The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They grew up practicing lockdown drills. Now they’re steering the conversation on gun violence.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High senior Tyra Hemans pauses at a memorial at the school, where 17 students and teachers were killed in a shooting massacre in February 2018. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — The student from Birmingham, Ala., came because she wants to “stir up tough conversations” about gun control in a deep-red state. The teenager from Los Angeles was there because she is sick of learning how to prepare for a school shooting instead of how to prevent one. The boy from Baltimore came because he is tired of bullets ripping through his neighborhood as he tries to sleep.

About 50 teenagers from across the country filed into a Johns Hopkins University lecture hall Tuesday to begin an intensive, four-day summer course on gun policy and research taught by experts in the field.

Hopkins officials said they were inspired by the momentum built by students in Parkland, Fla., who started a global movement after 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he wanted to tap into that passionate activist base and arm other teenagers with data they need to be effective advocates.

“Your stories are really why we’re doing this,” Webster told the students. “We recognize your potential to really dramatically change communities where you are and across the country.”

It’s the first time the center has brought high schoolers onto its campus for this kind of program, a reflection of a larger push by the public health school to expand access to its bevy of gun violence prevention research.

At ages 15 through 18, the assembled students are already leaders of grass-roots efforts in their communities. They’ve founded organizations to fight gun violence and crafted legislative proposals to their local elected officials.

On Tuesday, they furiously scribbled in college-ruled notebooks as Hopkins researchers clicked through PowerPoint presentations on where to find reliable data on gun violence and convey it to the public in a meaningful way.

Gun policy researcher Cassandra Crifasi cautioned students not to allow themselves to be in a situation where they have to argue over the credibility of their numbers rather than the strength of their message.

Jen Pauliukonis, the director of state affairs at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, warned them not to be discouraged if a bill they’re pushing takes more than one session to pass.

And Webster walked them through various government databases, showing the students how to make the most of the numbers while still being aware of the data’s limitations.

How many children have experienced school shootings?

Destini Philpot, who just graduated from the Baltimore City College, is a youth ambassador with Ceasefire, a grass-roots violence-prevention organization in the city. She wanted to ensure Baltimore’s experience was represented at the seminar.

The teen was taken aback when, talking with the other participants during the lunch break, so many of Baltimore’s struggles were mirrored in the stories that teenagers brought from other cities.

Gathered on a bench on Hopkins’ quad, a group of students started talking about how old they were when they first experienced trauma because of a gun. Destini and another teenager learned they shared something: They were just children when they first saw a dead body.

While school shootings mobilized this generation of activists, the seminar is also examining the day-to-day homicides that plague cities and the suicides that account for the majority of gun deaths in the United States.

The center recently won a $750,000 grant to support efforts to expose more high school and college-age students to research on gun violence prevention. In addition to the summer course, the costs of which are covered by the grant, Webster and his team are developing an online course that will help students understand legal issues and use data to inform policy debates about gun violence.

Rian Finney, a 16-year-old Baltimore Polytechnic Institute student, said he signed up to learn “how to create policy so I can take it to the mayor or state legislature or attorney general and try to make change in my city.”

Like his peers, Rian has seen the havoc caused by gun violence. As an African American teenager in Baltimore, some of his fear stems from bad interactions with police.

Hopkins itself was recently at the center of the debate over armed campus police, with the General Assembly approving the force’s creation over objections from student activists who said they worried the officers would put students of color at risk.

Crifasi was also slated to lead a session on police-involved shootings.

At the start of the course, the students each shared why they wanted to give up a week of their summer to sit in a lecture hall and talk about gun violence. A recurring theme was the desire to go back to their communities and be able to present the best possible argument for getting common-sense legislation passed.

Madison Humes, a senior at Bel Air High School, said she signed up because she’s tired of people looking at her like she’s just a kid.

“I’m here to show the adults around me that I know what I’m doing,” the 17-year-old said.

Dozens of teenagers snapped in agreement.

— Baltimore Sun