RuQuan Brown, Sarah Lerner and David Hogg, educator and student activists on the frontlines of ending gun violence, joined AFT President Randi Weingarten on Friday, July 15, at the AFT convention to discuss this growing public health emergency. The fight to end gun violence brings together all kinds of people—including responsible gun owners, Weingarten noted—who are committed to making our schools, our hospitals and our communities safer.
Each panelist knows firsthand the devastation of gun violence, and their conversation was both sobering and energizing, offering delegates concrete steps they can take to help save lives.
Brown’s first encounter with gun violence came when he was 5 years old. Then, as a teenager, the deaths of his stepfather and a high school teammate pushed him into community organizing, and he became a March for Our Lives activist. He is also the founder of Love 100, which provides resources to communities affected by gun violence.
According to Brown, people who blame neighborhoods for violence are missing the real problem. “My neighborhoods are being attacked by … unjust legislation. My neighborhoods are being attacked by having no resources in our schools and in our homes,” he said. He thanked educators and school staff for supporting him through every challenge and encouraged them to call on him for help.
“I know you care about your students getting an opportunity to grow into the people that they deserve to be,” Brown said. “Reach out to me so that we can work together… . We all deserve life.”
David Hogg has become a face of the anti-gun violence movement as a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and a co-founder of March for Our Lives. He acknowledged that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is only “a half-step” toward real reform, but it’s “still progress” toward the goal of saving as many lives as possible. Crucially, it includes billions of dollars for mental healthcare and support in schools.
The real change will come at the state level, and Hogg urged AFT members to be advocates. “I have to know that everybody in this room shows up at your state legislature every single year with us,” he said, so that students and communities can get the help they need.
Sarah Lerner, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who also survived the 2018 shooting, co-founded Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence because she knows that educators need to be part of the conversation. School shootings are only a tiny part of the gun violence crisis, which includes hate crimes against Black, Latinx and Asian communities; Jewish people; and LGBTQIA+ individuals, as well as domestic violence and suicide.
“Even if you as an educator have never experienced a school shooting, … you are still impacted by gun violence because of where you live or where your school is or where your students live,” Lerner said. We are all affected, and we all need to speak up. “If one of us is screaming, they’re not going to hear. If we’re all screaming, they can’t ignore us.”
This conversation is not the beginning of the AFT’s activism on this issue, Weingarten told attendees—and it’s not the end. In addition to years of marches and protests, lobbying and community organizing, the AFT executive council passed a resolution on June 1 mourning those who have been killed in mass shootings in the United States, decrying the racism and misogyny at the heart of the problem and committing resources to building a broad coalition to organize against gun violence.
“We did a roundtable outside the NRA meeting in Houston. … We joined with March for Our Lives on their June 11th day of action in cities nationwide. We organized in front of the Senate offices in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. And we will keep this conversation going until we get the commonsense gun laws we need to save lives and prevent mass shootings,” Weingarten promised.
[Sharone Carmona/photo by Michael Campbell]