‘Never Again’ Spreads West

By on March 24, 2018

Jackson Joins Global Day of Protest in March For Our Lives

Kai Gessler, 11, Jennifer Hoffman-Gessler and Lee Riddell at the Jackson March For Our Lives.(Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When 11-year-old Kai Gessler learned of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead last month, she told her mother she wanted to be homeschooled.

“She loves school, is super curious and loves her friends,” Jennifer Hoffman-Gessler said of her daughter, a Jackson Hole Middle School student. “It was impactful for me.”

The Gesslers discussed what they could do as a family. Attending the Jackson March For Our Lives, they decided, would help Kai have “a little bit of a voice.”

They were not alone.

In the so-called “last of the Wild West,” about 250 parents, teachers, young people, small children and supporters marched Saturday amid snow and wind in the name of “common sense gun laws”—a more palatable phrase for a gun-carrying populace than, say, “stricter gun reform.”

It was a unifying notion; gun owners were among the marchers.

“My husband attended the march and he loves guns,” Hoffman-Gessler said. “He is not your typical gun reform kind of a guy, but he agrees that something needs to change.”

Donned in a hunter orange hat and camo jacket, Sue Wolff marched with a sign that read “Hunters for Stricter Gun Laws.”

She said the ease with which she has purchased firearms is alarming. It took her 20 minutes to buy a gun from a pawn shop. “The background check was a quick phone call. I find that unbelievable compared to the other rules and regulations we have in our country.”

The outdoorswoman thought it important to represent gun owners in Wyoming, the state with the highest number of registered guns per capita. “There are hunters and gun owners who want stricter gun laws because we are fed up as much as the kids are.”

But it’s not just the Parkland victims, she said. “It is the people killed in Las Vegas too, and the people who use guns for suicide… we need to do better.”

‘Never Again’ For All Kids

Jackson residents marched through a snowstorm Saturday during the March For Our Lives ‘sibling march.’

The march in Jackson was among more than 800 “sibling marches” that occurred all over the world in solidarity with the Washington D.C. March For Our Lives. That march stemmed from the “Never Again” movement, launched just last month by students who survived the shooting at Stoneman Douglas. They are calling on lawmakers to close background check loopholes and to ban the sale of assault weapons like the ones used in San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, and which Nikolas Cruz used to kill their classmates.

Their message and urgency resonated across the globe—attendance numbers at the historic Washington D.C. march were in the hundreds of thousands and aerial photos from Los Angeles and London to Tokyo, Salt Lake City, and Parkland, Florida, depict thousands of marchers.

At least 26,000 children and teenagers were killed by gunfire in the United States between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Parkland shooting has ignited a national conversation that a staggering statistic could not. It has also deepened parents’ anxiety, those who say they are reminded no community is invincible in a nation with more guns than people.

Local march co-organizer Yvette Werner said the number of school shootings in the U.S. had almost desensitized her to the violence. It took a wave of Parkland students saying, “This isn’t normal—we shouldn’t get used to managing the aftermath of these shootings.”

She and two friends, Donna Andrus and Christie Goss, organized the march in less than two weeks.

“We had never done any sort of organizing before,” she said. “But I kept asking around about a march and when I hadn’t heard anything, I texted my friends and said, ‘Let’s hold our own.’” Given the date of the march—that it fell on the beginning of spring break, and the same weekend as long-standing events like Hill Climb and Pole Pedal Paddle, Werner said they were pleased with the turnout.

The former teacher cannot recall a time when she wasn’t worried about sending her kids, 9 and 6, to school. “My son was in preschool when Sandy Hook happened; our entire school career as parents has been during a time of school violence.”

“We think it can’t happen here, but it could … no one demographic is affected,” Werner said.

That no child in America is immune to mass shootings is a jarring truth, one that Parkland, a seemingly tight-knit, safe community, has helped underscore. But the South Florida school shooting has also brought to the forefront how students of color are disproportionately affected by gun violence.

During the Washington D.C., march, Zion Kelly, a 16-year-old African-American student, addressed the crowd: “I am here to represent all the hundreds of thousands of students who live every day in constant paranoia and fear on their way to and from school.”

Kelly’s twin brother Zaire was shot to death walking home from school.

Of his brother’s killer he said, “Though he had an ankle monitor on and he was supposed to be monitored by the police, he was still able to obtain a gun and legally lurk on my streets and take my brother’s life. He shot my brother in the head and once we arrived to the hospital he was pronounced dead.”

Kelly proposed a gun safety act to protect students in Washington D.C. He has also teamed up with Parkland survivors to amplify student voices across the spectrum.

Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler, a Virgina student, also spoke at the D.C. march with the lyrical poise of an activist twice her age: “I am here today to represent Courtlin Arrington; I am here today to represent Hadiya Pendleton; I am here today to represent Taiyania Thompson, who at just 16 was shot dead at her home in Washington, D.C. I am here to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

These black girls and women have been “just numbers” for too long, she told the crowd.

“I’m here to say never again for those girls, too.”

Rising Representation

Eleven-year-old Colter Elementary student Finn Hogan.

Back in Jackson, Wyoming, which in many ways seems a continent away from Washington D.C., students who were marching said they had not been personally affected by gun violence. But they marched for those who had.

Arm-in-arm walked 12-year-old Malaya Maligalig and 11-year-old Sophie Stoessel, students at Jackson Hole Middle School.

“Even if I do feel safe in my school, I don’t want another event like this to happen in any school,” Maligalig said. To protest gun violence and demand stricter laws, she said, made her feel powerful “because I can stand up against something.”

Both students said they recognized their place in a movement driven by young people: “It’s not just for people over 18,” Stoessel said. “Kids like us can protest and that also makes a huge difference.”

Some students were using their vacation time to march. Bryce Kelly, 15, was visiting Jackson Hole from New York. “On March 14, a month after the shooting in Florida, my school did a walkout and marched, so I figured I should participate today because gun violence in the United States is such a big problem,” he said. “So many people get killed every day and every year, whether it be by suicide or school shootings. Guns are so easily accessible that we need restrictions on how we can get them.”

To march, he said, “is the right thing to do.”

That 13-year-old Clare Eddy, a Jackson Hole Middle School student, couldn’t attend her school’s walkout due to a bomb threat the school received the night before was very disappointing, she said. Attending the march, then, would allow her to show her community where she stands: “I think there should be stricter gun laws. It’s just important for kids to be safe at school.”

No one, she said, should be scared to go to school.

As the crowd poured into the Town Square, the endpoint of the march that began at the Home Ranch Lot, Kai Gessler, still a faithful public school student, could be seen clutching a red sign dotted in fresh snowflakes. “Attending School Shouldn’t be an Act of Bravery” it read.

“I am marching to keep me and my fellow students safe,” she said with aplomb. It wasn’t the first action she has taken since the Parkland shooting. Kai has also written letters to U.S. Sens. Barrasso and Enzi and Rep. Cheney urging them to enact gun control measures.

“[Lawmakers] need to protect us, but they are not doing anything and we need help; we need gun reform,” she said.

For Kai, participating in demonstrations like this one and the 2017 Women’s March have highlighted her individual agency. She and her marching classmates are among a new generation of civically engaged young people whose voices are growing unequivocally louder as they coalesce.

“I feel like I can change the world this way,” she said.

[This story has been edited and updated with the voices of Sue Wolff, Naomi Wadler, Malaya Maligalig and Sophie Stoessel. – Ed.]

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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