Rain Valladares wiped tears from her eyes this week as she recounted the hours before a gunman invaded the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 and killed 17.
But she was in Washington to talk about the future of activism, not the past.
“We have a huge problem with gun violence,” Valladares said after a panel discussion Wednesday with current and former lawmakers in D.C. “It might not be right or left, but we’re all dying in between.”
Valladares and her classmates have stepped into the role of activists with such seeming ease that some observers have forgotten they are high schoolers.
As the students led the March for Our Lives this spring to demand a ban on assault-style rifles, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King took to Facebook to attack another Parkland survivor, Emma Gonzalez, mocking her Cuban heritage.
At the same time, he questioned her power, calling her a “pawn for the liberal media’s gun-grabbing agenda.”
For the Parkland students and the young gun violence protesters they have inspired, that treatment — both targeted and dismissed — has become a familiar pattern.
In some ways it has been the year of the young person in Washington, as school shooting survivors met with Speaker Paul D. Ryan to push for new gun laws, “Dreamers” rallied at the Capitol in support of a path to citizenship, and children filled House Democrats’ seats on the floor this week to protest family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There is nothing quite like seeing some of your young constituents sitting around the table with the leadership of the House of Representatives,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch at Wednesday’s panel, hosted by the Association of Former Members of Congress.
But that advocacy has come with accusations of political theater that ring false to him. After Deutch, who represents Parkland’s district, joined survivors at town halls on gun control, a Republican challenger accused him of exploiting the shooting.
And the teenagers have been the targets of conspiracy theories. “I’m not a crisis actor,” Parkland student David Hogg told CNN in February. “I’m someone who had to witness this and live through this. … I’m not acting on anybody’s behalf.”
Deutch appeared to push back on those conspiracy narratives again Wednesday night, describing the students’ activism as “genuine.”
“There is nothing more happening here than people who experienced something that is just incomprehensible for the rest of us and decided to do something about it in the most genuine way,” he said.
Valladares urged people to just “hush a little” and listen to one another, adding that activism doesn’t have to look a certain way.
The question now is what comes next. The March for Our Lives drew hundreds of thousands to D.C., and the organizers are looking to continue that momentum through a nationwide bus tour that wraps up next week. In addition to a ban on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, the teenagers are pushing for universal background checks and a reversal of the so-called Dickey amendment, which bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence.
While the students emphasize the grass-roots aspects of the movement, high-profile gun groups are also hoping to harness the surge in youth activism. Giffords, a group that lobbies for gun control, this month launched the Courage Fellowship, a year-long program aimed at teaching 16-to 20-year-olds how to move the needle on gun policy.
“Young people are committed to do whatever is necessary. Legislators should not expect them to go away,” said Giffords spokeswoman Stasha Rhodes, who described recent youth activism around guns as a wakeup call for America. The group was co-founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after a gunman shot her in the head seven years ago at a constituent event.
The Parkland students saw minor action in Florida when Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill named for their school that tightened purchasing rules for rifles and allowed some teachers to be armed.
But nationally, the gun issue is a legislative dead letter this Congress, with little movement since the House passed a narrow bill authorizing grants for school safety training in March.
That leaves the ballot box. Hashtags like #VoteThemOut circulated after Parkland and other school shootings in Texas and Maryland, aimed primarily at Republican incumbents who accept money from the National Rifle Association.
Polls indicate that more young Americans may vote this fall than in previous midterm years. Thirty-seven percent say they will “definitely be voting,” up 14 percentage points from four years ago, according to John Della Volpe, a pollster at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
And the number who support restrictions on guns is growing, Della Volpe said, with two-thirds of likely midterm voters under 30 backing an assault weapons ban.
“I don’t think that the more seasoned politicians really pay much mind to this teenage voice,” said teacher Sarah Lerner, who barricaded a Marjory Stoneman Douglas classroom to keep 15 students safe. “But let me tell you something, these kids who just graduated are taking this fire to their college campuses, they’re taking it to far reaching parts of the country.”
Valladares, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, won’t be old enough to vote in the midterms. But her teacher is looking further ahead.
“I think they are really going to be scared come 2020,” Lerner said of that year’s candidates.
‘Vote Them Out’: Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence