At 7:39 p.m. Sunday, a half-dozen students from Iowa City High School logged onto a group chat and began planning their first-ever protest for gun safety. They wanted to do something in solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman had killed 17 the week before.

“We need concrete actions, not just walking out cuz we’re angry and then go back to school the next day like nothing happened,” said Esti Brady, 16, according to the chat log.

The next morning, more than 250 students braved cold rain and marched 1.5 miles. Some of them, using a megaphone borrowed from Women’s March organizers, gave speeches as news cameras rolled.

Such displays have given gun-safety advocates fresh hope that the violence in Parkland – and the widespread response to it among youths – could create new momentum across the country to enact firearms restrictions.

But these students are also attracting political attacks from advocates for gun rights. And established groups, demoralized after a string of shootings that have prompted no political response, are aware of how quickly such a moment can fade. To avoid tainting what they’re describing as an organic, youth-driven movement, they’re going out of their way to claim distance from student activists.


The students in Iowa City said they put together their rally with no outside help, no funding, and promotion only from a student newspaper. The organized student efforts in Parkland, meanwhile, began just one day after the shooting, when several groups of friends from the school’s drama and journalism programs met up at one of the vigils for the victims and vowed that something had to be done.

In other states and towns, students have been organizing at the same rapid clip, with similar low-key technology. Lane Murdock, a 15-year-old at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut, launched the National School Walkout campaign last week with a petition. When the questions started to come in, she teamed up with Paul Kim, the 17-year-old student-body president, and created a joint email account where they could organize what, by Tuesday, was more than 78,000 students pledging a walkout on April 20.

“I hadn’t told my parents when I started it,” Murdock said. “My mom came home that night and was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ My dad was at a restaurant where he overheard people talking about the walkout, and he said, ‘Hey, that’s my daughter!’ “

The worry that students may come under political attack was well-founded. On some fringe conservative news sites, the highest-profile students from Parkland were probed for evidence that they were being coached. David Hogg, a Douglas senior and student journalist who did several bracing interviews, was attacked by the far-right site Gateway Pundit as “the child of an FBI agent” willing to be “used as a pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation.”

“This kid is a shill,” tweeted Republican strategist and commentator Bradley Blakeman.

Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman and current CNN commentator, said Tuesday morning that the students’ rapid organizing raised questions about whether they had been “hijacked by left-wing groups that have an agenda.”

“Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” asked Kingston. “Organized groups that are out there like George Soros are always ready to take up the charge, and it’s kind of like instant rally, instant protest, and those groups are ready to take it to the streets.”

And this week, the aide of a state lawmaker from Florida accused two Parkland students who were interviewed on television of being actors who travel the country.

However, such attacks do not – yet – appear to be gaining steam. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., quickly retorted this on Twitter: “Claiming some of the students on TV after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”

Even the aide’s boss, Republican State Rep. Shawn Harrison, felt compelled to issue a statement rebuking his staffer – and he later fired him.

Several activist students insist they’ll be able to lean on one another as a support system.

“We know that we don’t have to take anything from anybody. We are survivors,” said Diego Pfeiffer, 18, a senior at Douglas who helped organize Never Again MSD. “We understand that there are trolls and there are people who are going to work against our goals.”


Several students have gone viral after giving interviews in which they called for new gun-control measures or sent tweets ridiculing the responses of pro-gun politicians. They attacked the president by name and accused Rubio of callousness. On television, they were given a platform nearly equal to that of the political class.

“We needed to capture the faces of the movement,” said Alex Wind, 17, a junior who was one of the first three members of Never Again MSD, which has quickly ballooned to several dozen members.

Among those faces were Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior and Wind’s best friend, and David Hogg, a 17-year-old senior who is the school’s student news director, whose interviews on CNN on Thursday and Friday were shared widely. On Saturday, the world met Emma Gonzáles, an 18-year-old junior whose infuriated address at a gun-control rally quickly became Twitter’s top trending topic and perhaps the most widely shared moment from the shooting’s aftermath.

“I was trending number one on Twitter and I didn’t have a Twitter account,” said Gonzáles, who has since started an account that has amassed 137,000 followers. “Now I’ve got this platform that just whipped itself up out of nowhere.”

The existing gun-safety groups have jumped into the post-Parkland fray, but they have remained careful in how they handle the students. Everytown for Gun Safety, the group founded by Michael Bloomberg in the wake of the Newtown shooting, connected some of the Parkland students with its “survivor network.” Americans for Responsible Solutions shared “some context on gun violence protection” with students who requested it, according to Peter Ambler, the group’s executive director.

“These kids know they are plugging into a political movement that is growing in power, and they are laying bare the gun industry mythology that you can’t talk about changing the laws after a mass shooting,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “It used to be that Republicans would respond to mass death and destruction by stubbornly insisting that there was no possible legislative route that could save lives. But things have started to change.”

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