Parkland kids took on guns, NRA when ‘politicians were scared to death,’ new book says

For journalist Dave Cullen, the defining moment in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting came when junior Cameron Kasky returned home from school on that grueling, terrifying day.

On Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman had killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Kids and teachers fled or hid in classrooms. They tweeted and texted, trying to find out who was safe. They held hands and wept. Most eventually reunited with their families. Some did not.

And when Cameron finally got home and couldn’t sleep, he unwittingly started a movement.

“He was thinking aloud on social media,” Cullen says. “He asked, ‘Who will help me?’ He set up profiles to widen the net and said, ‘Contact me.’ And when he woke up the next day, he had inboxes full of people who wanted to help. He had kids showing up at his house. He was a Pied Piper who brought them all together.”

As for “them,” well, you know the names. David Hogg. Emma Gonzalez. Jackie Corin. Alex Wind. So many others, too, who are now the focus of Cullen’s new book “Parkland: Birth of a Movement” (Harper, $27.99).

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Dave Cullen, author of “Parkland,” appears Feb. 27 at Books & Books.

Cullen, who appears Feb. 27 at Books & Books in Coral Gables, covered the Columbine shooting in 1999 (and suffered PTSD for years as a result). Ten years later he published “Columbine,” considered the definitive account of the tragedy that ushered in the era of school shootings. Cullen has become, as he writes, “the mass-murder guy” whom reporters and TV producers call for an interview after every shooting. And there have been far too many in the past 20 years.

But “Parkland,” written and published at a breakneck pace, is a different book than “Columbine.” It’s about how the Stoneman Douglas students quickly organized themselves into a powerful political force at a time when America had thrown up its hands over the gun safety debate. The kids swiftly galvanized support, created the March for Our Lives group and organized a march on Washington, D.C., as well as sibling marches. They went on to organize voter registration drives across the country, work with other gun safety proponents like Peace Warriors — and play a role in the 2018 midterm elections.

“We were looking for a leader,” Cullen says. “We weren’t expecting the leaders to be our kids.”

Cullen sounds giddy when he talks about the Parkland students and their accomplishments, echoing a sentiment that reverberated throughout the country: It’s about time.

But why now? Why was America ready when it wasn’t after Pulse, Sandy Hook or any other mass murder? Cullen believes there were a couple of factors. First, the organizers played to their strengths — Jackie Corin was the logistics wizard, David Hogg the media firebrand, and so on. And they always kept the same focus — on guns — and spoke with one voice.

They’re “the opposite of Occupy Wall Street — no contradicting messages,” Cullen says. “And this movement is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. They’ve got all this different, diverse talent.”

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Parkland: Birth of a Movement. Dave Cullen. HarperCollins. 381 pages. $27.99.

The game changer, though, Cullen believes, is that usually demonized entity, social media. It’s not that students at Columbine didn’t want to be agents of change; they just didn’t have the template or the tools. Meanwhile, the Parkland kids had grown up practicing active shooter drills, and, thanks to SnapChat, Twitter and Instagram, were “already amateur media creators.”

The kids swiftly amassed like-minded followers — Emma Gonzalez, for example, has 1.6 million Twitter followers — which helped them get out their message effectively. It also helped them articulate their rage as one coherent voice almost immediately, Cullen says, fueling the desire to organize.

“I remember being stunned when I saw David Hogg for the first time,” says Cullen, who spent hours with the students in person and on the phone. “My first thought was: This is not a Day 1 survivor. Something was different already. Instead of hugging, they were venting and discovering that everyone else was venting, too. . . . In person you want an emotional connection. You want hugging. But they were interacting on social media, and so many were venting anger. They realized everybody was having the same thoughts.“

Cullen believes the biggest impact of March for Our Lives has been its equalizing effect on politicians of both parties regarding the divisive topic of gun safety.

“Politicians were scared to death of it,” he says. “The NRA could say: ‘We’ll kill your political career if you oppose us.’ That ended on Election Day. Many candidates for gun safety did better than those opposing it. Coming to a draw was a win. The kids helped level the playing field.”

Some of the March for Our Lives founders have headed off to college, and others will be joining them soon. The leadership may shift, but the group has set its sights on engaging young voters on campuses across the country.

Cullen doesn’t doubt the potential for more success — and for more young leaders to emerge.

“I was charged up every time I got off the phone with any of them,” he says. “They were exhilarating. They’re healing America. But any time I talk to high school kids, they surprise me with insights and how bright they are. . . . We’ve been boxed in. They’re not even in the box yet.”

Dave Cullen appearances

  • Feb. 27: 8 p.m., Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
  • March 1: 6-8 p.m., appearing as one of five authors on “Panel in the Pines” with moderator Mim Harrison at LitLIVE!, Barnes & Noble at Pembroke Crossings, 11820 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines