Nobody has a bigger stake in gun violence prevention (GVP) than young people.

“That’s why I clicked on the ‘Get Involved’ button,” says Tristan Cotter of Students Demand Action.

Cotter had received a phone call in August 2019 with the dreadful news that somebody he knew had been killed in the El Paso Walmart shooting. To channel his outrage into action, he searched online to see how he could work to spare other people from similar tragedy.

“I stumbled onto Moms Demand Action, then Students Demand Action,” he says. “I got inspired to join and help them right away.”

Voter registration and safe schools

Cotter joined the Students Demand Action group in San Diego, where he has spent his entire life. The local group is one of 400-plus groups across the country.

One of the organization’s top priorities is voter registration. “We’ve been active on every Election Day since 2016,” says Cotter, “doing registration and pre-registration, and trying to increase voter turnout among young people. In one campaign we offered incentives to people who texted three of their friends with messages urging them to vote. We’ve conducted exit polls and raised awareness among young people about both Students Demand Action and Moms Demand Action. Most students don’t know that we can have an impact on GVP, but we can.”

Another pair of priorities is school safety and secure firearm storage. Evidence-based methods exist to promote responsible gun ownership and secure firearm storage at home, with the result that schools are safer.

“We focus on safe schools because we’re the ones at risk from gun violence,” says Cotter. “Students Demand Action uses the Be SMART approach and reviews school policies with the goal of preventing tragedy on campus. At my high school we held a governing board meeting about a new, five-step plan. It includes firearm surveys at the start of each school year to ensure everyone is using and storing firearms safely and securely. The plan also establishes GVP and suicide prevention programs on campus.”

In San Diego, Students Demand Action counts a core group of two dozen students at Cotter’s high school and more than 300 followers around the county.

Working with the grown-ups

Considering that grown-ups are largely responsible for not yet having solved the problem of gun violence in America, young people could be forgiven for not wanting to work with them. Mercifully, that’s not the case here.

“I’ve worked a lot with Moms Demand Action of California,” says Cotter. “Three of us from Students Demand Action groups across the state worked on Moms’ Advocacy Day this year. We planned it as the student steering committee and worked to pull more students into the virtual meetings that Moms held with lawmakers. Whenever Moms has an initiative that could benefit from the active involvement of students, I forward it to our followers to help maintain the bonds between Students and Moms.”

Mostly, the students’ ideas are similar to those of Moms. “Moms is understanding of how we do our work,” Cotter says. “We use social media a lot more than Moms. But they show us how to do things we don’t typically do, like using postcards to try to boost voter turnout in our areas. We had students in virtual field offices hand-designing and sending postcards urging people to get out and vote, with register-by and vote-by dates and ballot information. Nationwide, Students Demand Action registered more than 100,000 young people in the lead-up to the 2020 election and those postcards were part of that effort.”

Finishing the job

Consider the intensity that young people are capable of plowing into lacrosse or video games or SAT prep. When they plow it into the kind of activism it will take to end gun violence, eyebrows rise.

“Students Demand Action is an active organization,” says Cotter, “and it’s useful to Moms and other GVP groups. I’d say to any student that, even if you’re on the fence, come and try Students Demand Action. You never know if you’re going to fall in love with it and be determined to finish the job that we’re all trying to finish.”

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