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Student who turned to activism after a mass shooting feels more urgency but less hope


Among those adding their voices to the debate over gun control and school safety are young people who have been personally affected by mass shootings, including the one in Newtown, Conn. That's where a gunman killed 20 children and six educators in 2012. NPR's Tovia Smith spoke with a former Newtown student turned activist who sees the work as more urgent now, but at the same time, more difficult to do.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Of all the mass shootings since Newtown - Buffalo, Boulder, Pittsburgh, Parkland and more - none has rattled Sarah Clements more than Uvalde.

SARAH CLEMENTS: I found myself, when I first learned about the shooting, essentially blacking out.

SMITH: Clements was 16 years old when she spent hours under a table in lockdown at her high school down the road from the Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was terrified for herself and for her mother, a second-grade teacher at the Sandy Hook school. Clements says memories of those days that she had long since blocked out came rushing back after Uvalde.

CLEMENTS: To see faces of the children, these, like, primal screams from parents who realize that their kid hasn't come out of the building, that are so starkly similar to what we experienced that my brain has maybe been trying to protect me from. Seeing those, like, forced in front of me again, it's really, like, a shock to your system.

SMITH: That shock, Clements says, quickly turned to anger.

CLEMENTS: It's the anger that so many of us tried so hard so that another community wouldn't have to experience what we did.

SMITH: Clements, now 26, is one of many students who turned to political activism after a school shooting turned their lives upside down. They've organized walkouts, teach-ins and marches, lobbied lawmakers and have even run for office. Clements started a student advocacy organization and has spent the past decade running youth summits, trainings and strategy workshops, as well as protesting and speaking out. She was propelled to get involved, she says, days after the shooting, when she heard comments made by the head of the NRA.

CLEMENTS: I do vividly remember seeing over and over again this clip of Wayne LaPierre saying this idea that, like, anything but guns is the problem.


WAYNE LAPIERRE: Since when did the gun automatically become a bad word?

CLEMENTS: And I remember he kept repeating...


LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun...

LAPIERRE: ...Is a good guy with a gun. That just ignited something in me. It was such an offensive remark.

SMITH: Clements says she feels the same fury now, hearing calls to arm teachers even as stories emerge of bad decisions in Uvalde made by law enforcement.

CLEMENTS: You know, if even trained military and police officers at the very top of their profession could not do that, asking educators to have a firearm and do that is nonsense.

SMITH: Since the Uvalde shooting, a new wave of student activism has bubbled up. But Clements knows momentum tends to wane just as quickly, creating a second level of heartbreak for activists like her. In her nearly 10 years of work, she's seen some wins at the state level, like tougher background checks, waiting periods and red flag laws, but nothing from Congress. After Sandy Hook, she says she was crushed that the murder of 20 kids and six teachers was not enough to compel lawmakers to act. Now, she says she's starting to believe there may never be enough.

CLEMENTS: I think there is not some number of shootings or some number of bodies for the people in power that refuse to take action. And I don't know why.

SMITH: She tries so hard not to be jaded, she says. But having seen so many promises of action peter out and feeling like even democracy itself is under fire right now, Clements says she struggles to find cause for optimism.

CLEMENTS: I used to be able to answer this question. Like, 10 years ago, I would talk about how there's this growing movement. There's young people who are standing up who are walking out of their schools in protest. Even five years ago, I probably would have had a litany of things that made me hopeful, and right now, I'm just not.

SMITH: Still, Clements says she will keep on doing the work. It does take a toll on your soul, as she puts it. And it's infuriating to feel the onus is on students themselves to drive change. But eventually, she insists, change will come from her generation, those who grew up hiding under desks, in active shooter drills, and the ever-growing number of those who hid from actual shooters as well. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.