‘This fight isn’t over’: Iowa City’s student-led gun reform movement, one year after Parkland

Students Against School Shootings, formed in the wake of the Parkland, Florida shooting in February 2018, led the March 24 March for Our Lives in downtown Iowa City. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Before news of the shooting in Parkland, Florida started to spread through City High on Feb. 14, 2018, I was mostly worried about the flower I was giving to my newly minted boyfriend, Theo, for Valentine’s Day. That’s what my teenage life feels like: Every little thing is the decision of a lifetime, until something big throws life into harsh chiaroscuro.

Tragedy flooded the school. In the newslab of The Little Hawk — the student newspaper that was and is my life and where I serve as opinion editor — we stayed glued to the news coverage on our computer screens. On Sunday night, my editor friends asked whether there would be a walkout. I created a group chat with everyone I knew who was interested in this prospect. We realized that some South East Junior High students were planning to walk out of class the following day, and we knew we couldn’t let them do it alone. We had to get everyone on board.

I worked with peers on preparing the march until 12:30 a.m. Later that morning, I led students from South East to the Pentacrest, then to the Iowa City Ped Mall. I herded the seventh and eighth graders, making sure we didn’t lose anyone who didn’t know where they were going, keeping everyone moving. We all shouted ourselves hoarse, trying to get the grief in our chests out into the world, where we could make something of it. There was a sense of unity among us, as though we were standing in a line with hands linked, a chain of paper dolls.

Afterward, organizers took to the group chat. We have to make this something more, we said. Students Against School Shootings was born.

Students from City High, South East Junior High and other area schools marched to the Pentacrest during a walk out to protest gun violence and government inaction in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village
City High Senior Miles Morrow holds a sign displaying the names of the 17 students killed at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

We started with a scant 20 or so teenagers; this group would become known as SASS’s “core.” What began about the size of a school club now has more than 150 members: mostly Iowans, mostly teens, all passionate about gun reform. SASS is an official chapter of the national March for Our Lives nonprofit organization, but we’re currently applying to become a nonprofit ourselves.

A few days after the initial walkout, we drove an hour and a half to Manchester, Iowa to attend Sen. Chuck Grassley’s town hall. (The six-term senator prides himself on doing a town hall in “every county, every year,” but he’s skipped Johnson for five.) I was nervous about two things. First, I was trying to word a question to a man who was supposed to represent us but was voting down policies that could save Iowans’ lives. Second, we were being driven by Theo’s mother, whom I had not yet met.

When we arrived, SASS member Edie Knoop described in terrible detail the gunshot wounds Marjory Stoneman Douglas students sustained from the shooter’s AR-15 and implored Grassley to change his mind on gun safety restrictions. Another member, Wala Siddig, questioned the senator on his history of taking money from the NRA. He evaded our questions like a pro. As fruitless as the interaction seemed, the prevailing feeling on the drive back was excitement. We were already on to the next step.

Organizing a March for Our Lives in Iowa City was a whirlwind for our small but dedicated group. By March 24, we managed to get everything in order, and we marched through a blizzard with a crowd of almost 1,000, beginning and ending with speeches about gun violence and the need for change. SASS’s core members embraced, still clutching our signs. It felt like the tide was turning.

Students lead the March for Our Lives to the Pentacrest. Saturday, March 24, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“We want to reassure you — there is no bias hidden in this special edition magazine. That is because we do not intend to hide it.”

On April 5, The Little Hawk put out a special magazine addressing gun violence. In a staff editorial I wrote with Edie, my fellow opinion editor, we laid bare our bias. We wrote of the overlap between SASS and The Little Hawk; of our liberal-leaning staff, whose views come through in the opinion section; of the reluctance of students with diverse political viewpoints to contribute.

“Silence should not be possible,” we wrote. “Inaction on this issue is as damning as the most pro-gun position, because silence is complicity. We are seeking a change in this absurd, this violent, this completely unacceptable status quo.”

We received plenty of positive feedback on the magazine (including a retweet by The Eagle Eye, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ student newspaper), but the Iowa Firearms Coalition pushed back, publishing an article on their website tearing us apart. We were rather enthusiastic about this criticism, about hearing the other side’s perspective. Not only is debate productive, but on this particular topic, it can allow us to dispel the stereotype that gun control proponents don’t care about the opinions of gun owners.

North Liberty high school and junior high students protest gun violence in schools at the corner of Forevergreen Road and Highway 965. Friday, March 2, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

SASS, invited by several representatives sympathetic to our cause, visited Des Moines in early April 2018. A score of SASS members from across the state walked through the security gates and up the narrow, dark-wood stairs of the Capitol Building. The hushed cacophony of murmurs in the Supreme Court Chamber created a soothing undertone to our visit, reminding me of a museum.

We met with Rep. Matt Windschitl, a Republican from Iowa’s 17th district, and the speaker pro tempore of the Iowa House. Windschitl studied gunsmithing in college, and has been advocating for gun rights since many of us were in diapers.

In our meeting, he brought up the same argument over and over: Guns are a human right. Assault weapons? Human right. High-capacity magazines? Human right. Ability to buy a gun without a background check, mental health screening, guaranteed safe storage procedures or registration in any database? Human right. The only change Windschitl would consider was increased reporting of lost and stolen firearms.

After he left, we all turned to one another and went over the conversation. Mostly, we acknowledged the fact that staunchly pro-gun elected officials such as Windschitl were going to dismiss underage gun-control proponents out of hand. We would never agree on some aspects of this issue.

