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‘Ready to fight’: Young people joining politics advocating for gun control cite Parkland

The "active shooter generation" is thinking about gun control as they register to vote and knock on doors ahead of the midterm election.

Camille Parkinson (L) and Taylor Turner, two West Chester high school seniors who have both been active in politics and the gun control movement since the Parkland shooting, walk in West Chester Friday November 2, 2018.
Camille Parkinson (L) and Taylor Turner, two West Chester high school seniors who have both been active in politics and the gun control movement since the Parkland shooting, walk in West Chester Friday November 2, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON

Camille Parkinson won't be old enough to vote Tuesday. But that hasn't stopped the 17-year-old from knocking on doors in Chester County and asking people who can vote to do it.

"[One woman] said: You're the first person that has come to my door and has talked to me about any candidates, and you're a high schooler," Parkinson recalled.

She figures her voice could turn into someone's vote — and she has a lot to say. The Henderson High senior is among a wave of young people mobilizing for the midterm elections — whether to turn out voters or register themselves — and energized specifically by the issue of gun violence.

"What bothers me the most is going to school being safe, … that's a human right. And I feel like that's being taken away from our generation," Parkinson said at a September gun-control event in Coatesville. "We're ready to fight and get laws changed."

The country saw high school students take the national stage after 17 were killed in a February shooting in Parkland, Fla. The teenage survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke to lawmakers, appeared on news channels, and led a march of more than a million in Washington. Students across the country organized sister marches that March and school walkouts in April.

Now, students, adult advocates, and polls alike say more young people are politically engaged. Many say the Parkland movement has stirred higher political engagement among a traditionally low-voting swath.

Students in Philadelphia, the suburbs, and Pittsburgh are part of organizing efforts to push stricter gun laws; promote local, state, and federal candidates who support those laws; and register voters. Between 10,000 and 17,000 people attended the March for Our Lives in Philadelphia, said chairwoman Serita Lewis. Her chapter has since coordinated town hall meetings, voter registration, and work focusing on urban gun violence.

"You finally see a whole bunch of kids who are mobilizing to say something of value, and also like the world is giving them permission," Lewis said. "Just the idea of people listening to the kids, it was really important."

It also stirred discussion in neighborhoods plagued by everyday gun violence. The Philadelphia March for Our Lives chapter has worked on "cross-cultural, cross-community" conversation, and students have also helped their parents and relatives decide to vote, Lewis said.

"There have been kids being shot in Philadelphia forever. … What I loved was Parkland did not forget about those kids," said Parkinson. She was inspired to act partly by the death of Bianca Roberson, who had just graduated from Bayard Rustin High School in West Chester when she was shot dead in a road rage episode in 2017.

Eighty percent of likely young voters indicated support for stricter gun laws; gun control was identified as the most important issue by 14- to 29-year-olds, according to an October poll.

A Harvard poll last week indicated that voters under 30 are more likely to vote this year than they were in the 2014 and 2010 midterms.

Since Parkland, more than 66,000 Pennsylvanians age 18 to 30 have registered to vote in Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties; while registration has increased overall, the jump among 18- to 30-year-olds increased by 234 percent in the nine months after Parkland compared with the nine months before, registration data shows.

"I really think that this wave of activism is going to carry into the polls," said Taylor Turner, 17, another Henderson student who has been canvassing and helping classmates register. "I've just seen a lot … more people who I generally didn't think would be involved with politics become especially involved."

Turner's connection to the issue is personal: She spent her freshman year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. After her family moved back to West Chester, Turner stayed in touch with a group of Florida friends, especially Helena, Em, and Isabela.

On Valentine's Day, Turner was shopping in a grocery store when her mother called and told her there been a shooting at her Florida school. Turner frantically texted everyone whose phone number she had. All eventually responded — except Helena.

The next day Em called. "She was just crying. And I could just tell," Turner recalled.

Helena Ramsay, a 17-year-old Turner called "the sweetest person I've ever met," was shot and killed helping one of her best friends shield herself.

Turner threw herself into organizing her school's walkout against gun violence, attended the Washington march with Parkinson, and decided to talk at some local events about Ramsay and the shooting.

"I realized that I didn't want her death to just become another piece of data in a statistic about mass shootings in schools," Turner said. "I wanted to make sure that if she died because of a student with an AR-15, that her story becomes a piece of the puzzle that will ultimately fix this issue."

Two groups — Everytown for Gun Safety and one launched by former Arizona Rep. and shooting victim Gabby Giffords — have with other organizations registered more than 50,000 youth voters across Pennsylvania and nine other states. March for Our Lives, the national group begun by Parkland students, has been on a voter outreach tour to drive "the largest youth turnout in history."

"[It's] a whole generation, the active shooter generation, of kids who … are sort of thinking about politics for the very first time. And they're doing it through the lens of gun violence and school shootings," said Peter Ambler, director of Giffords' group.

Ritika Bajpai, a 20-year-old from Downingtown, will be voting for the first time. A University of Pittsburgh junior, she helped start a Students Demand Action chapter there after Parkland and has been registering voters and distributing candidate information. Last week, her group held a rally for the victims of the Oct. 27 shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue.

"Gun violence has always been an important issue for me," Bajpai said. "I have a 13-year-old brother and my main concern for him would always be … is he going to go to school and get shot today?"

Watching the passionate pleas by Parkland students after the shooting changed something for the students speaking out now.

"Those Parkland students have created such a platform for other students to be able to talk about this and be respected by adults," Turner said. Now, "we're able to talk about it … and be able to hold our own at the table."

Staff writer Michele Tranquilli contributed to this article.