In Pro-Gun Kansas, Teenagers Are Marching For Their Lives

Even in America’s Heartland, these young activists have had enough.

Members of March for Our Lives Wichita, Photo credit: Blair Brandom

It’s been a month since 14 students and three faculty members were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And in less than a month, a bunch of teenagers from Parkland, Florida have gone to dozens of funerals, given countless interviews, lobbied for gun legislation, raised over $3.7 million, fought Twitter wars against the NRA, and radically transformed the movement for gun control in America. And they’re just getting started.

March for Our Lives began as an effort to organize a national protest, but it’s turned into something much more. Sister organizations are sprouting up all over the United States, helmed by teenage activists in partnership with organizations like Moms Demand Action.

Fledgling groups like Wichita March For Our Lives face a particularly difficult task. Tucked into rural, red states in America with some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, they’ll have an uphill battle getting Kansas’ Republican leadership to take them seriously. But the 23 passionate organizers of the group, which hail from 5 different high schools and middle schools, and three different colleges and universities, aren’t backing down from the challenge.

“After seeing the passion and energy from the students in Parkland, I think many of us realized how much potential there was for change in our state as well. The main march will help place pressure on Congress, but our march will help place pressure on our state senators and representatives which in my opinion is equally as important.” — Edgar Dominguez, Wichita March for Our Lives

The energy and commitment the Parkland activists have inspired is astounding, but it does beg the question of why this particular school shooting finally turned the tide of public opinion against the NRA and the bloody status quo.

Why is Parkland different?

Despite escalating numbers of school shootings since Columbine, the gun reform debate has been stuck in a quagmire of thoughts and prayers for the last two decades. Murdering 20 kindergartners and first graders in Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. 32 students dead at Virginia Tech wasn’t enough.

But Parkland and the #NeverAgain movement are proving that this time, enough is enough.

The Parkland shooting is different. The news coverage proves it., The Washington Post

There’s no denying that the media coverage of Parkland has sustained in the national conversation for much longer than previous school shootings. And it doesn’t appear to be a fluke. As Florida students and activists continue to hold their representatives accountable, we’ve seen staunch NRA supporters like Florida’s governor Rick Scott cave to the pressure of a conscience no one knew he had.

On Friday, he signed new gun regulations into law that raised the minimum age for purchase and instituted a three-day waiting period. Within hours, the NRA had filed a federal lawsuit challenging the bill, but thus far, their vitriolic attack ads and efforts to stir a rabid base have fallen flat in the face of a handful of teenage survivors who are owning them on social media.

The members of Wichita March for Our Lives see the same opportunity for change the Parkland survivors have created, and they’re ready to seize it. For the Kansas organizers, the march scheduled to happen later this month is not the culmination of their efforts, but the beginning of something that could save the lives of people they love.

“Parkland was different. They, for the most part, kick-started a lot of the activism as of recently for gun violence prevention. In some aspects, it was just another school shooting, but it was so much more than that. When people ask why me, my mind automatically goes back to 2010 when my best friend’s father shot her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Ever since that day, I’ve felt very strongly about gun violence prevention. Her father was a deranged man, but if he hadn’t had such quick access to a gun, it could have been prevented.” — Katelyn Parks, Maize High School

Galvanized by violence, these teenagers have taken a tragic national moment and turned it into a movement. We’ve been astonished at the ways they’ve used the vulnerability of their innocence and turned it into an effective weapon on social media. Despite admonishments from adults, these savvy kids are elbowing their way in and insisting on a place at the table in the gun reform debate.

And they’re not leaving until they’ve made this country a safer place.

What’s up with Wichita?

If you think Kansas is an unlikely place to jump-start a debate on gun reform, you’re right. America’s heartland has notoriously lax gun laws, and Kansas is right in the thick of it. Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Kansas a big fat F for effort at keeping guns out of the hands of those who mean to do harm.

There is no registration or permit required to own a gun in Kansas. Concealed carry is allowed in any public, state or municipal building and no background checks are required for private sales. You do have to be 18 to purchase a gun and 21 to carry it concealed, but beyond that, it’s open season in Kansas.

And Governor Sam Brownback has taken measures to ensure it stays that way. In 2015, Brownback signed a bill that negated all local efforts to control firearms and prohibited any city or county from running a buyback program or restricting ammunition. The legislation nullifies existing ordinances and prohibits any future ordinances on gun control within the Kansas state limits. There’s even legislation currently being proposed that would require firearms safety courses in the state to be taught by the NRA.

When it comes to guns in school, the conversation becomes even more loaded. Currently, Kansas law requires that in schools without “appropriate security measures,” a school official on campus must carry a gun. Several high schools, especially in rural areas, even have school shooting teams and leagues. The members of Wichita March For Our Lives understand their state’s pro-gun culture but believe there’s still a way forward for gun control that’ll save lives.

