Seventeen-year-old Aalayah Eastmond hid beneath the lifeless body of a classmate as a gunman opened fire at her Parkland, Florida, high school in February.
“No student should have to literally dodge bullets to survive,” Eastmond recalled Monday, “but I was that student. No student should have to have body matter of her classmate picked out of her hair, but I was that student.”
Eastmond, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was among more than two dozen gun violence survivors and activists at a rally Monday at the Capitol to call for changes in U.S. gun laws. Speakers called on Congress to take immediate action to curb gun violence, including expansion of background checks and banning assault-style weapons.
The Parkland shooting left 17 dead and sparked a youth-led movement focused on changing gun laws across the country, including mass rallies in Washington and other cities on March 24.
Eastmond, who spoke at the Washington event, said the Parkland shooting was not her first encounter with gun violence. Her uncle was killed 15 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“So for it to happen to me, in my face, that just shows that change has to happen now,” she said.
Karina Sartiaguin, 23, of Aurora, Colorado, was paralyzed from the waist down after a drive-by shooting outside her high school in 2010.
Unlike other activists at Monday’s rally, “I won’t be walking” through the halls of Congress to lobby lawmakers to change gun laws, Sartiaguin said. “Instead I will be rolling in my wheelchair.”
Sartiaguin said her story shows “I don’t have to be a victim of a mass shooting to know (gun violence) is a problem.”
A report issued Monday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, said gun violence has surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a leading killer of young people in the United States, second only to drug overdoses.
A total of 11,947 ages 15 to 29 died as a result of gun violence in 2016, compared with 10,881 killed in vehicle-related incidents, the report said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called the report “absolutely chilling” and said gun violence is a “public health epidemic” that must be addressed.
Murphy, a leading proponent of stricter gun laws, praised the young activists as leaders of a social-justice movement. He said Congress should “do what 90 percent of Americans want them to do: Make sure dangerous people don’t have weapons and that people don’t have dangerous weapons.”