‘It’s always on my mind’: Five years since the Parkland massacre, survivors’ pain is fresh

Written by on February 11, 2023

David Hogg fine-tunes his kick-flip between classes at Harvard and his work building consensus around gun violence prevention. Cameron Kasky immerses himself in comedy and writing in Los Angeles, frustrated with a broken American political system. Sari Kaufman flies to protests of the gun industry across the country while managing her political science coursework at Yale.

Nearly five years since a gunman killed 17 of their classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, three survivors at the forefront of the March For Our Lives movement in 2018 spoke with USA TODAY about their lives now – and what they want Americans to know as the nation reflects on the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“I’m still feeling the impacts of the shooting every day,” Kaufman said.

‘We aren’t as divided as we like to think we are’

Hogg, then a senior, was in an AP environmental science class when he heard gunshots, hid in a closet with other students and recorded the scene on his phone.

Soon after, he helped spearhead the nationwide student-led demonstration known as March for Our Lives, appeared on national TV and the cover of TIME and wrote a book with his sister titled “#NeverAgain.” Hogg said he has more projects planned for after graduation. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Student David Hogg addresses the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

But Hogg has also been trying to live a “normal” life and enjoy his final months of college. Now 22, Hogg is studying history and political science.

He’s spent a lot of time in therapy. He’s grappled with exhaustion and survivor’s guilt. He’s soothed by dinners with friends and Harvard’s skateboarding club.

“Seeing friendship and joy as a form of resistance, despite all the awful stuff that has happened, has been really essential to my healing,” Hogg said.

Hogg keeps in touch with friends from Parkland and like-minded activists from across the country. Leaning into that support system has helped him weather ridicule from high-profile figures, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

He’s also received “pretty awful insults” sent by strangers on Twitter. In many cases, Hogg said he’s had private exchanges with people online and found common ground.

“Those small interactions that I’ve had with probably hundreds – maybe thousands – of people at this point are some of the things that have really brought me the most joy,” he said. “It gives me hope that we aren’t as divided as we like to think we are.”

David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, speaks in Uvalde, Texas on July 10, 2022.

Hogg, born a year after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, said he wants to reshape the gun violence prevention conversation into “building consensus rather than debating it like we have been for my whole life.”

‘What’s been done to stop school shootings?’

Kasky had just left drama class and picked his younger brother up from a different classroom when the fire alarm went off. The two ran outside, were directed back into the building and huddled in a classroom for more than an hour.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky, left, asking Sen. Marco Rubio a question during a CNN town hall in Sunrise, Florida in 2018.

Now 22, Kasky is an intern for a film, TV and theater producer. He still speaks out about gun violence online and in media interviews. But he’s largely frustrated with the state of U.S. affairs and sees American politics as “locked between a fascist party and a party that is very beholden to corporate interests.”

When he was younger, Kasky saw how he and his friends were able to give Americans hope. He was 17 when they traveled the country in a tour bus, meeting hundreds of people and registering many to vote. Together, they helped organize a million-person march in D.C.

People who had given up on the possibility of effecting change after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, suddenly believed again. Now he thinks about the people he met on that tour.

“What am I supposed to say if I bump into these people again?” he said.

Sandy Hook school psychologist died confronting gunman. 10 years later, her husband still fights for change.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale days after a shooting at his school in 2018.

Since Parkland, there have been more than 900 shootings at K-12 schools, including 32 indiscriminate attacks aimed at hurting the most people possible, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Shootings on school property have increased during a time when billions of dollars are being spent to make schools safer, said lead researcher David Riedman.

In May, Kasky watched as news broke of a former student fatally shooting 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Just like in Parkland, armed officers didn’t go inside, he said. He fears Americans simply don’t have the “bandwidth” to mobilize around school shootings anymore.

“Any gun control nonprofit can print out a list of accomplishments that have been made and talk about them, but in all reality what’s been done to stop school shootings?” he said.

So why did he pursue comedy?

“When you meet certain members of Congress and look them in the eye, it’s hard not to want to parody everything you ever see.”

‘We can use that as momentum’

Sari Kaufman, then 15 and a sophomore, was in debate class and didn’t immediately recognize what would turn out to be the sound of gunfire.

Last summer, she sat alongside fellow survivors in the U.S. Senate gallery as lawmakers passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act – the most significant federal gun safety bill in three decades. She interned with its sponsor, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Parkland shooting survivor Sari Kaufman in the South Florida Sun Sentinel studio speaks about gun legislation, returning to Stoneman Douglas, in 2018.

“Even though it wasn’t everything we wanted, for me, it was a really special moment … seeing that our hard work did pay off, and that we can use that as momentum to show that we can get Republicans to support some of these policies,” Kaufman said.

Now 20, Kaufman is a junior studying political science at Yale University, where she recently started a chapter of Students Demand Action, a student advocacy group tied to Everytown for Gun Safety. She hopes to pursue a career in policy or politics.

Kaufman wants to put financial pressure on gun manufacturers. Last month, she and other activists protested at one of the nation’s largest firearm industry trade shows in Las Vegas.

“We were trying to make these gun executives recognize that the work that they’re doing isn’t just to make a profit and increase their stock, but it’s actually leading to more deaths and tragedies like Parkland,” said Kaufman, who thinks about her classmates who were killed every day.

Sari Kaufman and other activists with Students Demand Action protest SHOT Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 15, 2023.

Each time there’s another mass shooting, Kaufman said she hears how her peers talk about them on campus. She’s worried gun violence has become normalized and accepted.

She refuses to concede that.

“There’s way more compromise and common ground in gun violence than people acknowledge, and politicians will purposely try to create a wedge between Americans on this issue because it’s good politics for them,” Kaufman said. “We need more and more people to come together.”

Reach reporter Grace Hauck via email or follow her on Twitter at @grace_hauck.

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