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June 17, 2019

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Something needs to change’: Parkland, Las Vegas survivors bond over gun debate

March for Our Lives Road to Change

Wade Vandervort

A supporter of gun control reform records a panel discussion during the March for Our Lives town hall at Sierra Vista High School, Monday, July 16, 2018.

March for Our Lives Road to Change

Manuel Oliver, father of Stoneman Douglas high school shooting victim Joaquin Launch slideshow »

In city after city this summer, this group of mass shooting survivors have led gun-control rallies and shared their stories of living through school-shooting tragedies. Yet, Monday in Las Vegas was different.

The student demonstrators from March for Our Lives encountered residents who are all-too-familiar with the suffering of gun violence. Before the group of 15 students, most of whom were part of the Florida massacre in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, made a pair of appearances here, they visited survivors of last year’s shooting massacre on the Las Vegas Strip.

“We all found common ground in our suffering,” said David Hogg, a Parkland survivor credited with starting the nationwide movement for tightened laws on gun ownership. “None of us ever wants to live through this again.”

The movement, which started with more than 1 million protesters in a March 24 rally in Washington, D.C., and other major cities across the U.S., advocates for tougher gun control laws. Demonstrators argued Monday that ignoring the need for stricter laws has allowed the mass shootings that have plagued U.S. schools, neighborhoods and tourist areas like the Las Vegas Strip, to continue at record pace.

Ariel Hamilton, president of Nevada State College’s Black Student Organization, tearfully described the pain of losing friend Quinton Robbins in the Oct. 1 shooting last year. Hamilton, who worked with Robbins and played basketball on the same co-ed teams, told a crowd of about 700 at Sierra Vista High School that getting a phone call about Robbins’ death was “the worst experience” of her life.

“This isn’t a call anyone should have to get,” Hamilton said. “Something needs to change.”

Hogg said March for Our Lives was not designed to endorse political parties or promote individual politicians. Rather, the organization encourages voter registration and to seek candidates who implement policies reflective of “how most Americans really feel.” An April National Public Radio-Marist Poll of more than 1,000 American adults found 57 percent of Americans preferred stronger measures on controlling access to firearms.

Multiple speakers from urban areas, like the north side of Milwaukee and west side of Chicago, described living in constant fear from gun violence in their everyday lives. Milwaukee resident and student activist Bria Smith said that for many residents of such communities, hearing gunshots has become “normal” for people of all ages. Smith, 17, joined the Parkland students on this summer’s tour to publicize the reality many young Americans face in inner-cities.

“We’re losing future teachers, doctors and lawyers, and these are people who are going to make our future better,” Smith said. “We need to protect them.”

Among measures criticized by speakers Monday included the legal grounds for bump stocks — which enhance the firing capacity of semi-automatic firearms to fire as a fully automatic weapon — and assault rifles, which they argued exceed necessary measures for self-defense. March for Our Lives advocates said such weapons, used in many of the mass shootings, do more damage than good for society.

“I can see maybe using an AR-15 in a shooting range,” Hogg said. “But there’s no real need for it outside of that.”

The Las Vegas stop also included Manny Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, was slain in the Parkland shooting, painting a makeshift mural at Sunset Park. Las Vegan Angela Cervantes, who lost her son, Erick Silva, in last year’s massacre on the Strip, sobbed at a nearby park bench during the painting.

Monday’s Las Vegas stop was the 28th of nearly 50 rallies planned this summer for the student activists, and is the only rally scheduled in Nevada. The March for Our Lives tour will pass through California starting today and finish next month in Newtown, Conn., home of a 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 26 dead.