Before a crowd of roughly 1,500 people in Kansas City, Kan., Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky recounted Monday night what terrified him most when a gunman entered his Florida high school and killed 17 of his peers earlier this year.
“It was not the confusion. The most terrifying feeling that I felt was that I knew what was happening. It was a mass school shooting. We had seen these,” said Kasky, who noted that he was born after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
“People of my generation had grown up on them,” he said.
Kasky was one of four survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to participate in a panel about gun control at the Reardon Convention Center, part of a national tour by the March For Our Lives movement focused on swing districts ahead of the 2018 midterms.
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Kasky and Stoneman Douglas peers Kyrah Simon, Ryan Deitsch and Alfonso Calderon were joined by four students from the Kansas City area and four other students from Chicago and St. Louis.
The packed crowd included a mix of students from both sides of the state line, older activists, Democratic congressional hopefuls and state lawmakers from both parties.
The discussion covered a wide range of topics from concealed carry laws to racial disparities with gun violence, but a particular focus was given to registering to vote.
Deitsch paused the discussion at one point to inform the crowd that a federal judge struck down Kansas’ proof of citizenship requirement an hour before the event started, a ruling that ensures thousands of voters who might of otherwise be blocked will be able to vote in this year’s election.
The announcement prompted a standing ovation.
“Your vote scares them because you’re going to vote them out,” chimed in Quinn Patel, a 15-year-old student from Olathe East High School who served as one of the panel’s moderators.
Volunteers were on hand to help register students to vote.
The fact that Kansas has some of the most lax guns laws in the country was repeatedly mentioned, but Calderon observed after the discussion concluded that the students in attendance “weren’t asking the stereotypical questions you get in a redder area. They weren’t asking, ‘I can’t do anything. Everything seems very hopeless.’ They were asking pretty uplifting questions. They were asking, ‘Hey, what can I do to create some change?’”
The stop in Kansas City, Kan., is one 50 being made by Parkland survivors in swing districts ahead of the midterm elections.
Calderon said March For Our Lives selected the districts where organization believes a larger youth turnout could swing the election.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, the incumbent Republican from Overland Park, is expected to face a tough re-election battle in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 election.
Student activists have dogged Yoder on the issue of gun control for months. He hosted a roundtable on school safety last month after students previously hosted a town hall where a cardboard cutout was used in his place.
“Keeping our children safe is always at the top of my mind,” Yoder said in a statement that touted his support for banning bump stocks and allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence.
“To continue the ongoing discussion, I’ve also put together a community task force to share ideas and perspectives from across the political spectrum to improve the safety of all our children. Students have an important voice in this discussion, and I hope they continue to be involved in our political process,” Yoder said.
Taylor Mills, a 16-year old student from Blue Valley North High School, said that the turnout of Monday’s event is a sign that Yoder may be vulnerable this election.
“This blew away my expectations. We had four days to publicize this, and this is how many people came. This issue is hot, and he has been silent about it,” said Mills, one of the event's organizers. “He should definitely be paying attention.”
David Smith, the chief of public affairs for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said he has been heartened to see students from Wyandotte and Johnson Counties collaborate on gun-control activism in recent months, noting that it’s rare to see this level of collaboration across county lines, even from adults.
“On this issue, our generation has failed,” said Smith, who attended the event. “We screwed it up. And maybe, just maybe, if we let kids find their voice on this issue, they’ll be able to do something that we haven’t been able to do. I think it’s powerful. I’m excited.”
One of the students from Smith’s district had a similar observation on her way out of the building.
“Everyone came as a community. When I was walking out, I heard that they had never seen so many people in that room, and that makes me happy. That makes me proud of my city,” said Giselle Alvarado, a 15-year-old student from F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kan.