To keep the momentum going, students join forces to march for gun laws

Anna Sophie Tinneny, 18, a recent Pennridge High School graduate, chants during the Still Marching Philadelphia rally supporting gun control legislation in Center City on Saturday, July 7, 2018. The march, organized by local high school students, including Tinneny, was intended to renew attention on gun control after the wave of student activism following February’s Parkland, Fla., high school shooting.

With classrooms locked for the summer, kids scattered on vacation, and July temperatures rising, it would be easy for people to quickly forget all about the explosion of student activism around gun violence that took place in the aftermath of February’s massacre that killed 17 at a Parkland, Fla., high school.

That’s why a coalition of local high schoolers stretching from the foothills of upper Bucks County and the South Jersey suburbs to Philadelphia neighborhoods planned an event to remind people they’re still marching for what they call the unfinished business of commonsense gun laws.

To drive home the point, Still Marching Philadelphia is the name they gave their protest Saturday, in which a diverse coalition of more than 200 teens and adults took their antiviolence crusade from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to a City Hall rally and then to a second gathering in front of Independence Hall.

“We want to make sure this issue doesn’t fade into the subconscious,” said Anna Sophie Tinneny, 17, with the Pennridge 225 group that made national headlines after defying administrators at Bucks’ Pennridge High School over their post-Parkland walkout and then staged sit-ins at their Saturday detentions.

“We want to stay in the forefront,” Tinneny said. “It’s an issue that’s still relevant and [gun violence is] definitely present in our lives — especially in urban cities like Philadelphia.”

Saturday’s march  highlights a growing alliance between suburban teens mobilized by mass shootings and urban youth who have long faced daily threats from gun violence.

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Students from Germantown Friends School hold up a banner that reads “ENOUGH” during a school walkout held in the City Hall courtyard on Friday, April 20, 2018.

One organizer — Sona Wink, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Germantown Friends School — said the group is building on connections forged during March’s national March for Our Lives, which helped link city activists with teens from Pennridge, Havertown, South Jersey, and elsewhere.

Wink said it was “unfortunate” that activists staging smaller protests at their local schools hadn’t connected earlier to build a unified movement toward fighting gun violence, a rallying cry that seems to rise and fall with every mass shooting.

“It happens over and over — there will be a shooting, people will be really passionate and care, then a month will go by and everyone forgets, nothing gets solved,” she said.

In the Pennsylvania legislature, a flurry of bills addressing gun violence — for example, a bill to limit access to guns for domestic abusers in protection-order cases — was introduced after the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland, but none have passed. Likewise, a Republican-led Congress has displayed little interest in moving on proposed gun-safety laws, such as stronger background checks, despite the recent spate of high-profile shootings.

Saturday’s Still Marching Philadelphia event came about as students at Pennridge and elsewhere were looking for ways to sustain the momentum from school walkouts last winter and the subsequent March for Our Lives, which attracted hundreds of thousands of participants nationally.

Initially, the Bucks County youths had planned a 50-mile march to the local offices of Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey — modeled after a similar high-profile event in Wisconsin that targeted House Speaker Paul Ryan — but the logistics of holding that event while many students were preparing for year-end exams proved daunting.

Instead, Tinneny said the one-day Philadelphia event will strengthen their focus on what she called the “intersectionality” of gun-related issues such as urban violence, domestic abuse, and accidental shootings in the home. It will also allow the students to forge new ties with officials like Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym.

“Even as young people, even if they can’t vote right now, they have a moral clarity about what we in government need to do right now,” Gym said. “I want them to know they have partners that want to help them achieve all of their goals.”

Registering young people to vote when they turn 18 — and electing officials more receptive to new gun laws and less beholden to the National Rifle Association — is increasingly a focus of student activism around school violence. That cause is expected to take center stage when a group of Parkland survivors — now nationally visible spokespeople on gun-safety issues — are slated to hold a Philadelphia event in early August.

“This wouldn’t have happened if not for Parkland — I hate to admit it,” said Ethan Block, a 16-year-old rising junior at New Jersey’s Hopewell Valley Central High School who met Tinneny at a town hall around the March for Our Lives and helped organize Saturday’s march.

“I felt almost numb after every single shooting, because it’s happened all my life,” Block said. “I was born just after Columbine, so this has been the norm. When the Parkland survivors said this is enough — this can’t be the norm anymore — that was inspiring and motivated me to start doing this.”