Gail Schwartz never thought that gun violence would touch her life. She had read about shootings in the news, of course. Everyone has. But as a mother of two living in the quiet town of Parkland, Florida, she told me that a school shooting was “literally the furthest thing” from her mind.
When her mother-in-law called on February 14 of last year, saying there had been a shooting at Schwartz’s nephew’s high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, she kept going about her day. Schwartz couldn’t process that someone she loved would be affected. It simply did not compute.
But she later got the agonizing news: Her nephew, Alex Schachter, had been killed in the shooting. He was 14, the same age as Schwartz’s oldest son. They had been close, loving each other like brothers. Alex’s death shattered the family. Schwartz cried nonstop for two weeks. “If anyone thinks that this can’t happen to them, or to their child, they’re delusional,” she told me. Alex was one of the 17 students and staff members who were killed by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, using an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle that he legally purchased.
During one of those painful weeks she opened the local paper, the Sun Sentinel, to an editorial, “How Parkland Students Could Get Assault Weapons Banned.” The Florida legislature had just voted down an assault-weapons ban, and the editorial outlined how Floridians could circumvent politicians and ban assault weapons using a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution. Schwartz owns an insurance agency—she is not a professional community organizer. But she thought the article was speaking to her. “I wanted to bring about some positive change, so that the victims did not die in vain,” she said. So she got started.