Addressing a predominantly teenage audience at Benjamin Franklin High School, gun control advocate David Hogg spoke on Tuesday afternoon about the importance of youth-driven movements, voting and fighting against injustice.
Hogg was hosted by March For Our Lives Ben Franklin, a student activist club led by Louise Olivier and Olivia Keefe, both of whom will graduate from the school later this month. They also were joined by co-host Elliott Canty, a recent graduate of Brother Martin High School and co-founder of the local chapter of the nationwide movement. The Franklin group is advised by English teacher Greg Swanson.
Hogg, who turned 19 last month, is one of several outspoken survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida last year. Fourteen of his fellow students and three faculty members were killed by a former student who had legally obtained an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle despite a history of violent behavior.
Hogg, then a senior, and several peers mobilized to form Never Again MSD, a political action committee advocating for gun control and led March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Their efforts galvanized young people to lead and participate in similar marches, not just in the United States but around the world — including New Orleans.
Hogg is accustomed to the spotlight, but at his request the audience at Franklin was limited to about 60 attendees, which made the event more a conversation rather than a speech.
The activists are unified by a belief that there is no option at this point other than to push for change while living in an era marked by excessive gun violence in schools. (According to a recent New York Times article, at least eight shootings have occurred on high school or college campuses in 2019 so far.)
Hogg said, “We are fighting for our survival and we need to unite for our survival.”
After the Parkland shooting, Canty felt compelled to get involved with policy. “This is something that affected all of us,” he said. “Our goal is to get sensible gun laws passed in our area.” He acknowledged that in New Orleans it will be a major challenge to pass stricter gun control, due to Louisiana’s preemption of firearms laws (except local laws passed before 1985). These prohibit local governments from implementing their own solutions to gun violence.
The student activists have demonstrated an ability to act quickly. Keefe noted that the New Orleans March For Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, was organized with a sense of urgency (they collaborated with Moms Demand Action, another activist group).
“When Louise and I first started, we had about two months, a Twitter handle and no idea how to organize a protest,” she said. The New Orleans Advocate reported that more than 6,000 people marched that day.
When Hogg was introduced, he asked, “Who here has been affected by gun violence or gun suicide?” Most of the attendees raised their hands.
“What we’re living through today is bullshit,” he said. But, he added, “we have a chance to change this. Young people control the state of Louisiana. Young people are the largest voting bloc.” He also highlighted the importance of absentee voting for students who will be attending college out of state.
Hogg touched upon familiar talking points, linking a number of complicated factors to gun violence, including inadequate mental health care and elected officials whom he perceives as corrupt and out-of-touch with his generation — particularly politicians backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which he denounces.
“After every school shooting, when we look to the NRA, what their solution is — let’s go down the list: single point of entry, to limit the people coming into the school. They want metal detectors…They want bulletproof windows, bulletproof doors. They want chairs and tables bolted to the ground … And on top of that they want barbed wire around the schools with armed teachers and armed guards,” he said. “You know what I just described to you? Prison.”
Bulletproof backpacks would be legal in public schools under a bill that breezed through the Legislature, nearing final approval Tuesday.
He added, “Arming teachers is a terrible idea.” Florida just passed legislation allowing it; he warned that it could pass in Louisiana, too.
Hogg reiterated the importance of voting: “Scaring politicians is fun. Politicians are terrified of you.”
When asked how to reduce the NRA’s power, Hogg called for criticism of policymakers who accept its funding. “Make their money toxic. We have to talk about the NRA’s money and make it toxic for anyone who takes it.”
He encouraged the audience to research power structures in place, take journalism classes and consider one day running for office. “Educate yourselves, and use that as a weapon,” he said.
After the event, organizers reminded their peers to visit the voter registration table near the entrance. Olivier — whose younger sister Julie will follow in her footsteps in a leadership role next year — had told the gathering earlier that afternoon that at 17, she’s not old enough to vote yet. But she delivered a powerful message: “We can make this country safer, but we need to do the work.”