Sense of Purpose

Four Montgomery County teens who are pushing for stricter gun control



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Photo by Liz Lynch. 

 

“Do any of you know where we’re supposed to be going?”

The four Montgomery County high school students in the vehicle looked at each other wonderingly, then at the driver who posed the question. The chauffeured Cadillac SUV had been hired by March for Our Lives planners to deliver them to the staging area a few blocks from the Capitol. It was perhaps the first of many dreamlike moments of the day—March 24—and easily forgotten when they emerged on a stage later and were awestruck by the sea of humanity flowing out of sight along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Senior Brenna Levitan of Montgomery Blair and sophomores Michael Solomon of Springbrook and Nate Tinbite of John F. Kennedy, all high schools in Silver Spring, had come together with other students weeks before to found MoCo Students for Gun Control in response to the Valentine’s Day shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The fourth teen, senior Matt Post of Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, who had advocated for gun control as student member of the county school board, joined the student-led effort later. 

News of the shooting galvanized Levitan, Solomon, Tinbite and other county students who began organizing through social media and planning protests against gun violence. Six days after the shooting, several hundred students walked out of Blair during the school day and headed to a rally in support of gun control at the Capitol, joined by students from other county high schools, including Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson in Bethesda, and Richard Montgomery in Rockville. On Feb. 26, Parkland students traveled from Florida to talk with county students at Blair in a meeting arranged by U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park and Ted Deutch of Florida. Planning began for another rally, this one at the White House on the one-month anniversary of the shooting.

On March 14, the four students stepped into the national spotlight when they and others led another walkout during the school day by about 2,500 Montgomery County students. The county students gathered near the White House with students from other area schools and Democratic lawmakers to observe 17 minutes of silence and speak in honor of the Parkland victims. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer with Matt Post in front of the U.S. Capitol at a rally this past March. Photo by Erin Schaff.

 

Post’s speech that day, focusing on the “moral crisis” created by the lack of meaningful gun control legislation, captured the attention of network TV news outlets, some of which ran a video clip. Impressed by the video, the Parkland student organizers of March for Our Lives asked Post to be one of their speakers, and he, in turn, asked that his three fellow students be invited, as well.

So here they were on the morning of the March 24 rally—Post, three months from finishing his one-year stint on the school board; Levitan, an organizational whiz who co-founded the gun control group; Solomon, inspired by events to explore his potential; and Tinbite, precocious and voluble—heading into the holding area for speakers and participants in a back room at Charlie Palmer Steak on Constitution Avenue. That’s where the Parkland “kids,” as they were called, stood encircled by a scrum of parents, organizers and security personnel. “They all seemed so normal, making the same jokes, having the same conversations that teenagers do,” Post says. “The Parkland kids were amazed they pulled it off.”

Nate Tinbite, Michael Solomon, Post and Brenna Levitan onstage at the March for Our Lives. Courtesy photo. 

 

Post and 19 other speakers eventually were ushered into another room, where they introduced themselves and shared something personal—Post said he ran track. “It was just another moment where everything came down to earth,” Post says. In groups of three, the speakers did press interviews before heading to the stage, where they sat in the order of their speaking slots. Post was No. 11. Levitan, Solomon and Tinbite stood nearby.

The four students later described the next few hours as “surreal.” Crying unashamedly as other students told horrific tales of gun violence, they were riveted by the passionate plea of 11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Alexandria, Virginia, that the deaths of black women due to gun violence not be overlooked. Singer Jennifer Hudson, who lost three family members to gun violence, closed the three-hour rally with a rousing gospel cover of Bob Dylan’s 1964 protest anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” as the speakers and celebrities gathered onstage. A chant of “We want change” rippled through the crowd.

Tinbite and Levitan met singer Miley Cyrus (center); Post with filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Courtesy photos. 

 

The mood was defiant but hopeful, and the four teenagers left with a clear idea of the work ahead. In the following weeks, the county students continued to press the gun control issue through town hall discussions, a mid-April demonstration at the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, and planned 1960s-style “lie-ins” at House and Senate office buildings on the 14th of each month. They met with the Rev. William Barber II, head of the Poor People’s Campaign, to explore working together on the issue. Levitan was hoping to stage an occupation of the grounds in front of the Capitol this summer to press the case for legislative action.

Post and Levitan graduated in the spring; he is heading to Yale, and she will attend the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. On April 24, Tinbite was elected president of the countywide student government association. Solomon is interning in Raskin’s Capitol Hill office this summer. Though they are moving on with their lives, the events that led the teens to be on that stage on March 24 have reshaped their thinking and purpose. 
Here are their stories.

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