News & Features » Cover Story

Kids Demand Action

Last year they marched; this year they lobbied. These are the kids fighting gun violence.


The line outside the General Assembly building is still wrapped around the block when Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax enters a subcommittee room on the fifth floor. He addresses the group inside, arranged in a rough circle of chairs, with a brief anecdote about living in Washington in the late 1980s. At the time it was considered the murder capital of the U.S., he says, and he lost friends to gun violence.

"I'll never forget seeing someone you know who's been shot and killed," he says. "I'll never erase that from my memory."

Fairfax tells the half-dozen or so teenagers in the circle to keep fighting the good fight, shakes every hand in the room, poses for a photo and disappears into the bustling hallway.

It's Monday, Jan. 21, and Fairfax is one of several state officials scheduled to meet with these kids during the busiest lobbying day of the General Assembly's session. They're spending the first half of Martin Luther King Day, a holiday from school, at the Pocahontas Building downtown to speak with whomever will listen about gun violence prevention. Meeting the lieutenant governor is an exciting start to a busy day, but they're not so star-struck that they've forgotten why they're there.

"I appreciated his story," says local high school student Quintin Phillips, who's there with his mother and younger sister. "But I wish he had talked more about what he planned to do."

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax addresses a group of teenagers who spend Martin Luther King Day lobbying for gun-violence prevention. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax addresses a group of teenagers who spend Martin Luther King Day lobbying for gun-violence prevention.

This is a common theme among gun-violence-prevention lobbyists addressing politicians: We appreciate your commiseration and your support, but what are you going to do about it?

The Richmond-area chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America collaborated with the Richmond Peace Education Center to plan and execute the youth lobbying excursion. The participants, none of whom are old enough to vote, are ready to face their elected officials. Some have prepared statements to share with the legislators, while others are there for moral support and to see the process up close. And despite being optimistic and eager to knock on office doors, these kids are realistic. They understand how difficult it is to pass gun-related laws in Virginia, and they're not under any delusions of walking out with the promise of a bipartisan commitment to the issue. They know that by that morning, most gun-related bills introduced in committees were dead on arrival.

That isn't stopping them from telling their stories.

Peace center staffers have spent weeks helping these kids prepare for lobbying, and the organization's reach goes beyond legislation. Headquartered in a cozy, homelike office in the Museum District, the RPEC been around for nearly 40 years, providing workshops, public events and youth programs that promote nonviolent social change. One of its programs, the Richmond Youth Peace Project, aims to empower kids to reduce violence in their communities through leadership skills and peaceful conflict resolution. The nonprofit also holds an annual peace essay contest for young people, and it cosponsored the Richmond March for Our Lives in March, the nationwide protest against gun violence in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Students lead the activities and share responsibilities, from facilitating discussions to distributing snacks at meetings. And while the protective staffers keep a watchful eye over the groups, stepping in to gently guide conversations when necessary and fostering a safe environment for the kids involved, the ultimate goal is for them to take what they learn outside of the center walls and into their communities — and the General Assembly.

The young lobbyists introduce themselves when Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, appears in the conference room. Like Fairfax's her visit is brief, but she gives the group a spiel that's equal parts pep talk and reality check. One of her bills took eight years to pass, she says, and even then, the resulting law was only half of what she initially drafted. The wheels of government are slow and often frustrating, but she tells them it's worth it.

"To effect change you have to persist," she says, after acknowledging that gun legislation in Virginia has been at a stalemate for years. She then reminds her audience that every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election this November, and asks if any of the young people will be 18 by Election Day. A collective sigh and murmur of "no" ripples around the circle, and one young lady shakes her head with an expression of resignation.

Yasmeen Jaaber, 16, is a sophomore at Appomattox Regional Governor's School for the Arts and Technology. She and her peers have hidden under desks as part of active shooter drills since they were young children, and at least twice since elementary school she's known of students who threatened to bring guns in their backpacks and "shoot up" the school. She does her best to pay attention to the news, while also balancing an intensely literary arts-focused course load, spending time with her large family and hosting a podcast called "Was It Something I Said?" But she says it's easy to feel desensitized to gun violence in all its forms.

"I think the normalization of [gun violence] has kind of made me see it for what it really is," Jaaber says. "It's becoming so, so, so normal, which is super dangerous. Because if it's normal, people can overlook it. But it shouldn't be that way."

Jaaber takes that message to the Pocahontas Building, standing tall as she looks Delegate Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, in the eye and tells her that the impact of gun violence on kids her age is normalized, and that's a problem.

