We drew inspiration from that. But also we really gained inspiration from the Parkland survivors, because they’ve been so well spoken and outspoken about their beliefs and that they know something has to change.
There’s been a lot of admiration and support for this youth organizing. Has that reaction surprised you?
Nuechterlein: Initially, we were surprised that we received as much positive feedback as we did. Again, we thought 17 of our closest friends would be there.
But I think a lot of people our age are taking on the gun control issue, in general, because a lot of us are realizing that this can happen to us, just as it did to the Parkland kids. It can happen in my area, in my school, and to me. I’m 16 years old and a lot of the victims were 16 years old. They went to school for the last time. They didn’t know it would be the last time. That is really scary.
So we decided to make this protest because we want to take as many measures to prevent it from happening as possible.
What do you make of the argument, often heard from GOP politicians, that tightening restrictions on gun sales is an oversimplified response to mass shootings?
Bowen: I think that the median age of politicians these days is an age that went to school, both high school and college, in a time before school shootings were the norm.
Eleanor and I are both 16, born two years after the Columbine massacre. Virginia Tech happened when we were in first grade, I believe. Sandy Hook was when we were in sixth grade. This is really something that’s been normal all of our lives. I can’t remember a time without school shootings because I never lived in one. I remember having lockdown drills and active-threat-on-campus, duck-and-cover types of drills since we were in kindergarten.
I think that a lot of the pushback from politicians against these policies is a lack of perspective. They didn’t grow up in a time when you hear a loud noise and your first thought is, “Where’s the nearest exit?” That’s what I see the most good of these teen movements doing. The push from teenagers can show that this is an issue we need to address, whether or not politicians have the same perspective that we do.
Did either of you watch the listening session at the White House, or the town hall on CNN last week? Some of the Parkland survivors have spoken with President Trump, Senator Marco Rubio, and other political leaders quite powerfully about their reactions to the shooting, and reforms they want to see in response.
Bowen: We watched some clips. Our general reaction to this stuff is that, we’re really glad that it happened. It might be a small step in the right direction. In general, I’m glad to see all the teenagers who are speaking out. They’ve been having the most impact in what they’re saying and planning, and they’re actually reaching congressmen.
At the listening session, President Trump voiced support for the idea of arming teachers and other adults working at schools with concealed-carry weapons. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Bowen: I personally don’t agree with that suggestion. I’ve talked to a lot of my teachers about the idea, and they’ve all said that they were horrified by the prospect of being armed. A bit more generally, I just don’t see more guns being the solution to a problem of gun violence.
A number of Republicans in Congress have called for strengthening the mental health care system to catch signs of individuals who pose potential threats. What do you make of that idea? Could students play a role, maybe, in keeping a closer eye on their peers?
Nuechterlein: There is a large community around supporting each other among teenagers in general. But obviously, that doesn’t reach everyone, especially if you’ve seen these latest events. Encouraging the support is important. But more so is tackling the gun problem. There are more concrete legislative reforms that can be made on the issue of how easily accessible guns are to people. Let’s tackle that first, before moving onto a bit of a more abstract concept, of how teens can better support each other in terms of mental health.
There’s been a lot of awe, I think, mixed in with admiration, for these teen-led gun reform demonstrations. I wonder if that can feel like sort of a backhanded compliment—that people are surprised by teenagers taking a stand and using their voices for something?
Bowen: It’s definitely interesting. A lot of the pushback we’ve been getting is, “You guys are 16 and 17—how much can kids really do?” There’s this idea around people who can’t vote yet being a bit politically inept, not really knowing what they’re talking about in terms of politics, or just assuming their parent’s side of the political spectrum, taking on those positions.
But I think that it’s different to grow up in the world that we have, because so much of our world has been politics. In a way, that’s a bit unfortunate. I wish that my childhood hadn’t been so affected by politics. I don’t think third-graders should have to worry about things like gun control and gun violence. But we’ve grown up in an era where you can’t afford to be naive, in terms of politics.
Bowen: Right now, we’re planning on using the momentum that the Facebook page has generated to promote some of the other events going on, planned by other students, such as March for Our Lives on March 24, and the school-wide walkout on March 14. We’ve also talked to our administrators, and our high school will be participating in that.
Has your community been receptive to your calls for reform? McLean, Virginia, where you go to school, is pretty politically liberal.
Nuechterlein: People have been very supportive because they’re hearing that our message is not a partisan issue. It really should be something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree upon. There has been some negative feedback, like there would be with any controversial issue.
But mostly the people who are giving us negative feedback aren’t interpreting what we’re saying correctly. All we’re trying to say is, we don’t want kids to feel scared at school.