Directing our efforts toward the midterm elections was the best way to enact change, we decided. Windschitl was a professional Second Amendment advocate, but the average American agrees with many of our proposals.

Iowa City High School rising senior Maya Durham speaks during the Road To Change town hall meeting at Linn-Mar high school. Thursday, June 21, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Above all, SASS pushes for common-sense policy: universal background checks (according to Gallup, supported by 92 percent of Americans), a digitized database of gun sales, funding for CDC research into gun violence (previously impossible due to the Dickey Amendment, which was weakened thanks to language in the 2018 government spending bill; Congress still refuses to allocate funds for the research), guidelines for firearm storage (many underage shooters procure their weapons from their own household, and small children may accidentally harm themselves with firearms not properly secured by parents).

Another SASS policy I personally championed is the introduction of group violence intervention (GVI) programs and others like them. The intersectional aspects of gun violence are often ignored, as is the constant undercurrent of homicide that makes up the vast majority of gun violence in our nation. For example, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “black men make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for more than half of all gun homicide victims each year.” Gun violence in underserved groups is a massive problem — but GVIs, using a combination of social services, community involvement and other healing approaches, can lower rates of gun homicide in target communities by 30 to 60 percent within two years, according to the Giffords Center.

Our platform developed as the spring of 2018 progressed. I researched and revised, added and cut. We cycled into summer, bringing with us a successful benefit concert and “die-ins” in memorial of the Columbine shooting, followed crushingly by a school shooting in Santa Fe in May. It’s hard not to be disheartened when you know the horrors you’re working against are still happening every day, when there’s a niggling doubt in the back of your mind telling you that you might live your life twice over before something changes, and that’s if you don’t get shot.

But we worked on, sending a speaker to a Moms Demand Action rally in June, presenting on gun violence against the LGBTQ+ community at Iowa City Pride. When the summer ended, several of our original members took off for their first year of college.

With this departure came fears about the longevity of our organization, and we were spurred to revitalize our work and create sustainability. We regrouped, went about recruiting more core members — underclassmen who were involved and passionate about SASS — and planned several events leading up to the midterm elections.

None were particularly successful. Interest was waning. We registered dozens of voters around town and at school, but our events were poorly attended. Low turnout made us nervous, but we continued working through the midterm elections, cheering at the victories of candidates who promised to work harder to keep Americans safe from gun violence.

Esti Brady of Students Against School Shootings speaks during the Wear Orange event at College Green Park. Saturday, June 2, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The sixth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut fell on Friday, Dec. 14. We knew we couldn’t let it pass without protesting the inaction on gun reform that followed the tragedy, so we organized a walkout — the first we had planned since our protest following Parkland.

The night before the walkout was a work night for The Little Hawk. I took a break from designing my features spread to complete my speech. I opened tabs, checking my facts on Sandy Hook. A lump formed in my throat as I took in details of the tragedy: First graders had hidden under desks and in closets, had mistaken gunshots for “hammering sounds,” had begged the shooter to let them go home before they were killed.

I began to cry, stood from my chair to find a Kleenex and some privacy, and my friends and co-editors, most of whom were also fellow SASS core members, followed. I sobbed in the hallway as they comforted me. The speech was finished that night, but I don’t remember how I did it.

Once again I began the walkout at South East and led the junior high students to meet the high school students. As we neared the Ped Mall, core members ran out to us, urging us on.

By the time we arrived, it was my turn to speak. I sprinted to the platform opposite the jungle gym, looked out at the center of the city I’ve lived in my entire life, at the people I’ve taken on this journey with me, and talked about the need to protect the lives of Americans, to speak, to create a better nation. When I was done, Esti Brady, another core SASS member, leaped up onto the stage and hugged me fiercely. My speech, folded on itself over and over, crinkled in my hand.

Iowa City high school students held a candlelight vigil outside City High Monday, May 21, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Most days, I put my fear aside. If I was constantly expecting the worst, I would be paralyzed by terror. Some days, though, when first period starts, I wonder, What if someone came in this room with an AR-15? Would I hide? Run? What about in the hallway, between periods, or in the street? I glance at passersby, noting bulges in backpacks and coats.

Fear like that is useless, I know. You can’t control all fear, and I am lucky to never have been in a situation where the loss of my life was a real possibility. This privilege gives me the responsibility to remember those we’ve lost, to do my best for them and for everyone still in danger.

SASS, and the gun safety movement in general, are beset by what I call the reverse trainwreck effect: In a trainwreck, people cannot look away; with gun violence, they look away when they shouldn’t. Our job is to stay focused, to remember what’s at stake and that nothing is for certain — even with new legislation that gives us hope, like the universal background checks bill introduced in the House on Jan. 8, the eighth anniversary of the Arizona shooting in which Gabby Giffords was injured.

We have so many ideals left to accomplish: planning another March for Our Lives rally; changing minds in the Iowa Congress; becoming a nonprofit and creating a more official capacity for ourselves in an adult world; making our community and, in some small way, our state and our nation safer.

I’m ready for it all. I’ve shed so many tears, waited and worked and hoped and hurt for this movement, and though we may have ups and downs, none of us, SASS members and students and Americans, can afford to forget: This fight isn’t over.

Mira Bohannan Kumar is a junior at City High in Iowa City. She is the web editor for The Little Hawk, City High’s student-run newspaper, and the policy director for Students Against School Shootings. In her free time, she enjoys words, food and dogs. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 257.

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