Can Teenagers Solve Our Nation's Most Intractable Problem?

Teenagers Advocate for Themselves, and the Country

L. Gregory Lawton, MD


February 23, 2018

Emma Gonzalez gave the speech of her life. The senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School, in Parkland, Florida, was passionate, articulate, and relevant as she addressed a rally in Fort Lauderdale, 3 days after 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student, armed with an AR-15 rifle. She nailed the nuance of the politics and called out the hypocrisy that is the inevitable companion of death when this uniquely American ritual, mass shooting, plays out yet again. Her speech has gone viral.

It was nearly 19 years ago when the world was introduced to the idea that a student could walk into a school with military-style weapons and kill 13 students and teachers. A New York Times [1] article describes the horror. The nation was stunned. Columbine was the paradigm-shifting event, the advent of the awareness of the reality of a mass school shooting.

Two and a half years later, the nation was stunned again, as two airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center's twin towers. 9/11 was the paradigm-shifting event, the advent of the awareness of the reality that an airplane could become a weapon of mass destruction.

We are now living in a world of Transportation Security Administration agents, shoes and belts in screening bins, and shampoo in 100-mL bottles. Every day, millions of airline passengers wake up and accept a limit on their individuality, their freedom, and their patience. We live in a "post 9/11" world. It is not easy, but something was done to make sure that there will not be another 9/11.

We do not live in a "post-Columbine" world. Since that day in 1999, over 150,000 American students can say that they experienced a shooting while at a school or on a campus.[2] There is nothing "post" about school shootings. Columbine was the start. Then there was Virginia Tech in 2007, where 32 people were killed.[3] The next mass school shooting was Sandy Hook in 2012, where 20 first-graders and six adults were killed.[4] Now, there is Parkland, Florida.

As read on air by Shepard Smith on Fox News, the tragically exclusive club, grown over 19 years and consisting of 25 schools that have experienced a fatal school shooting, is one that knows ineffable loss and searing anguish.[5] In many ways, the most important ways, nothing has changed; it is still 1999. Nineteen years later, kids still are being shot in schools.

Until Emma Gonzalez gave the speech of her life.

Until Cameron Kasky, a junior at the school, wrote an editorial for CNN. "My generation won't stand for this."[6] In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR), he was poised, passionate, and political, vowing to hold politicians of both parties, particularly those who receive contributions from the National Rifle Association, accountable.

Until Christine Yared, a freshman, wrote an editorial in the New York Times :

Don't let any more children suffer like we have. Don't continue this cycle. This may not seem relevant to you. But next time it could be your family, your friends, your neighbors. Next time, it could be you.

In 1999, several students used their "cellular telephones," as the Times article referred to them, to call 911 or local television stations. The year of the Virginia Tech massacre, 2007, was the same year the Apple iPhone® launched. The victims at Sandy Hook were first-graders, not gadget-toting teens.

But when the sound of gunfire erupted at MSD on February 14th, teens there did what is second nature—they took to social media. This time, they shared live feeds of the horror.

The videos are shaky and capture the terror from behind doors, under desks, and in closets. There is crying, screaming, cursing, and the sounds of real, live gunfire. When the shooting stopped, the next social media phase began. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook roared with feeds, posts, and photos about MSD, the shooter, the victims, the sorrow, the anger, and the demands that this madness must stop.

Marylene Dinliana, 18, holds a sign that reads "Stop Spilling Our Blood" during a protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday, February 17, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier in the week. Source: Brynn Anderson/AP

Teenagers can be a lot of things. They can be impassioned and angry. They can be impulsive and opinionated. They often feel entitled. With their smartphones, they give voice to their self-important side, snapping selfies, posting about all things "me." One could be forgiven for labeling them as "self-absorbed."

Take a group of teens, all of whom have grown up in the world born of Columbine. They know about "lockdown" and "active shooter" drills. Most days, these kids use their ubiquitous cellphones to do the silly, funny, stupid things with social media that teens across the country do on a daily basis. Every morning, they wake up, go to school, and plod through yet another boring day in their American suburban life.

But this day, there is gunfire. This group of tech-savvy teens are now scared and very engaged. And that passion that makes teenagers what they are is now being directed at a problem that adults have refused to solve for the past 19 years.

Sandy Hook was a tragedy that was given voice by parents and the empty beds of their slain children. MSD is a tragedy that will be voiced by the most media-savvy, self-motivated, passionate creature imaginable: a teenager. A teenager who feels hurt and betrayed. A teenager who is afraid, yearns to find meaning and acceptance in a peer group, and wants to help others. A teen that lives for the moment to defy adults and the establishment.