"The normalization is inappropriate," she says to Rodman, going on to note that she, as a Muslim black girl who already feels marginalized, doesn't believe increased police or security presence at schools will make students safer. Especially students of color.

Rodman nods as Jaaber speaks. Behind the students, a stream of gun-rights advocates make their way through the elevator doors, each wearing a fluorescent orange sticker reading "Guns save lives." Many wear pistols on their hips — concealed carry permit holders may carry guns inside General Assembly buildings, even though everyone in line without prior clearance has to remove cellphones and keys from their pockets and walk through metal detectors. The delegate focuses her attention on the students, agreeing with Jaaber.

"We talk about this all the time," Rodman says, telling Jaaber and her peers that gun violence "shouldn't be normal."

Jaaber, whose interests in current events and social justice began in the eighth grade, when her middle school government class and the 2016 presidential election coincided, often wonders if she's doing enough. She struggles with whether stepping away and taking time to enjoy her life as a teenager invalidates her efforts, and she says detoxing from the news can be tough.

"Because I'm a minority and because a lot of the things I see affect me directly, I can't just not look at it. And it definitely starts to weigh down on you," she says. "Is it irresponsible of me as an activist to just shut it all out for a little bit? It gets to be so much. And you have the actual things that happen, and then you have people's responses, which also weighs down on you."

Over the course of a fast-paced few hours, Jaaber and her peers shuffle from one legislator's office to another, sharing their stories and growing more confident with each interaction. Phillips focuses on school safety; a Maggie L. Walker Governor's School sophomore named Perisa Ashar asks each politician whether he or she accepts donations from the National Rifle Association; Stephanie Younger tells them that race has to be part of the discussion because she and her fellow black students don't feel safe.

Stephanie Younger, 16, has been bullied and harassed for her stance on gun-violence prevention. The home-schooled high school senior is adamant that race should be part of the conversation. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Stephanie Younger, 16, has been bullied and harassed for her stance on gun-violence prevention. The home-schooled high school senior is adamant that race should be part of the conversation.

Younger, a 16-year-old home-schooled senior, was on vacation with her parents at Niagara Falls when the 2016 police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hit the news.

"There's a connectedness to other humans, definitely within the race but also as Americans, as people, and we just felt that loss so deeply," says her mother, Teresa Younger. "And she felt it. And we couldn't figure out how best to console her."

"It could've been my dad," Stephanie Younger says matter-of-factly.

Younger's parents have always encouraged their precocious daughter's interests in activism. They took her to the polls on election days and made sure she felt comfortable asking questions and having difficult conversations at the dinner table. But when talking at home was no longer enough, they started looking for other outlets, which led them to the Richmond Peace Education Center

Her mom adds that while the realities of gun violence in the black community are the same as when she and her husband were growing up, the conversations are different.

"Her generation's different from ours. Our generation is famously giving the talk to their kids to survive these situations, and her generation is like 'This is wrong,'" she says. "We know it's wrong, but our focus was on surviving it, and their focus is on changing it."

Stephanie Younger is all about making that change. She emanates a confident, solemn dedication on the lobbying day, wearing a T-shirt that says "Guide us, don't criminalize us." She unfolds and studies her typed speech between meetings. Younger doesn't hesitate to raise her hand when an adult asks who wants to go first.

She understands that, especially in a heavily gerrymandered state like Virginia with a Republican majority, patience is a virtue. During this year's session, more than a dozen bills related to gun violence prevention died before making it to the floor for a vote. A House bill that would allow law-enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person who's believed to be a danger, commonly known as a red flag law or extreme risk protection order, was passed by indefinitely by a subcommittee of Militia, Police and Public Safety on Jan. 17. A similar Senate bill was defeated by the Courts of Justice Committee. Other bills, like ones allowing localities to ban firearms inside government buildings, libraries and public events and another offering a tax break on gun safes, all met similar fates.

Before his abrupt retirement announcement last year, Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham publicly endorsed and lobbied for a bill that would have required gun owners to report stolen or lost firearms to the authorities within 24 hours, saying it would help police track stolen guns and prevent them from winding up in dangerous hands. According to the NRA's website, such bills would "further victimize law-abiding gun owners who suffer loss or theft of their firearms if they do not report them within a certain time." Last year's bill died in committee. This year's bill, sponsored by McClellan, was defeated by the Courts of Justice Committee on Jan. 16.

Two pro-gun bills made it out of committee last week. SB 1012, which passed with a 21-19 vote in the Senate along party lines, would allow some firefighters and emergency medical services personnel to carry concealed weapons without a permit. The Senate also passed a bill repealing a state law that prohibits firearms in places of worship during religious services.

