The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After another mass shooting, Parkland activists sought momentum. In Texas, the response has been different.

A mourner prays at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

SANTA FE, TEX. — Following a week of quiet introspection after a mass shooting took the lives of 10 people in a high school here, some students are beginning to emerge from a shocked, muted sadness to address what they feel is at the heart of the problem: the nation’s inaction on preventing pervasive gun violence.

They have been treading lightly for fear of upsetting the community at a particularly sensitive moment, in a place where firearms are embedded in the culture, a way of life. They saw the divisiveness that the activism around the Parkland, Fla., school massacre created and the angry public debates it drew in recent months. They are steering clear of discussing gun control, preferring to focus on “gun safety” as a way to show that they don’t want to take guns away from their fellow Texans.

But they are resolute in their belief that some type of change is needed to prevent the killing of more students.

“The truth is that whatever we are doing as a society, or not doing, is not working,” said Megan McGuire, a 17-year-old junior at Santa Fe High School who on Friday spoke out publicly at an event in Houston with members of March for our Lives, a youth group that started after the February school shooting in Parkland. “Inaction is not an option. We must do something, and we must get it right.”

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Though those associated with the Parkland movement saw another grim opportunity to seek change and to gather momentum for gun control because of the Sante Fe attack, the shootings came with the reality that each community chooses to grieve — and respond — in a different way.

Organizers began to trickle into Santa Fe — some dispatched by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group — almost immediately after the shootings last week in a subtle effort to console, offer help and discuss the politics of guns. Parkland students and other activists reached out but have kept a distance, sensing a lukewarm reception.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) spoke at a vigil held for the Santa Fe High School shooting victims on May 18. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

There has been little support for calls for gun control in this rural Texas town. Many do not blame guns for the tragedy, and this particular shooting lacks the obvious warning signs and suspicions that someone should have done something more to prevent it. Santa Fe has been grieving in private, a response more typical of such shootings than the burst of activism that happened after Parkland.

“I think that we made Parkland the new norm for mass shootings, and Parkland was an exception,” said Marcel McClinton, an organizer of Houston’s March for Our Lives, who traveled to Santa Fe with a student activist and a Brady staffer. McClinton survived a shooting rampage outside his church in 2016, when an attacker got off 200 rounds, killing one person and injuring six, including two law enforcement officers. He said the congregation drew close ranks afterward. “I think Santa Fe’s response is normal.”

The four Santa Fe students who spoke out Friday said that the two places have little in common despite their shared grief.

“We are not Parkland, and we don’t want to be compared,” said Kennedy Rodriguez, an 18-year-old senior. “Because although we are young adults who are using our voices, which is amazing and inspiring and we do share commonalities, we’re different.”

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The Santa Fe students have been in touch via text messages and on social media with students from Parkland, who have offered support and guidance on issues including how to grieve while in the media spotlight. The Texas students are advocating background checks for family members of gun owners, mandatory gun lockups in homes — such as gun safes or trigger locks — and funding for gun-violence research.

“It’s very important to me,” said Bree Butler, an 18-year-old senior. “Nobody else deserves to go through this.”

Butler’s views on gun control are well known here. She has long tweeted at politicians and pro-gun advocates. Her views were galvanized after Parkland, and she decided to attend the March for Our Lives demonstration in Houston after a threat was called into Santa Fe High School in February, an incident that put the school on lockdown for hours.

Although not all of her peers agree with her, they have been respectful of her views. Butler said she sees a model for gun safety in her own family. Her father has guns locked in a safe at his home, but she doesn’t know the entry code.

People in Santa Fe “all own guns,” said Butler, noting that she fully supports the Second Amendment. “And so it’s a different reaction because of that.”

Butler and other Santa Fe High students participated in the April 20 National School Walkout, which Parkland students and others organized to push for gun-control laws on the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Parkland students and gun-control groups have tried to make voting a cornerstone of their movement, and McGuire said politicians who have not tried to enact some sort of gun safety need to be voted out of office.

“I want to thank everyone for all of their thoughts and prayers; they are very needed and appreciated. But I do have something for elected officials who think that doing nothing is acceptable,” McGuire said. “My thought is that if you do not do something, you do not have a prayer of being elected. My generation will see to that.”

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Gun-control groups cautiously looked to Santa Fe in the wake of the shooting. McClinton and Matt Post, an 18-year-old from Montgomery County, Md., arrived hours after the shooting. They came to the community with offers of support, including conversation, meals and therapy dogs. How he got there almost always was left unsaid: Brady sent him as part of its Team Enough youth group, which focuses on engaging young people.

“I wasn’t there to peddle politics,” Post said. “I really didn’t bring up gun control, like, at all, unless they brought it up.”

Post noted that because the Santa Fe shooting involved two commonly owned weapons — a shotgun and a pistol — there wasn’t the same gun-related outrage this time. In Parkland and so many other mass shootings, gun-control advocates immediately went on the offensive against the semiautomatic assault-style rifles attackers used; that tactic wouldn’t work here.

“So I think the circumstances are different, and out of those different circumstances come different policy demands,” Post said.

Rey Montemayer, a Santa Fe High School student who played football with the victims and shooter, reflects on the day his community experienced a mass shooting. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The group also has found like-minded parents. Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was killed in her Santa Fe High art class, said she plans to push politicians to end gun violence. She received a phone call from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that went to voice mail and has been in contact with the offices of Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who is challenging Cruz for his Senate seat.

Hart said she would like to see stronger background checks for firearms, as well as increased security in schools, including metal detectors and locked doors.

The school plans to open its doors to students again next week, giving seniors just a couple of days there before graduating. Many know the school will never feel the same, but will it ever feel safe?

“Coming back to school, I think I would feel a whole lot safer if we had at least some sort of eyes watching each door,” said Aaron Chenoweth, 18, a senior who was at the school during the shooting. “We have cameras, but what’s a camera going to do?”

The Santa Fe students who spoke Friday said that they in no way want to take anyone’s guns away. They do want to see additional mental health and security resources in schools. And they don’t want to discount the opinions of their classmates who do not agree with them.

Rodriguez said a multitude of factors play into school shootings, and it will take numerous solutions to stop them.

“It’s not necessarily guns that are the problem,” she said. “There are multiple things that go into it. Because each case is so different. Not every school shooting is exactly the same, and it probably never will be.”

Martin reported from Santa Fe and Houston, Zezima reported from Washington, and Frankel reported from Santa Fe. Alice Crites and Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed to this report.