“I think the biggest challenge that we face is how pro-gun the state actually is. Most people see our movement as a threat to their 2nd Amendment rights. But that can’t be farther from the truth. We are advocating for legislation that a majority of Americans actually support. The majority of the adults that we have met with have been very supportive and helpful. They really believe in the message that we are trying to send.” — Edgar Dominguez

Kansas’s pro-gun stance drew national attention a few weeks ago when a Republican candidate for office decided to raffle off an AR-15 as a fundraiser for his campaign. The worst part? He had third graders selling raffle tickets for him.

The Wichita teenagers behind March for Our Lives say this sort of behavior is the kind of thing that leaves them frustrated with Kansas politicians and has inspired them to organize.

“Our inspiration behind organizing our own march in Kansas is our rising frustration with a lack of gun violence prevention. We, the student organizers, feel that children’s safety and security should be a city and school’s top priority. Kansas is definitely a gun friendly state so we thought organizing a march here in Wichita might help start a conversation that needs to be had; this country needs more laws that help prevent gun violence.” — Brittany Ayres, Wichita Northwest High School

These students obviously believe Kansas has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to reducing gun violence. And a look at the data on gun violence means they’ll have to go beyond school shootings and tackle the real problem with guns in America’s heartland.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Every corner of America, from tiny towns in Texas to the busy streets of urban Chicago, has been marked by gun violence. So it probably won’t surprise you to discover that Kansas has their fair share of shootings.

The most high profile mass shooting in Kansas history took place in 2016. Cedric Ford went on a mass killing spree with an AK-47 style weapon in Hesston and Newton, killing three and wounding 14. Ford was a disgruntled former employee of Excel Industries and opened fire outside the building and on the factory floor. A man with a criminal record a mile long that included convictions for domestic violence, assault, theft, and drugs, Ford should never have been able to obtain a weapon.

There’s plenty of evidence that despite its wholesome image, Kansas isn’t immune to gun violence. This thwarted mass shooting in a Lenexa Costco, where a man claiming to be off duty marshal in camouflage said he was “here to kill people,” happened just last November.

But the most concerning part of Kansas’s gun culture is the ways in which it fuels fatalities from suicide. For much of the nation, it’s not homicide but suicide that makes up the majority of gun deaths. And America’s heartland is no exception to that.

Kansas is 19th in the nation for suicide, and the rate has been steadily climbing. Currently, Kansas’s suicide rate is 16.7% above the national average. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state among 15–24 year-olds and especially prominent among veterans and in rural areas.

How KU is Trying to Combat Rising Suicide Rates, The Kansan

While limiting access to semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of slaughter may be the current focus of the gun debate, it’s just the beginning of the conversation. To effectively address gun violence in places like Kansas, approaches such as raising the minimum age for purchase and focusing on mental health will be essential to saving the lives of children. That’s why young activists like the ones in Wichita March For Our Lives are committed to a lifetime of advocacy for gun change.

“After this march, we are for sure going to continue to take action and nag at the currently elected officials until we get change. We not only want it but demand it.”

Camille Pierce, Derby High School

The irony that teenagers seem to be the voice of reason in the gun reform debate isn’t lost on America, and it’s made them targets not just for the NRA, but for every gun-toting, 2nd amendment quoting conservative in this country. While it’s a tough spot to be in for impressionable young people looking for approval, Wichita March For Our Lives struggles with condemnation that is a little closer to home.

“My parents are not in favor of what I am doing, but my mom has said that she is proud of me for taking a stand and educating myself about topics I feel passionate about. Most of the teachers I have talked to are extremely supportive of the march and its efforts and have wished me the best of luck in regards to it and the eventual change it will hopefully bring. Most of my friends are indifferent to the campaign because they aren’t ones to get involved with politics but are respectful of the fact that organizing this march is something I both want and need to do. If not for me, then for the future of this state and country” — Brittany Ayres

While not everyone is supportive, at least the Wichita organizers have each other. And they’re leaning into building a bigger, brighter future together. As history has proven, the protest and civic involvement of young people has been pivotal in bringing about change not just in this country, but throughout the world. And this technologically savvy generation is more than up to the task.

“To be at the center of this effort has been stressful and very busy, but I have got a lot accomplished. I created the website, most of the graphics, the t-shirt design, the poster, and the button designs all in one week. I am personally new to activism but have always had an interest in it. I am currently taking an AP government class at school and believe that even if I am going to be in a technology field, I should still try to be politically active.” — Jaden Goter, Wichita Northwest High

And as the Parkland students have been quick to remind politicians, in just a year or two, they’ll not only be activists but voters. And these are the young constituents who will show up at the ballot box to hold Republicans accountable for failure and remove them from power.

March for Our Lives is scheduled to take place in Washington D.C. on March 24th, but sister marches are being organized in cities all across America. You can find one near you below:

March for Our Lives

Want to join these young activists on the streets of Wichita and show them your support? Sign up to participate in this student-led event.

March for Our Lives – Wichita – Event

But no matter what you do, follow the example of these teenagers and do something. March and then vote for a better world. You made this bloody mess America, and left it in the halls of our schools. Don’t leave our children with the job of cleaning it up.

Interview // Activism / Gun Violence / Guns / Politics