How the Parkland school shooting changed American childhood

“March for Our Lives” event demanding gun control  in March 2018.
“March for Our Lives” event demanding gun control in March 2018.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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A year ago on Feb. 14, a shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida, turned Valentine’s Day 2018 into a tragedy. It was a stark reminder of something few wish to consider or admit—nearly two decades after the Columbine massacre in 1999, we can no longer claim that innocence is a feature of American childhood.

Dread about going to school and taking tests has been replaced with widespread concern about hiding under desks and ending up dead. Worrying about gun violence is the new reality for youth and parents. In April 2018, the Pew Research Center surveyed American teens ages 13-17. Pew found that more than half, or 57%, were worried that they could be the victims of gun violence at school. Bulletproof backpack sales are on the rise. Students in Florida practice code red drills monthly in preparation for another shooting. And around the country, kids from kindergarten to 12th grade are preparing too, running in zigzags to dodge bullets and assimilating the word “barricade” into their vocabularies.

The regular active-shooter drills in Florida were instituted because the Parkland teens made sure that the tragedy at their school was impossible to ignore. They were tireless in their response to the violence. Less than a week after the tragedy, even as funerals were still happening, students who survived were advocating for gun control on the national stage. In Florida, their advocacy was successful. In March 2018, state legislators raised the rifle ownership age from 18 to 21, adding a three-day wait period to sales.

Their activism extended to a broader battle against Americans’ complacence with gun violence. They began the Never Again movement; organized a Washington, DC protest, March for Our Lives, on behalf of students nationwide; founded the advocacy group Students for Change; and, over their summer vacation, spent 60 days touring 20 states, stopping in 75 places, to push voter registration and call attention to the need for stricter gun legislation.

Victoria Halsband, a Sarasota resident with two grandchildren who survived the Parkland shooting, tells Quartz that the Parkland teens challenged not only politicians and the public to take action, but also their own families. One of her grandchildren, who was in a classroom that escaped Cruz’s attack but heard shooting in rooms on either side of his, asked his grandfather immediately afterward whether he would still support Republican candidates who oppose limits on gun sales.

His grandfather took the question to heart. He printed up boxes and boxes of cards urging people to vote. Inside the letter “o” in vote was an image of an assault rifle with a line drawn over it. “He was handing out cards to strangers, handing out boxes of cards for others to distribute. I was shocked by his involvement because he’s a lifelong conservative and he’s not that type,” Halsband says of her husband. “But his point of view shifted.”

Of course, school isn’t the only place where gun violence kills kids. On Feb. 12, teen reporters from across the US, working with The Miami Herald, The Trace, and the Gun Violence Archive, unveiled Since Parkland, a site documenting the deaths of 1,200 children in the US felled by guns in 2018. The 200 young reporters wrote obituaries for the fallen and covered the stories of more than 300 siblings who survived, but will be forever scarred by the violence.

Unlike the victims of the Parkland shooting—14 kids and three adults—who made headlines, most of the youth who die by gun violence get no press. As The Miami Herald notes, just hours after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas attack, 14-year-old Christian Robinson was shot in the head in the backseat of a friend’s car, less than a mile from his home in Port Richey, north of Tampa. Robinson, along with the 14 Parkland teens, was among the 80 youths who lost their lives to gun violence in Florida in the last year alone.

Halsband says she was impressed and heartened by how kids in Parkland and throughout the country responded to the shooting. She believes the movement they began can galvanize politicians, parents, and individual citizens to demand gun control and make schools, streets, and homes safer. But she admits that she’s disappointed by the nation’s waning attention span and the fact that there has been no systemic change on a federal level.

The advocacy continues but change is slow. In October, Students for Change held a youth summit on gun violence in Washington DC. That same month, an assault weapons ban bill was introduced in the Senate, sponsored by a gun owner who four years before had opposed limiting the sales of automatic rifles, Mark Werner, a Virginia Democrat. “Americans of all backgrounds can and should refuse to accept periodic mass shootings as the new normal, and we should demand that our nation’s leaders finally take action,” Werner wrote in The Washington Post. The bill has yet to become federal law, however. Politicians don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency that gun violence victims and their families feel.

Representatives may yet pay a price for their delays. As David Hogg, a Parkland student who emerged as an activist leader after the event and plans to attend Harvard University in the fall, recently told NPR, “I don’t think older generations realize what an impact the shooting here has had on our generation. I don’t think congressmen are realizing what they have coming. Like, seriously, they do not realize.” Kids do grow up, after all. Some Parkland teens voted for the first time in the November midterm elections, and they advocated for all students to walk out of classes on election day to signal political engagement.

Survivors of the violence can heal, but they can’t forget. On Feb. 11, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School published a video on YouTube, called MSD Reflects, in which students and teachers discuss the tragedy, the last year, and the future. Some say they are still numb, others say they are slowly getting better. All are changed by the events of the day. And their pain is shared by many.

“You never think it’s going to touch your family. Then it does,” Halsband says. She found out about the shooting when she saw images of her grandchildren exiting the school on her newsfeed, and recalls feeling relief but also shock and dismay to see her loved ones in such distress and in the press. Yet there they were.

In the year since, she has come to understand that the pain of a single violent event has a wide circumference, radiating out to friends, family, acquaintances, and neighbors. For each of the 3,150 students in the high school her grandkids attend, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, who are personally impacted by the tragedy and forever changed. ”No one escapes it,” Halsband says now. “It made my heart break that this is the world he kids live in…and that we live in.”