Younger isn't discouraged by the partisan stalemate. She doesn't seem discouraged by much of anything. She's been called divisive and confrontational for insisting that the conversation include race, and she identifies as a womanist because she says feminism excludes her and other girls and women of color.

After a negative interaction with some local student leaders of last year's school walkout in response to the Parkland shooting, she found her place with the March for Our Lives. Her mother describes a younger Stephanie as shy and soft-spoken, but on March 24, 2018, she climbed on top of a school bus and delivered a speech to the thousands of marchers. Her focus was, and remains, the disproportionate effect of gun violence on the black community. According to a report last year by the NAACP, roughly 50 percent of U.S. gun-related deaths in 2015 were black men, while black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in 2015, homicide was the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 19.

"Even though I have been advocating for gun violence prevention for a couple of years, it became very important to me after the Parkland massacre," she says. "It seemed like people suddenly cared about gun violence now that it had started to affect white youth."

On Monday, the message from Democratic leaders is consistent: "I hear you. You're preaching to the choir." Delegates, senators and their legislative assistants tell students they're happy to see them, but it's the Republicans who need to hear it.

Jordan Johnson, 14, is in eighth grade at Elizabeth Davis Middle School. He's new to the Richmond Peace Education Center, but he's already a member of the board. He considers himself lucky that he personally hasn't been affected by gun violence, but he finds it "unsettling" when his peers talk about firearms at school. Johnson participated in last year's walkout after the Parkland shooting, and says he thinks the lobby day "went great." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Jordan Johnson, 14, is in eighth grade at Elizabeth Davis Middle School. He's new to the Richmond Peace Education Center, but he's already a member of the board. He considers himself lucky that he personally hasn't been affected by gun violence, but he finds it "unsettling" when his peers talk about firearms at school. Johnson participated in last year's walkout after the Parkland shooting, and says he thinks the lobby day "went great."

One of the last stops of the day is the office of Delegate Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach. The legislator, whose campaign received $250 from the NRA's political action committee in 2017, opted against running for mayor of Virginia Beach last year to instead help Republicans hang onto their 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates.

One of Younger's talking points is about school security officers, and the disparate impact they have on students of color. Last year, a report titled "We Came to Learn: a Call to Action for Police-Free Schools," compiled by the Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice, stated that in the years since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, calls for more police officers in schools have resulted in punitive discipline that disproportionately impacts students of color. Overall, the report found that increased security has not made black students safer at school.

"Student resource officers only benefit certain groups of students," Younger says. She adds that after last year's shooting, black Parkland students voiced their concerns about heavily policing schools in the name of safety.

In the fall, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $1.2 million grant from the Executive Committee of the Criminal Justice Services Board to fund new school resource officers and security officers in 33 localities throughout the commonwealth. Davis notes that the governor also announced in December that his proposed budget for 2020 will include $36 million for more counselors and mental health services in schools.

"We don't want to mandate that any locality do something, but we want to make sure that whatever they feel, and the citizens in that area feel is the best fit, that we help support and provide the funding for it," Davis tells the group, emphasizing that mental-health care is a key component of gun-violence prevention and school safety.

Absent from the Pocahontas hallways are Jazmine and Jayden Brown, a sister and brother who spent a recent Thursday evening at the Richmond Peace Education Center writing and practicing their speeches for legislators. The 13- and 11-year-old are unable to join their peers downtown because Monday is a big day for their family — it's when they and their mother move out of Gilpin Court.

Longtime residents of the North Side housing development managed by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Jazmine and Jayden Brown are used to violence. They're only allowed on the neighborhood playground during certain hours of the day, and Jazmine recalls watching police carry a sheet-covered body through the doorway of her neighbors' house shortly after a noisy altercation. The siblings shared a bedroom in their Gilpin apartment, and Jayden slept on the top bunk — right next to the window, which Jazmine says made her nervous.

"I wouldn't want my brother to get hurt," she says.

Every New Year's Eve for as long as they can remember, the siblings have slept on the floor, but not for any reasons of tradition or nostalgia. It's to hide from stray bullets. The way they describe it, on Dec. 31, a group of Gilpin residents gather near the Browns' home late into the night and shoot celebratory rounds of bullets into the air. It's a longstanding New Year's Eve ritual in Richmond, and one that occurs all over the area. Hopefully, Jazmine says, not in their new neighborhood.

"I just want to stay safe and be a child while I still can, but it's dangerous outside," she says. "We're moving because our mom wants us to stay safe."