Students who launched a campaign to tackle gun violence in America – and who have received an international peace award for their efforts – have urged the new congress to take up the challenge and work with them.
Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School pupils, who formed March for Our Lives in the aftermath of the February shooting that left 17 students and staff dead, travelled to South Africa to receive the International Children’s Peace Prize. Previous recipients included Pakistani girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai and Nkosi Johnson, a South African child who fought for the rights of children with HIV.
At the event in Cape Town, held to coincide with Universal Children’s Day, Bishop Desmond Tutu told representatives of the group – David Hogg, Emma González, Jaclyn Corin, Matt Deitsch, Ryan Deitsch and Delaney Tarr – their work to persuade young people to become more engaged in confronting the crisis was among the most significant youth-led mass movements in living memory.
“The peaceful campaign to demand safe schools and communities, and the eradication of gun violence, is reminiscent of other great peace movements in history,” said Mr Tutu, who is patron of the KidsRights Foundation, which has organised the award for 15 years and this year oversaw 121 children from 45 countries nominated.
“I am in awe of these children whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakable belief that children can, no must, improve their own futures.”
During the ceremony, Marc Dullaert, founder of KidsRights and the International Children’s Peace Prize, called on the international community to halt the surge in school violence witnessed internationally. “Schools must be protected as safe havens for children. KidsRights calls upon the international community to halt this issue and to prevent schools from becoming battlegrounds,” he said.
Speaking from Cape Town, the six young people told The Independent they had been inspired by their visit to South Africa and the chance to meet previous recipients.
“It’s an absolute honour to be up here with some incredible young people who have risen to the occasion time and time again,” said Matt Deitsch, who dropped out of college to work for the movement after the shooting, which his sister and younger brother survived.
“We have only been doing this for nine months, and to be here in this room with all of them was just incredible.”
The young people, who helped organise protests across the US and around the world, highlighted the National Rifle Association’s funding of many members of congress, and held a rally in Washington DC to urge young people to become more involved. While their efforts were widely praised, some on the right accused them of being naive. Conspiracy theorists even claimed the young people who had survived, after gunman Nikolas Cruz (a former student at the school) entered the premises and opened fire, were actors.
The young people, including Mr Hogg and Ms González, gained support nationwide as they continued to press politicians with both passion and hard facts.
“We are going to be the last mass shooting,“ Ms González told a crowd days after the shooting. “We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be due to the tireless efforts of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most importantly the students.”
Given that the group said it had struggled to engage with lots of Republican members of congress who had received funding from the NRA, Ms González was asked what message she might have for Nancy Pelosi. After Democrats flipped the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, it is likely the 78-year-old will become speaker and the Democrats will have the opportunity to craft legislation.
“We’re saying to anyone who would listen to us, not just Nancy Pelosi but the entire government at this point,” said Ms González. Included among the 10-point plan listed on the group’s website is a demand to disarm domestic abusers, put in place tougher security for guns, introduce universal background checks, and provide grants for research into gun violence for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, the young people said the changes needed were not simply legislative.
Ryan Deitsch said the group had to continue trying to challenge the root of gun culture.
“We have a culture that we have to fight, which is very much a culture centred around guns and making them as normalised as possible in society – and that is not just in America but around the world. That is something that we have to combat. That is something we have been combatting slowly,” he said.
“That is something we are going to combat politically, but we have to combat this culture. And the way we do that is working with out chapters around the country and around the world. This work is not going to end any time soon that we can see, but we are prepared for the long haul.”