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Meet the small-town student activists emerging in Texas after the mass shooting in Santa Fe

Just as the Parkland shooting turned Florida students into activists, the Santa Fe High School shooting mobilized a group of students to push for change in their conservative community.

Former Santa Fe High School student Bree Butler speaks to a crowd of gun control protestors at the U.S. Capitol on June 12, 2018.

Amid a sea of people wearing business suits and dresses in a Senate office building in Washington, D.C., Bree Butler found herself sitting on the floor in protest at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's office last week, donning a black hoodie and shorts with a bright orange bandana wrapped around her head. 

Butler, who grew up in a conservative, close-knit community in southeast Texas, recently became a school shooting survivor, high school graduate and activist — all within a month. 

"We went into the capitol building, we went into Ted Cruz's office and we sat there until they threatened to arrest us," Butler said.

The 18-year-old was a student at Santa Fe High School when a gunman opened fire last month and killed 10 people. Days after she ran for her life from her school, Butler gathered with classmates and other Houston-area student activists for a weekend in Galveston where they formed the Orange Generation — a non-profit organization that aims to reduce gun violence and advocate for what members consider to be commonsense gun legislation. 

“This is literally life or death for us and I don’t think [adults] understand that," Butler said. "If we don't do this, more people are going to die — and we're not OK with that."

American teenagers, some of them survivors of recent mass school shootings, have increasingly mobilized  to combat the continuing deaths this year. After a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead in February, students Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky were thrust into the national spotlight over their gun control comments just hours after the shooting. Now after tragedy hit home in Texas, students from Santa Fe High School are turning into gun control activists themselves. 

Following in the steps of their Parkland predecessors, Santa Fe's student activists have carefully branded their movement on social media. The color orange, which represents gun safety, fills the Twitter pages of the Orange Generation's student organizers. So does the movement's hashtag, #expectchange — similar to the #NeverAgain hashtag Parkland students used after their school shooting. 

“The Parkland kids allowed me to know that I was able to do this,” Butler said. “Their voices elevated mine.”

Just hours after the Texas shooting, Butler received messages of support from Gonzalez and Hogg. They were connected not only by tragedy, but also by dealing with a wave of online criticism from adults who don't think that young people like them can lead a movement.  

“It’s not really your age that matters, it’s all about the time and effort you put into educating yourself,” said Megan McGuire, a senior at Santa Fe High School. “People that patronize us for just being teenagers...they're just not worth talking to — they're not going to listen to us anyways."

Cruz spokesperson Maria Jeffrey said her office told Capitol Police last week to let the protestors stay in the senator's office unless students “engaged in any violent or threatening behavior." Jeffrey added that she could not speak for what Capitol Police may or may not have said to students in the hallway.

“Sen. Cruz agrees that we need to find solutions to prevent further mass shootings and he believes it can be done without stripping law-abiding citizens of their constitutional liberties," Jeffrey said. “In particular, Sen. Cruz believes it is critical that current laws on the books are enforced — something the previous administration failed to do."

Meanwhile, Santa Fe student activists' biggest challenge could be the town they call home. Bringing a gun control message to their tight-knit, conservative community of around 13,000 people hasn't always been received positively by others, according to Butler.   

“It’s been a very, very mixed reaction, actually," said Butler, who has been raised around guns her entire life. "In Santa Fe, most of the town is against us — but there is a minority that is ready to go." 

Butler's classmate, Wesley Hill, said hours after the shooting that the small town of Santa Fe might not be open to the gun control message some activists wanted to push.

“The first person that reached out to me when they saw I was on the news was March For Our Lives Houston,” Hill said. “I straight-up told them right then and there that they’re reaching out to the wrong people. I said this is Santa Fe. This is not a city. This is a small town, country town. I said you’re not gonna take our guns away."

Sophomore Esta O'Mara, whose best friend Kyle McLeod was killed in the shooting, has had guns in her life for as long as she can remember. She said her dad taught her responsible gun use. But with her new dive into gun control activism, she's experienced resistance both in and outside the classroom — and some people just won't listen to her. 

"I'm not trying to take your guns away," O'Mara said. "People in Santa Fe tend to live just in Santa Fe and they don't think about the fact that like there's a whole world past Highway 6 and past everything that's in Santa Fe — they don't understand that." 

State officials, victims' families respond

In the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting, Texas conservatives have taken steps to address school safety. Gov. Greg Abbott introduced a plan which called for more school protections and mental health screenings. In addition, Abbott asked lawmakers to consider "red flag" laws, which allow judges to temporarily seize a person's firearms if they're considered an imminent threat. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick created the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools & School Security to study ways to limit violence in Texas public schools before they reopen in August.

Lawmakers on the select committee met last week over two days to discuss mental health training, school architecture and arming faculty and school staff. Legislators expressed support for giving faculty and staff guns — even rifles. 

"If a bad guy's got a rifle, not exactly a fair fight," state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said during the committee hearing.

McGuire's father, attorney Clint McGuire, is representing the families of four Santa Fe students who died in the shooting in the first civil lawsuit filed after the attack.  The lawsuit aims to hold gun owners responsible for how they store their firearms around their troubled children. The Santa Fe families seek more than $1 million in damages for emotional anguish and funeral bills.  

“Had the Murderer not had available to him the weapons for his carnage, his hidden black rage might well have continued to simmer within,” the lawsuit says. “The Murderer pulled the pistol’s and sawed-off shotgun’s triggers, but also upon them, pressed just as firmly, were the fingers of his parents.”

Continuing the momentum  

While the civil lawsuit carries on at home, students from the Orange Generation have met with Democratic lawmakers, from U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Students also met with Texas' 7th Congressional District Democratic nominee Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who called the Orange Generation "inspiring."

"What they are doing to build a coalition across this country is not only smart, it is effective and will bring real change to this country," Fletcher said. "Our campaign team is proud of the students in our community who have stepped up to take on this issue, and to do so in a way that has real meaning, not political rhetoric." 

The response from some federal Republican lawmakers has been limited, according to Butler. When she and other student activists visited U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Cruz's Washington, D.C., offices, Butler called the experience "frustrating" and didn't feel heard by the staffers they met with. 

“I was confident in what we were doing — I know all of us well enough to know that we're determined,” Butler said. "We're not going to give up."

Aside from reducing gun violence and advocating for gun control, the Orange Generation has another message: "Don't forget us." It's been a month since the shooting, and although the headlines about Santa Fe have slowly faded, the school's student activists will continue to push their message. 

"I am doing it because I'm grieving but I'm also doing it because I want it to change," O'Mara said. "I've never wanted anything in my life so bad than for it to just change."  

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