On Wednesday, as a shooter rampaged through his high school with an AR-15 rifle, David Hogg pulled out his phone and started to ask his classmates questions.
Hogg, 17, is a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where at least 17 people were killed this week in one of the deadliest school shootings in modern U.S. history. He’s also a journalist. And so, as he hid from the gunman inside a crowded classroom that afternoon, Hogg decided he wanted to help create a public record of the moment his school came under attack.
“I figured, if I died, at least this would be passed on to other people, so these voices would echo on,” he told the BBC.
The words he obtained were remarkable. Hiding from a killer, their lives in danger, the teenagers nevertheless spoke resolutely and with a conviction that seemed beyond their years. One said no amount of money was worth what they were going through in that moment. Another admitted she had, until that moment, been “fascinated by guns.”
“I wanted to be a junior NRA member. I wanted to learn how to hunt,” she said. “Now I can’t even fathom the idea of a gun in my house.”
As the minutes passed on Wednesday, photos and videos shot by the students of Stoneman Douglas started to trickle onto the internet and across the country. A student named Matt uploaded a video to Snapchat recording the rifle’s terrifying sound. Another student, Aidan, posted two photos and wrote, “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now.”
The horrifying photos and videos provided an unprecedented view of a place no person would ever want their child to be. But almost as soon as they were uploaded and dispersed, something else came out of the high school as well: anger, not only at the shooter, but at the system.
Two minutes after President Donald Trump tweeted his “prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting,” a student who identified herself as Nikki responded, “why was a student able to terrorize my school mr president.”
Soon after, another student joined in.
“I don’t want your condolences you fucking price [sic] of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers,” she wrote. “Prayers won’t fix this. But Gun control will prevent it from happening again.” (She would later delete the tweet, alter her Twitter handle and apologize for her “profanity … but not my anger.” Her message, however, had already been retweeted more than 100,000 times.)
Among adults, the national conversation surrounding gun control has long been muddied by money and power ― lobbies, influence and control. Politicians usually respond to these mass killings with expressions of regret and not much more.
But in the hours since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High, the people talking the most sense about guns are the teens who just survived a school shooting, and they have taken hold of the conversation. Simultaneously enabled and empowered by technology ― and no longer restricted by media gatekeepers ― they sent out messages that swirled throughout the country. And by and large, those messages were not filled with thoughts and prayers. They were a clear call for gun control.
When conservative commentator Tomi Lahren asked for people to “let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda,” a student at Stoneman Douglas shot back.
“A gun has traumatized my friends,” she tweeted. “My entire school, traumatized from this tragedy. This could have been prevented. Please stfu tomi.”
Carly Novell, a 17-year-old senior, weighed in as well. “I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt,” she wrote. “Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”
Hours after the worst moment of their lives, the teens spoke up with a collective outrage that bellowed out of Florida. While so many adults have come to see days like Wednesday as another part of American life, these students do not accept it as inevitable.
Novell confirmed that all the tweets referenced in this article are from Stoneman Douglas students. She also shared a photo on Twitter of her grandfather, who she said survived one of America’s first mass shootings by a lone gunman by hiding in the closet. On Wednesday, she had to do the same.
“It happened to my grandpa and it happened to me. People value ‘the right to bear arms’ over people’s lives. I can’t even comprehend it,” she told HuffPost.
For a myriad of reasons, American adults have let their children down. Rather than do something to combat the seemingly ever-rising tide of gun violence on school campuses, they have chosen to do nothing ― to hope that the problem, miraculously, will solve itself. It hasn’t and it won’t.
On Thursday morning, Hogg, the student-journalist who’d interviewed his classmates amid gunfire one day before, stepped in front of the camera to talk to CNN. He knows people are sending their thoughts and prayers to him and his classmates, he said, but after seeing what he’d seen, he doesn’t really need those today.
“What we need more than that,” Hogg said, “is action.”