“Why Do I have To March For My Life?”
And Other Winning Essays in the 2018 Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest
A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence
In March of this year, we announced our first annual Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest, open to all high school students in the United States and its territories. The prompt for the contest was a statement made by the late Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on June 11, 1968:
The time has now come that we must adopt stringent gun control legislation comparable to the legislation in force in virtually every civilized country in the world.
Our goals in sponsoring the essay contest were to help sustain the momentum generated by high school gun control activists in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February of this year; to provide historical perspective for the students and help them focus their activism; and to foster and reward critical thinking on the gun violence issue among other U.S. high school age youth. As an incentive for students to enter the contest, we announced that we would be giving out a total of $15,000 in awards to the 12 contest winners.
The deadline for students to enter the contest was May 6, which turned out to be 12 days before the most recent high profile mass shooting on a high school campus in Santa Fe, Texas. Over 30 Americans Against Gun Violence supporters, blinded to any student identifying information, took part in reading and rating the students’ essays, and we made the final decision concerning the 12 contest winners last week.
It’s been my pleasure over the past week to contact and congratulate the winners of this year’s essay contest. The students’ responses have been gratifying.
A student winner who submitted an essay concerning her experience as a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School replied:
“I was overjoyed to find out that I was one of the winners in the 2018 Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest.”
A student winner from Montgomery County, Maryland, wrote:
“Thank you so much! I'm beyond excited and so incredibly grateful for this amazing opportunity. The essay contest was very empowering and allowed me to reflect on my own values and thoughts considering gun violence.”
Other students who I contacted by email replied:
“Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to receive this award. I will seek the change we need as part of my generation!”
“Thank you for the work you do and for selecting me as one of the 2018 Essay Contest Winners. The prize money will help me pay my tuition at UC Berkeley.”
“Thank you so much! I appreciate all that you do. I would love to stay in the loop with Americans Against Gun Violence.”
The winning essays themselves are posted on the In The News page of the this website. Here are some excerpts from the essays:
“Over 1,600 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, the United States has still been unable to pass significant gun control laws....Modernized gun reform laws are long overdue in our nation, and it is time for the US to catch up to the contemporary laws of Canada, Britain, Norway, and countless other countries.”
“We're scared, we're angry, and we want change…Legislation hasn't changed since [the 1966 University of Texas mass shooting], and now, we're demanding that it does.”
“People who deal with addiction say that they need to hit rock bottom in order to understand that they need to change. The question is, what is the rock bottom to have the US address its gun addiction?”
“Why is it that with all the information available, people are still uninformed about the success that other countries have had with gun control measures that don't involve taking away all guns?”
“I feel very strongly about this movement. This is why I organized my school's walkout on April 20th. Receiving a detention was a badge of honor for me for expressing my rights and beliefs about gun reform.”
”I look down at my feet and I see a bullet next to my pink vans....I tried to erase what happened to me, but then Sandy Hook occurred....and since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 1,607 mass shootings, with at least 1,846 people killed and 6,459 wounded. When will it stop?”
“We could blame mental health, but other countries have mentally ill people too. We could blame violent movies, but other countries have violent movies too. We could blame gang violence, but other countries have gangs too. Gun control has been proven to work in other countries. It’s time for the United States to make a change.”
If you go to the In The News page where the links to the winners’ essays are posted, you’ll note that for several the essays, the name of the student who wrote the essay has been withheld. Because of the despicable personal attacks to which some of the most vocal student gun control activists have been subjected in the aftermath of the Parkland mass shootings,[i] we gave essay contest winners the option of not publishing their names and high school affiliations in association with their essays. The fact that most of the essay contest winners chose not to have their names released is a sad comment on the toxic political culture that currently exists in our country surrounding the gun control issue – a culture that not only obstructs the adoption of stringent gun control laws that could prevent school shootings, but that makes students fearful of even openly advocating such laws. It is part of the mission of Americans Against Gun Violence to change this culture.
The essay that I personally felt was most poignant, even though it wasn’t rated as highly as some of the others by the majority of essay readers, was one written by a student from Mesa, Arizona with the title that is the subject heading of this message, “Why Should I Have To March For My Life?” In the body of her essay, the student wrote:
"Now, after our march, we are continuing to push for legislation to protect us at school and in public spaces. We have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours planning, organizing, phone-banking, emailing, et cetera to mobilize action to keep our voices heard.
It is sad that a bunch of high schoolers have to do this - having to demand to feel safe in our own communities. We shouldn't have to be up all night stressing out about our events - getting hate mail and having to tell the other organizers about it while hoping they never get the same treatment. Our legislators should have protected us long ago with actual gun control measures - protected us before we had to learn how to act dead so we aren't the next victim in a mass shooting."
I couldn’t agree more. And frankly, 50 years after Senator Dodd called for the adoption of stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in “virtually every civilized country in the world,” - a time span during which more U.S. civilians have died of gunshot wounds than all the U.S. soldiers killed in all the wars in which our country has ever been involved[ii] - Americans Against Gun Violence shouldn’t still be the only national gun violence prevention that openly advocates the adoption of such definitive gun control laws, including stringent regulation, if not complete bans, on civilian ownership of handguns and all automatic and semi-automatic rifles. But, to the best of my knowledge, no other organization has joined us – and the students – in openly calling for the adoption of the kind of gun control laws that would stop mass shootings, including shootings on school campuses, once and for all.
The passion and idealism of high school gun control activists, including the winners of our first annual essay contest, should give the rest of us reason for hope. But the students’ activism should not lead us to believe that we can relax our own efforts. On the contrary, the passion and idealism of the student activists should inspire the rest of us to redouble our own efforts to stop the shameful epidemic that afflicts our country.
Please contact your elected officials before the next horrific mass shooting occurs – which sadly, could be any day now - to demand that they openly advocate and do everything within their power to enact stringent gun control regulations in the United States comparable to the regulations that have long been in place in every other high income democratic country of the world. When you call or write, please identify yourself as a member of Americans Against Gun Violence. (If you’re not already a member, you can become one for a tax deductible payment of just $25 via the Join/Donate page of this website.) And please make a tax deductible donation, if you’re able, to the Americans Against Gun Violence essay contest fund to ensure that we’re able to offer the contest again next year. If you donate specifically to the essay contest fund, we’ll make sure that 100% of your donation goes directly to the students.
Thanks for your support of Americans Against Gun Violence, including your support of our efforts to ensure that children and youth in the United States can attend school in environments that are conducive to learning and free from the threat of gun violence.
Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence
Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician, a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a combat veteran decorated for “courage and composure under fire” during the Vietnam War.
[i] Fred Grimm, “Far Right Attacks Parkland Gun Control Activists with Smears, Lies and Doctored Photos,” Sun Sentinel, March 29, 2018, http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/fl-op-column-fred-grimm-unwarranted-criticism-of-parkland-survivors-20180329-story.html; Daniel Victor and Matthew Haag, “‘Swatting’ Prank Sends Police to Home of David Hogg, Parkland Survivor,” The New York Times, June 5, 2018, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/us/david-hogg-swatting.html.
[ii] Louis Jacobson, “More Americans Killed by Guns since 1968 than in All U.S. Wars, Columnist Nicholas Kristof Writes,” @politifact, August 27, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/aug/27/nicholas-kristof/more-americans-killed-guns-1968-all-wars-says-colu/.