Turning anguish into action

Youth movement prepares for March for Our Lives Denver

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Students calling for gun law reforms protested at the state capital on March 14. They will be doing so again on March 24 in what is expected to be a gathering in the tens of thousands. And you’re invited.
Candace Opstvedt

On the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, almost 1 million students from kindergarten to 12th grade participated in more than 3,000 walk-out events across the country. They gathered on football fields, capitol building steps and in the streets, joining hands and holding protest signs. They stood in silence for 17 minutes — one for each person killed at the Florida high school — before turning their attention to legislators and leaders to demand gun law reform. It was a sign of the strength and resolve of a youth movement that has risen from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.

“I saw the shooting on the news and my first reaction wasn’t one of shock and horror. There was some of that, but it was more so, ‘Oh, another one,’” says Jaden Rosard, 17, from Boulder. “And that made me realize that no one is going to stand up and so we needed to. We being the young people.”

Inspired by the high schoolers from Florida who immediately began organizing after tragedy struck their school, Rosard connected with other young people from around the state to form Never Again Colorado. In a little over a month, the group has put together an organizational structure, held board elections and organized the March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24 at Civic Center Park in Denver. It is one of more than 800 sibling marches planned in every state across the country and around the world, in conjunction with the main event in Washington D.C.

Rosard says more than 1,000 young people voted over a 48-hour period to elect the 15 Never Again Colorado board members out of 60 candidates; the youngest member is 12, the oldest 24. There’s a board member from all seven Colorado congressional districts (Rosard represents CD-2) as well as other positions such as the directors of high school and college outreach and the director of policy affairs, who is helping draft gun control legislation the group plans to release soon. But for now, the focus is the march.

The event will start at 2 p.m. with about an hour of speeches before the group — which is estimated to be tens of thousands if not more — will walk around the capitol building.

The students are backed by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun control advocacy organization, started and (mostly) funded by former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The organization is offering logistical support for the event, but the youth are the ones leading the charge.

“It’s a youth movement and that’s partially because we’ve lost faith in the older generation,” Rosard says. “We realized that we needed to be the change we want to see and no one else is going to do it for us.”

Hearing the slogan “Never Again” was a little like deja vu for Coni Sanders, whose dad, Dave Sanders, rescued hundreds of students by herding them out of the cafeteria at Columbine High School in 1999. He was later killed by the shooters.

“God, we said that too,” she says. “These slogans are great but we’ve got to put some weight behind them.”

Almost two decades after her father was killed, Sanders says she’s desperate to see any changes that will move the needle, and she’s joining the youth movement as one of the scheduled speakers in Denver on

March 24. She acknowledges things do feel different this time, however, as this growing youth movement seems to be capturing everyone’s attention.

“A lot of us feel like we’ve been at the bottom of a well just screaming because our loved ones are dead and it seems like nobody cares and society just moves on,” Sanders says. “I really feel that over the last 20 years, we have built a foundation for these kids to stand tall on and scream to the hilltop, and people are now willing to hear it. I’ve never been so hopeful and I’m just sorry it took 17 more lives for people to pull their heads out of the sand and be willing to take a stand.”

Sanders now runs a mental health private practice that serves approximately 150 people who have commited violent crimes, in addition to traveling around the country advocating for gun law reform.

“Working with youth is definitely something that gives me so much hope,” says Sara Grossman, 32, from Denver, and another scheduled speaker. “It makes me feel like right now is really a reckoning for the NRA and for folks who continually vote down gun regulation.”

Grossman became personally invested in the gun control debate after her best friend from college, Christopher Andrew Leinonen (Drew), was gunned down at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016.

“I’ve found that pushing my anguish into action has definitely been the most helpful way of moving myself through this grief,” Grossman says.

Following Leinonen’s funeral, Grossman “spent about a month with my feelings,” then decided to trade in her tech job for advocacy work. Now, she’s the communications director at the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver, and she’s also involved in the Dru Project, an LGBTQIA advocacy organization founded in memory of Leinonen.

