The Breaking Point: Some Turn Fear of Gun Violence Into Activism


Quinn Rudnick

NEW REGULATIONS: Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston speaks during a protest about gun violence on April 29. Johnston spoke about recent gun-control legislation signed into law by praising its historic standing. “I think they are historic successes that have been led by historic organizing efforts by moms and students who came out and demanded action,” Johnston said. “They delivered the most significant package reform in 10 years. That’s a huge accomplishment for the state.”

Carly Philpott, Editor-in-Chief

For so many gun control advocates, the story is the same: one shooting, one gun death, one victim’s face made them sure that they had to take action.

In 2018, after the Jan. 23 Marshall County High School shooting, teacher and mother Abbey Winter had this epiphany.

“I remember just being struck by one of the pictures of the victim, a 15-year-old, and at that time, my little girl was about a year and a half,” Winter said. “I said to myself, “I have x number of years before she is in high school or middle school. And I need to do something about this because…children are dying in their schools.”

The victim that Winter recalls, Bailey Nicole Holt, was killed when a shooter opened fire in the open common areas at her school. Later, Holt’s mom said Holt was on the phone with her as the shooting occurred, but was unable to talk, according to CBS News.

After that, Winter joined Colorado Moms Demand Action, a statewide chapter of the national organization of parents advocating for gun violence. She rose quickly to Colorado Chapter Lead in summer of 2019. She’s held the position since.

“Our strength, both statewide and nationally, is our advocacy with our legislators and through lawmaking,” Winter said. “We’ve been very successful, not only in passing ‘good’ gun bills and stronger gun regulations, but also in stopping ‘bad’ gun bills.”

By building relationships with legislators at all levels, lobbying, organizing rallies, and educating the public, Moms Demand Action has successfully pushed gun legislation across the nation. It’s the perfect example of activism that comes from built-up pressure and fear: it was founded shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by a mother of five, Shannon Watts, who sought to connect Americans in preventing gun violence.

And for Winter, it’s personal on multiple levels.

“My first year in the classroom was the year that Sandy Hook happened,” she said. “I remember next year we were in a lockout, or secure perimeter. I had seven first graders just sobbing, because they had seen the coverage of Sandy Hook.”

Winter still works as a reading interventionist in Aurora Public Schools. She also has a six-year-old daughter, who she says knows more about the issue than most other kids her age due to her “proximity” to Winter’s work. But Winter’s daughter has had experiences of her own in school, too.

“Their school went on accidental lockdown, someone just accidentally hit the button,” Winter said. “When I asked her about it later, she said, ‘My heart was beating really fast, but I was okay.’ Even that, which was an accident, anyone can hit an extra button, I was thinking, ‘we only have those buttons available because of this reality.’”

Winter, along with many other Moms Demand Action volunteers, has worked with students on gun activism.

This year, on March 3, Colorado Moms Demand Action’s Advocacy Day at the Colorado State Capitol fell on the same day as a walkout for Denver East High School students, who had just lost a student in a shooting outside their school.

At the time, Winter said she was impressed by how “passionate they are, and how much they want to get across the message that this is not normal.”

“Because we can make a difference,” she said. “And I know that they can and I know that we already have.”

Since its founding last semester, East Students Demand Action (SDA) has already seen two shootings on campus – one was of the student, Luis Garcia, in February, and the other was of two administrators inside the building on March 22. This school year, they’ve walked out multiple times, met with legislators and candidates, and attended gun club and school board meetings, according to East SDA founding member sophomore Noah Shurz.

Shurz said SDA is important for “having a place where we can all talk about our fears and how we want to help tackle the problem.”

SDA has spent multiple days in the Colorado State Capitol meeting with legislators outside chambers and offices.

“I think we’ve influenced some legislators to look at things in a different perspective,” sophomore East SDA member Ali Sittiseri said.

After the March 3 walkout, East SDA received heavy news coverage from local media. One photo published by the Denver Post featured Shurz.

“I felt like we were being seen by a larger community,” Shurz said. “East itself is 2600 kids, so there’s a lot of people who know what we’re doing and were part of the walkout…but just having a picture in the Denver Post, having articles published, having interviews with people about these things made us feel really good.”

Creek has its own chapter of SDA, founded by junior Nandita Nair and sophomores Kimaya Kini and Agnes Holena. They work to connect members with networks of advocacy, including other SDA chapters, and Kini testified at the Capitol for an extended version of the Red Flag Law.

“There were a lot of people from Moms Demand Action…who were there to support you,” Kini said. “But sometimes it’s hard to be around some of those Senators and Representatives who are just so against it. And even when you bring the perspective of ‘I’m scared to walk into school every day,’ the fact that they don’t care, it’s just really hard.”

In addition to expanding the Red Flag Law to allow healthcare providers, educators, mental health professionals, and district attorneys to confiscate guns when someone is indicating they may use the weapons to harm themselves or others, Kini mentioned banning assault weapons as an important step to preventing gun violence in schools. Winter strongly agreed.

“An assault-style weapon really puts the ‘mass’ in mass shooting,” Winter said. “It has a high capacity. It’s able to kill a lot of people in a short time. And so there’s no coincidence why it continues to show up in these mass shootings as the gun that is used.”

Colorado State Representative Elisbeth Epps and State Senator Rhonda Fields introduced a bill this session to ban assault weapons, but it was voted down by the House Judiciary Committee in the early hours of April 20.

“We know that this work is a marathon, not a sprint. While the vote didn’t result in the outcome we had hoped for, we raised awareness and built power,” Winter said via text. “Gun violence prevention has evidenced-based solutions in which [the assault weapons ban] is a piece. We will continue to work with legislators and community to pass common sense laws that reduce gun violence and save lives.”

Regardless of the outcome, Kini still believes that activism is well worth it in the face of gun violence.

“We’re this new generation. A lot of times our legislators are older people, or they come from very old ideologies,” Kini said. “And that’s not what we need right now. We’re the ones being impacted. We’re the ones getting shot at, not the representatives sitting in their safe offices.”

This story was awarded Third Place General Feature by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.