Student Survivors of Mass Shootings Lead Fight for Gun Control: ‘We Don’t Need Thoughts and Prayers’

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

Zoe Weissman remembers how it felt to be 12 years old on Feb. 14, 2018, terrified of what sounded like gunshots ringing out from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She was at Westglades Middle School right next door thinking that no kid should feel the way she felt at that moment. Something had to change.

Today, Weissman is among those making that change.

Days after the Parkland shooting, survivors formed a nonprofit organization, March for Our Lives, to end gun violence. Four years later, Weissman has taken over as director of the Parkland chapter, which is one of 16 chapters in Florida alone, with a focus on making a change large enough that kids can feel safe in schools. Weissman was able to get locals and students from her current school, American Heritage, involved in the movement.

Zoe Weissman spearheaded the March For Our Lives rally on June 11, 2022, in Parkland, Fla. (Courtesy of Zoe Weissman)

“After [the school shootings in] Uvalde and Buffalo, everyone in Parkland and around the country felt hopeless,” Weissman, now 16, said. “In times of tragedy, this is a window of opportunity during which our politicians will listen to us. … [We need safety regulations such as] universal background checks and assault rifle bans, which can only be accomplished through voting,” she said.

Among the policy changes the organization fights for are red flag laws, which allow judges to confiscate firearms and ammunition from people who show signs of wanting to hurt others or themselves. Before March for Our Lives appeared on the scene, five states had these laws on the books. Now 19 do, along with Washington, D.C.; Florida, Weissman’s home state, passed its red flag law in 2018.

Since its inception, March for Our Lives has engaged more than 2 million voters, registered thousands of new voters, assisted its members in making plans to vote once they turn 18 and, in its first year, helped the national youth voter turnout more than double in 2018.

In June 2022, more than 1,500 people gathered at the March for Our Lives rally Weissman helped organize in her hometown. Among the participants was Debra Hixon, a Broward County school member, and Milck, whose song “Quiet” became an anthem for the Women’s March.

“I encourage everyone who can to go out and vote,” she said. “Even local elections matter.”

Weissman was already an activist before she became a leader. In 2019, she attended the March for Our Lives protest outside a Walmart in Coral Springs (near Parkland) to pressure the megachain to stop carrying guns in its stores and end corporate donations to the National Rifle Association. At a time when she felt hopeless, Weissman said the organization helped her find her voice by giving her a chance to fight for matters she cares about.

“To see Zoe [Weissman] honoring all the lives lost at Parkland through her protest, to see a survivor do that is powerful,” said Susan Kennedy, founder of the nonprofit Bullets 4 Life, a Florida-based awareness organization that sells bracelets made of bullets collected from high-crime neighborhoods. “In this society where we keep losing our children one bullet at a time, we need more people with a voice like hers.”

A memorial service on the fifth anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting at Pine Trails Park on Feb. 14, 2023, in Parkland. On Feb. 14, 2018, 14 students and three staff members were killed during a mass shooting at the school. (Saul Martinez / Getty Images)

Weissman is organizing a new nonprofit, Heal Together, where teenage survivors will have a platform to share their experiences with gun violence.

“Ultimately, the thing that is going to help us is change,” Weissman said. “We don’t need thoughts and prayers; we already have enough of that.”

This article originally appears in the Winter 2023 50th anniversary issue of MsBecome a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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Kayra Dayi, a young journalist from Broward County, is a correspondent and editor of American Heritage School’s iPatriotPost.