Students participating in a walkout from Fairview High School in Boulder on March 14 to call for changes to gun laws and to honor those murdered in Parkland, Florida. Joel Dyer

She’s an Everytown survivor fellow, as well, which is how she connected with the Never Again students in Colorado. She’s inspired by what she calls “chutzpah” coming out of the student activists in Parkland and around the country. From the first organizing meeting she attended, the students’ resolve and determination has been inspiring, she says.

“I went in there thinking, maybe I can help them, maybe I can give them some sort of advice based on what I’ve been through the last two years after Pulse,” she says. “But, they did not need me in any way, shape or form. In fact they helped me. They’re giving me hope for the future and there is no price point on that. It is so powerful.”

Other speakers include a current student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, as well as a survivor from the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, which left two students dead, including the shooter. The list of speakers is intentionally void of any politicians.

“They are welcome to come join us as citizens; they’re not welcome to come join us as politicians,” Rosard says. “We’re focusing on non-partisanship. This isn’t a Democratic issue, this isn’t a Republican issue, this is an American issue. No one wants to see children get shot at school. No one.”

While seeking supporters from both sides of the political aisle, the youth are adamantly opposed to the NRA’s influence in politics, as evidenced by founding Never Again member Cameron Kasky demanding Marco Rubio refuse the organization’s money in the future at a televised town hall the week after the shooting at his high school.

“The NRA is absolutely unapologetic about their position and these students came out and they are the same way — absolutely unapologetic about this, not allowing themselves to be bullied,” Sanders says.

Rosard, along with others from Never Again Colorado, have been very outspoken about their distrust of Cory Gardner and other Colorado Republicans who take contributions from the NRA. They are also critical of any politician not advocating for change to current gun laws.

“If you’re not willing to stand up and say enough is enough, then there [are] millions of young people around the country who can vote for the first time in 2018, and we’ll vote you out,” says Rosard, who will turn 18 in early 2019. “In 2020 there will be [more].”

And if there aren’t candidates who support gun control legislation? Rosard says he’s considering running for political office someday, as are several of his friends. The goal is to see “pieces of legislation that would have prevented Sandy Hook, prevented Aurora and prevented Parkland,” pass in Colorado, Rosard says.

“We’re not trying to abolish the Second Amendment. People try and say that but we’re not,” he continues. “We’re not trying to take away guns. We’re not trying to say that you can’t have a handgun for personal defense, you can’t have a hunting rifle. We’re saying that weapons designed for the sole purpose of killing other people don’t need to be in the hands of anyone.”

The students in Florida have already been successful in getting their state legislature to pass stricter gun laws, which includes raising the purchase age for firearms from 18 to 21, instituting a three-day waiting period and funding school security. It is the first gun control measure to pass in that state in more than two decades, despite strong opposition from the NRA. Still, it doesn’t ban assault weapons or strengthen background checks, which the students were advocating for.

“Every day that they spend procrastinating on this are days that this is going to happen again,” Rosard says. “It seems that monthly now, there’s some incident at a school, or a credible threat. Students have a reason to be scared, and that’s not acceptable.”

On March 20, another shooter killed a classmate and injured another at Great Mills High School in Maryland, before dying of gunshot wounds.* This latest shooting is only adding fuel to the young activists’ fire, as they mobilize to bring about widespread change. The youth are gearing up for the long haul, focusing their attention after the march on passing legislation and galvanizing young voter turnout in upcoming elections.

“People should be able to go to school and focus on their education instead of having to worry about their lives everyday,” Rosard says. “We’re not going to stop until we get what we want, until we have safety. That could be several years but we’re willing to see it through.”

The activists bring their youthful energy to a decades-long cause for gun law reform, but the passion behind the movement is the same; it’s found in remembrance of the friends and families lost to gun violence.

“While it is an honor to be on the stage on Saturday, to be Drew’s voice, it’s also really disappointing that I really have to do this, or any of us have to do it,” Grossman says. “This is work born out of tragedy.”

MORE INFO: March for our Lives. 1:30 p.m. (program starts at 2), Saturday March 24. Civic Center Park, Colfax Avenue and Bannock Street, Denver. RSVP at goo.gl/SZEKUs

*This story has been updated to reflect the news that Great Mills High School Jaelynn Willey died on Thursday March 22. 

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