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Protesters with March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and Everytown at a Parkland rally in 2018.
Protesters with March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and Everytown at a Parkland rally in 2018.
Photo by Ian Witlen

Parkland Students Tell Supreme Court Gun Violence Is a Youth Epidemic

Brooke Harrison arrived at school on Valentine's Day 2018 with a backpack full of candy she would never hand out to her friends. By the end of the day, 17 of her classmates and teachers lay murdered on the floors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When she was finally able to gather the backpack from her freshman English class, Harrison found it riddled with bullet holes.

In the 22 months since the Parkland massacre, students across the United States have channeled their trauma, anger, and despair into an activist movement that has now reached the nation's highest court. Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in NY State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, the first Second Amendment case to appear before the court in almost a decade. Among the legal documents presented to the justices was an amicus brief filed by March for Our Lives advising the court about the impact of gun violence on America's youth.

"I think it's really important that the court hears from real people that have had real firsthand experience with gun violence," Harrison says. "This is a really big deal. The Supreme Court is actually hearing our story and recognizing us."

Harrison's experience is one of nine personal stories included in the legal document March for Our Lives submitted to the court in August. Two accounts, including Harrison's, are from Parkland. Harrison lost her best friend in the school shooting and comforted her dying classmates in their final moments by telling them how much they were loved. 

"People don't understand that this is a youth epidemic," Harrison says. "Kids are dying from gun violence every day. I think it's really sad that it takes a bunch of teenagers to make a difference when this has been happening for years, but it also shows how powerful the kids of today are."

The March for Our Lives brief is a must-read, offering a unique perspective on how teenagers today are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Firearms are the second leading cause of death among children and teens in Florida, causing an average of 175 fatalities a year, according to a breakdown of Florida statistics by Everytown for Gun Safety. As of today, there have been 36,069 deaths related to gun violence in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive. So far this year, 194 children and 707 teenagers have been killed nationwide. 

"We're not advocating for gun confiscation," says Ira Feinberg, partner at Hogan Lovells and legal counsel for March for Our Lives. Instead, student activists are asking the court to decline to set a nationwide firearm policy and instead leave the decision to local and state lawmakers, especially because the people likeliest to be affected by gun violence are reaching an age when they can vote.

In August, March for Our Lives issued the recommended legislation A Peace Plan for a Safer America, which would set higher standards for gun ownership in the United States.

"You need to be responsible if you own a gun," Harrison says. "There should be rules."

Harrison won't be able to vote in the 2020 election because she is too young. Nevertheless, she will continue to use her voice. Advocacy is "the best therapy I've ever had," she says.

The Supreme Court case stems from a group of gun owners challenging a New York City ban on traveling with firearms outside the city's limits. The court is tasked with deciding if the law violates the Second Amendment and Commerce Clause and could set a precedent for state or local government's freedom to implement gun control legislation. 

A New York law passed seven months after the initial lawsuit allows gun owners to travel to additional locations where they are legally allowed to carry them, such as a shooting range. SCOTUS could dismiss the case if a majority of justices decide the new New York state law renders the New York City lawsuit moot.

"The city has now been blocked by a state law... so what's left of this case?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked  in her first day back to the Supreme Court after a recent health scare.

"You're asking us to opine on an old law, not the new law," Justice Sonia Sotomayor chimed in.

Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch appear to want to rule on the merits of the case, according to transcripts from the oral argument, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh remained silent during the hearing.

If the case is not rendered moot, the court's opinion will arrive before the end of June 2020. 

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