Public Relations

How students found their voice in the fight against guns

Students launched Never Again MSD in response to a mass killing at an elementary school

America’s student protest against the mass killings that blight the nation took shape rapidly after the 14 February slaying of 17 children and faculty members at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by a former student.

The massacre contributed to a grim statistic, with three of the most deadly mass shootings in modern US history taking place within five months. In the aftermath, grieving led to activism on the national stage. The day after the tragedy, Cameron Kasky, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and three school friends co-founded the movement Never Again MSD, spreading the word on social media under the hashtags #NeverAgain and #EnoughisEnough.

After four days, they had 35,000 followers on Facebook. Other students were recruited at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Television interviews were given, group Twitter accounts formed and a programme of protests planned. On 14 March at 10am, exactly one month after the tragedy, thousands of students across the country walked out of lessons for 17 minutes – one minute for every life lost.

From Maine to California, participants performed solemn vigils, standing in silence around sets of empty chairs or reading the names of each victim. At one school in Los Angeles, students lay down on an American football field to spell out the word ‘enough’.

Near the Florida school, a banner was hung proclaiming a quotation from its founder Stoneman Douglas telling students to ‘be a nuisance when it counts’. They took this instruction to heart. Demonstrations were held that day in several US cities, including one outside the White House, calling for reforms on gun laws before another school suffers the same violence.

The walkout had three demands for Congress: a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the introduction of universal background checks before gun sales and a new law allowing courts to disarm people displaying signs of violent behaviour. Ten days after the walkout, March for Our Lives, a protest in Washington DC was held, with 800 associated events across the US.

Former US president Barack Obama sent a letter of support, while celebrity endorsers and donors included George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. Sir Paul McCartney joined a march organised by the group in New York City. The overall turnout was estimated at between 1.2 million and two million, making it one of the largest mass protests in American history.

The media response was favourable, with The New Yorker praising campaign organisers for their ‘extraordinary incisiveness’, CNN comparing the activism to the early days of the #MeToo movement and Time magazine put five members of Never Again MSD on its cover.

Some immediate results resulted, with the state of Florida introducing a package of measures including an increase in the legal age for gun purchases from 18 to 21. A series of ‘town hall’ meetings took place on 7 April, America’s mid-term elections in November are being targeted and some group members are reportedly considering taking gap years to guide the campaign.

Signing Florida’s bill, state governor Rick Scott told the students: ‘You made your voices heard. You didn’t let up and you fought until there was change.’ Journalist John Cassidy stated in The New Yorker: ‘This was the first time in 30 years that Florida passed any gun restrictions and it was a direct response to the Never Again movement.’

What happens next will be crucial, however, as to whether Never Again MSD enjoys more than fleeting success in combatting America’s gun culture.