Under the Dome

‘What if it was me?’ High school students lead movement for gun control at Raleigh forum

Lindsey Holmes found out about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the same way most Americans did: by watching the news. The name Parkland flashed across the screen. At first, it didn’t hit her.

But then, as she saw footage of students walking out of the Florida school, she realized her worst fear: her 14-year-old cousin was a student there. It was the same school she would have attended 10 years earlier had she not moved to Apex.

Holmes, now 28 and living in Raleigh, felt the air deflate from her chest. She tried to get in touch with her family to no avail for nearly an hour.

“The first thing I felt as someone who knew my family member was inside that building was just the clenching feeling of the unknown,” she said.

Her cousin survived the shooting that left 17 people dead, but had been in the second classroom where the shooter opened fire. He emerged from the classroom covered in the blood of his classmates.

Holmes was among multiple speakers who pushed for gun control legislation Thursday evening in front of a crowd of about 150 people at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. The organizers billed it as a town hall, and they had images of Republican U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr as well as U.S. Rep. George Holding on display in the front of the church. Throughout the speeches, attendees chanted: “throw them out!”

Burr and Tillis are among the top beneficiaries in Congress of campaign spending by the National Rifle Association.

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In the aftermath of the Florida shooting, Tillis offered his thoughts and prayers to the families and victims on Twitter.

“There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers. There’s a lot wrong with thoughts and prayers, though, when it becomes a cover for inaction,” U.S. Rep David Price, a Democrat from Orange County, said to the crowd.

More recently, Tillis tweeted an interview in which he told WGHP that gun background checks and bump stocks should be examined for reforms. “But then we also have to look at the root cause, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s the advent of social media that has brought more attention to these acts of violence over the past decade or so. We need to look at all of it and not just look at any one thing,” Tillis said.

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While the event was organized by multiple activist groups such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Triangle Indivisible Daily Call to Action and Carolina Peace Center, young people — from a sixth grader to a senior in high school — took center stage.

“The fact that they were high school students, my immediate thought was, what if that was me?” said Lauren Smith, a sophomore at Holly Springs High School.

Smith, along with Amber Mitchell, a sophomore at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, is organizing a march in Raleigh on March 24 to coincide with a national march in Washington.

Across the country, students have been at the forefront of the debate about gun control in the week since the shooting. On Wednesday, Cary High School students walked out of class to protest gun violence in schools. A similar protest is planned for Green Hope High School in Cary next week.

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Linda Coleman, a Democrat who is among the candidates challenging Republican Holding for his seat in Congress, likened the movement to the #MeToo campaign.

“This time I think that it’s going to be different,” she said. “These students will be the ones to change things.”

Holmes wasn’t the only speaker with a personal connection to gun violence.

Eleven years ago, Aaron Wolff was stuck in the basement of his veterinary school building at Virginia Tech while the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the time was taking place just blocks away. Now, as he sends his 6-year-old daughter off to school, he said that danger is still there.

“A decade after I was hiding, the best we’ve come up with was teaching my daughter to do the same thing,” Wolff said.

Danielle Chemtob: @daniellechemtob