On April 20, 1999, two gunmen opened fire in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and shot 12 students and a teacher dead. At the time, it was the deadliest shooting to occur at an American school. 19 years and countless mass shootings later, students across the nation walked out of classrooms to demand stronger gun safety laws. I returned to UNLV today to see how student activists are continuing to build a lasting movement for gun violence prevention, a movement that they hope will result in real, lasting change.
“We never want [the pain of gun violence] to be visited upon anyone else ever again. That is why we walk out. That is why we march. That is why we organize.”
– Denise, UNLV student
About 50 students and allies participated in today’s walkout at UNLV, which was just one of hundreds of walkouts that occurred throughout the nation on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine Shooting. Today’s actions were part of what student activists hope will contribute to a strong and sustained movement for gun violence prevention. After Las Vegas experienced the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history on 1 October, and after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students were attacked at their campus on Valentine’s Day, these students and their allies wanted to make clear that they won’t accept their elected leaders turning a blind eye to any further bloodshed.
— Andrew Davey (@atdleft) April 20, 2018
The day began with a march from the student services complex to the rally location outside the student union building. Once everyone gathered at the rally site, Mi Familia Vota Nevada organizer Aaron Ibarra reminded them of why they walked out: “We are asking our legislators to care about our lives. We have to push our legislators to take action on gun reform.”
— Andrew Davey (@atdleft) April 20, 2018
Denise, a UNLV student who’s become passionate about this issue, later addressed the personal pain that surrounds this issue. She also explained why this has become such an important issue for her: “We want to take this pain away. We never want it to be visited upon anyone else ever again. That is why we walk out. That is why we march. That is why we organize.”
“I think they’re doing the right thing, participating in walkouts, going to rallies […] turning out this November and vote for candidates who are on their side.”
– Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), on the student-led gun violence prevention movement
In addition to students, community leaders like State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Spring Valley), health care activist and NV-04 candidate Amy Vilela (D), and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) came to offer their words of encouragement. For Titus, who also taught political science at UNLV prior to her election to Congress, this issue also hits close to home.
After the march, I asked Titus what she thought of today’s march. She responded, “I’m here to show support for the students who took time out from their day to walk out. Having that happen here at UNLV makes a good statement. […] I wanted to come and thank them, and say that we’re in this together.”
I then asked Titus how students could get the attention of more of her Congressional colleagues, particularly the ones who have yet to show any support for any gun safety legislation. Titus encouraged the young activists to keep on keeping on: “I think they’re doing the right thing, participating in walkouts, going to rallies, having signs, using social media, and the main thing they need to do, turning out this November and vote for candidates who are on their side.”
“The fact that Nevadans voted to pass Question 1, yet [Laxalt] won’t enforce it, that’s an issue.”
– Mariana Sarmiento, UNLV student
That last point about this year’s election is also something that UNLV student Mariana Sarmiento stressed when she spoke with me after the rally. She then pivoted to local matters when she expressed her frustration over the State of Nevada not enforcing Question 1, the background checks initiative that voters approved in 2016. As Sarmiento put it, “We have a really big [election] coming up this year, and the fact that Question 1 hasn’t been enforced, that’s something we can do as soon as possible. The people of Nevada are asking for this.”
Sarmiento then described why Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), who’s now running for Governor, has not earned the promotion he seeks: “I think Laxalt’s track record of not supporting anything that helps our marginalized communities shows that he won’t budge on this issue.”
With students concerned about campus safety, and with many more Nevadans concerned about the safety of their communities, Mariana Sarmiento stressed that she and other #gunsense voters will not accept Laxalt’s refusal to enforce the law, or for that matter, U.S. Senator Dean Heller‘s (R) refusal to pass better laws. For Sarmiento, “We want to elect people who represent us. The fact that Nevadans voted to pass Question 1, yet you won’t enforce it, that’s an issue.”
“You are smart. You are passionate. You are righteously fed up. And you are worthy… You are worthy enough to have a seat at the table as we [work on solutions].”
– State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford
So what do elected officials and candidates for higher office need to do to earn the support of these student activists? For Mariana Sarmiento, “They need to be out here, on campus, listening to what students want.”
State Senator Aaron Ford, who’s running to become Nevada’s next Attorney General, seemed to agree with Sarmiento when he spoke at the rally. As Ford put it, “You are smart. You are passionate. You are righteously fed up. And you are worthy. […] You are worthy enough to have a seat at the table as we [work on solutions].”
In the 19 years since the Columbine Shooting, we’ve heard plenty of calls for “thoughts and prayers”, and perhaps the occasional grumblings of a possible consideration of some sort of potential action, then the issue fades away all over again… Until the next mass shooting tragedy, then the cycle repeats. But this time, after these recent tragedies, these activists are doing all they can to put an end to this cycle, and put an end to this gun violence epidemic. Already, they’ve succeeded at getting those seats at the table. Now might be a good time for everyone else at that table to listen to what they have to say.