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A lesson Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg learned: Find the joy

Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg speaks during an anti-gun violence rally in Boston on March 25, 2023.
Joseph Prezioso
AFP via Getty Images
Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg speaks during an anti-gun violence rally in Boston on March 25, 2023.

On Feb. 14, 2018, David Hogg was in his AP Environmental Sciences class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., when he heard gunshots. It was the beginning of one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.

A janitor directed Hogg and several other classmates to hide in a closet. Not knowing if he'd make it out of the classroom alive, Hogg leaned on what he had learned in his TV production classes, and began recording with his phone.

"I interviewed my classmates so that if we didn't make it out of there, hopefully our voices would carry on, and it wouldn't be possible for the NRA and gun lobby to say, 'Oh, you can't talk about this. You're politicizing this,'" Hogg says.

Seventeen people were murdered that day, and 17 others were injured. Soon after, Hogg and several other students created March for Our Lives, a youth-led effort to eliminate the epidemic of gun violence. A month after the shooting, organizers estimate more than 800,000 people gathered with the group at a rally in Washington, D.C.

"We came out of Parkland saying 'never again' over and over. ... That was our original hashtag that we had when we started speaking out after the shooting," he says. "And unfortunately, that wasn't the case. It did happen again — thousands of times."

Hogg went on to attend college at Harvard University, but he continued his work with March for Our Lives. He says one of the most important things he's learned through his advocacy is that it's not enough to point out why something is wrong — you also need to provide solutions.

"We have to move beyond this binary of either you're only talking about guns and how people access them or you're only talking about mental health. We have to talk about both," he says. "We do need to address how somebody gets a gun. ... We need to talk about, why does somebody pick up a gun in the first place? We need to address the systemic poverty that drives gun violence."

The work is often painful. In 2022, 19 children and two teachers were killed at a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Hogg and other advocates come in to meet with the parents and survivors. Later that night, feeling overwhelmed by the trauma of the day, they drove out to the South Texas desert to look at the stars.

"I used to tell myself that things like [stargazing] would be really dumb to do because they are so unnecessary and not efficient," Hogg says. "But I realized that those moments are some of the most important in the work, because we have to sustain ourselves and make sure that we aren't just constantly exposing ourselves to the horrors of gun violence and its aftermath. We can have friends in this work. We can make a movement that is joyful and hopeful and not just sad and depressed constantly."

Interview highlights

On his message to older generations

We were told time and time again after Parkland, "Oh, thank God the kids are here to save us. My generation really messed up and you kids will save us." And how wrong it is for older generations to just absolve themselves and say, "You know what? We can't do it. We're just going to put it all on you kids, you know, the survivors of gun violence to solve this. And it's up to you." And we need everybody in this fight.

On why he joined the shooting club at Harvard

This past semester, after one of the many unfortunate shootings that have happened, I decided the only thing that I haven't done at this point was learn as much as I can about guns and how to use them, operate them, clean them and fire them safely and responsibly. And I joined the shooting club at my college, and I talked with a lot of young people there who were actually pretty supportive of the work that I was doing, along with some people who obviously were not. Nobody's going to be in agreement about everything. But through that process, I realize that there's a lot more agreement than disagreement out there, even with people who think that they're completely against us.

On how being a visible activist impacted his college experience

I couldn't go to parties because when I started out as a freshman there, people would film me and stuff and it would be really weird. I would pretty much just leave most of the time. But over time, especially after COVID, things got a lot better. I really focused on being a college student for the most part. And, of course, I did some stuff with March for Our Lives. But not being in the spotlight as much enabled me to live more of a normal life as a college student. I think one of the benefits of going to Harvard was that there are a lot more people who are way, way better known than I am that go there. ... I'm able to blend in more, I guess, because of that. So that's one thing that helped. But it was not an easy adjustment my freshman year, that's for sure. But COVID really helped because it made me stop and really process a lot of my PTSD and everything because I wasn't traveling constantly. So I really had to confront a lot of the stuff that I guess you could say I was running from, the PTSD trauma, just by focusing on trying to do activism constantly. And then COVID stopped that.

On areas where he finds agreement with gun advocates

I think one of the things that makes me the most hopeful is that we can fund more violence intervention programs, that don't increase the mass incarceration rate, that focus on getting young people the resources they need to not pick up a gun in the first place — specifically working with young men, who need mentorship and resources and tutoring and everything that they need to get through school. We have agreement there. We have agreement around more mental health funding in our schools. But I do think it's important to note the shooter at my high school had tons of mental health stuff. From my understanding, ... there were school psychologists, there were therapists, there were all these different things involved. And I don't think one more therapist would have made the difference for him.

But I do think it's worth investing in mental health to address ... especially our young Black and brown people in this country have from gun violence that's happening outside of their schools on a near daily basis that is not getting addressed. The trauma that that creates and how that harms them ... and prevents them from being able to study as effectively as they could, it really hurts their long-term potential and growth, which overall not only harms them and their community, but harms our country, because we aren't enabling every American to be all that they can be, because our government is failing to do one of its core principles laid out in our preamble of ensuring the domestic tranquility.

On using the reform of the tobacco industry as a blueprint for gun reform

It's important to acknowledge that the way that they did it was they didn't just focus on how so many get cigarettes. ... It's also about addressing why people wanted to smoke in the first place. And I think that's such a critical part of this. We cannot just address how somebody gets a gun. We have to address why they pick up a gun in the first place. ... And they also did stuff around making sure that they aren't allowed to market [cigarettes] to kids anymore, like they had with Joe Camel and stuff like that. And I think that things like the JR-15, the junior version of the AR-15 is really dangerous. All guns are dangerous but obviously marketing an assault rifle to a child to be child-sized is crazy, and the fact that they're using cute little animations in their advertising is so irresponsible. I don't think that the responsible gun owners of the NRA in the 1930s, for example, that advocated for the National Firearms Act, arguably the largest piece of gun control legislation in American history, would have supported something like that, because they want to make sure that only responsible people are getting access to these things.

On why he doesn't believe school police are a solution

We've put thousands of cops in schools since Columbine. From my understanding, there's basically been one instance, maybe two, where they've even potentially, arguably stopped anything. If our only solution to stopping gun violence at our schools [happens] once a shooter is in the parking lot, then ... people are already going to die — almost certainly. The vast majority of kids who die from gun violence die outside of school. Just in the past yearin Philly, over 100 public school kids have been killed or injured, and that's predominantly outside of school, predominantly kids of color who don't get the same attention that kids in Parkland get, because our school is largely white. And not to mention the fact that these school resource officers, to many white parents, might seem like they're making their kids safer, but I know many Black and brown students that I work with will not feel safer having a cop there, because there the cop could be the threat.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Susan Nyakundi and Acacia Squires adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: June 7, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of the web story and the initial version of the audio broadcast stated that 17 of David Hogg's classmates died in the Parkland school shooting. In fact, 14 of those who died were students and three were teachers.
Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, the midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the award-winning podcast Truth Be Told and a regular contributing interviewer for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.