Two congressmen and the father of a teenager killed last month in Parkland, Fla., came to Northern Virginia on Wednesday night to talk about gun violence and school safety.
But it was the voices of the elementary, middle and high school students who took turns at the microphone that transfixed a packed audience of about 800 at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.
“The day after the shooting, I was watching TV and what went through my mind was, ‘again,’” said Henry Gibbs, a student at George Mason Elementary School. “You can walk into a store and buy something that can kill many people. I think that’s just wrong.”
The adults urged residents of this deep-blue community to keep up pressure on Congress and state legislatures to stiffen gun regulations, fight the National Rifle Association’s lobbying power and vote out elected officials who don’t support them.
The students made their own calls — for universal background checks, higher age limits for those who seek to purchase weapons, mental-health screenings, a ban on “bump stocks” and extended magazines, and ending the sale of military-style weapons to civilians.
“I speak for everyone by saying I don’t want to be shot and killed at my school,” said Cody Shoelson, 11, a student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School who identified himself at the microphone as “Cody, from Arlington.”
Naomi Wadler, 11, a student at George Mason Elementary, described the resistance she got from school officials when she and her friends organized a walkout shortly after the shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“They said it wouldn’t be safe for us on the lawn. I asked them to explain how we will be safe in a classroom,” she said. “I hope when I’m older, in middle school and high school, I won’t have to be afraid being shot in my own classroom.”
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, died after a bullet smashed into her spinal cord at Stoneman Douglas, appeared with Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who represents the Parkland area. He explained to the sympathetic crowd that he could not remember if he told his daughter that he loved her the last time he saw her alive.
Guttenberg ripped into “weak-kneed lawmakers” who, he said, won’t stand up to the NRA, and he demanded that every gun owner in the United States be licensed and required to register their weapons and buy insurance.
Echoing what he told Senate Democrats earlier Wednesday at a hearing on gun violence, Guttenberg called on Congress to force the NRA to open its books so that citizens can see where its money comes from and where it goes, and he called corporations that have taken actions to distance themselves from the organization or the gun industry “heroic.”
“We need to break this lobby,” Guttenberg said. “How do we do that? Pierce the aura of strength and take away their money.”
The forum took place in one of the most Democratic and liberal areas of Northern Virginia, and there was nary a word of opposition to the demand for tougher gun control.
One resident acknowledged the “filter bubble” that Alexandria, Arlington and parts of Fairfax County form, but he said the pro-gun-rights crowds are in just as much of a bubble.
The students who attended the Wednesday night event said they plan to become active in gun-control causes, with most of them vowing to attend the March 24 “March for Our Lives” rally planned for Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington.
“This matters a lot to me because I don’t want my friends or family to get hurt,” said Carter Anderson, sitting with colorful posters on his lap before the forum began. “I felt this way a long time, but Florida pushed me. These [shooters] don’t need the guns to go out and hunt or to protect themselves.”