Maria-Pia Negro Chin

The survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed, have sparked a national debate over gun control laws.

Amid the tragedy, the students found the strength to speak up and to advocate for stricter gun regulations and challenged politicians and businesses to act to prevent senseless killings.

Just a few weeks ago, these young activists had typical teenage worries. But that changed on Feb. 14 when a 19-year-old former student carrying an assault weapon entered their school and shot as many people as he could.

“We can’t let innocent people’s deaths be in vain,” said freshman Christine Yared, 15. “We need to work together beyond political parties to make sure this never happens again.”

That the grieving activists found strength to advocate for safer schools — as they attend funeral after funeral and deal with the aftermath of such a traumatic event — is admirable. That they had to is a wake-up call for us.

Alfonso Calderon, 16, who was among dozens locked in a closet for hours fearing for his life, went to the state capitol to address lawmakers. He defended students against critics who said they were too young to understand politics.

“I understand what it’s like to text my parents, ‘Goodbye, I might never ever get to see you again. I love you,'” he said in a speech. “We will not be silenced. It has gone on long enough.”

Many of these teenagers were 11 or 12 during the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, and their generation’s education included safety drills in case of a shooter. They know how gun violence affects young people in the United States.

At its core, the students’ call to prevent gun violence is rooted in their knowing that no child — in any community — should live in fear of a shooting at their school or in their community.

The Parkland survivors remind other teenagers that their voices can be heard. They also challenge adults who are so used to nothing changing that they’ve stopped demanding change.

“The call for each of us is not how we respond today,” the Sisters of Mercy wrote in a statement, expressing grief and outrage in the wake of the Parkland massacre. “It is in how we will continue to work for structural and cultural change in a country and a society that moves too quickly to violence … and where military assault weapons are far too accessible.”

“Pray to God that in addition to helping the victims and their families heal from this unimaginable tragedy, that he burns in your heart the courage to stand up and combat this problem,” said Bishop Edward C. Malesic of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

“Whether it is by advocating for better mental health services, working to help end bullying in our schools, responding to the needs of boys and young men so they don’t see a gun massacre as a solution to their problems, working to promote respect for life, and, yes, advocating for common sense gun laws,” he said.

These survivors reject the idea that they are powerless. They ask for universal background checks and banning assault weapons like the ones used in Las Vegas, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, Aurora, Sandy Hook and, most recently, at their school.

“We call on all the adults in Congress elected to represent us, to pass legislation that will protect and save children from gun violence,” the students said in the website for “March For Our Lives,” a civic demonstration in Washington scheduled for March 24. According to the site, more than 400 sister marches will take place worldwide.

Before classes resumed, a survivor tweeted a quote by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the conservation and voting rights activist who inspired the school’s name: “Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. … Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.”

These young survivors, like many others before them, are doing more than their part. It is our turn to support them and don’t give up in trying to keep young people safe.

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Maria-Pia Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor at Maryknoll Magazine.