Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr's 2018 message: 'I'm voting for my life'

Delaney Tarr, like many school shooting survivors, is confronting a new reality.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Delaney Tarr's life was upended on February 14 when a former student entered the school armed with a semi-automatic AR-15.

The mass shooting took the lives of 17 students and teachers and injured 14.

This awakening — while spawned by tragedy — has become a national movement steered by these student survivors who are demanding #NeverAgain and directing the nation’s leaders to put the safety of children above the powerful gun lobby.

"We just want people to be safe, we want people to be able to go places and live their lives without fear of getting shot up," Tarr said.

A new identity in a new reality

Before Valentine’s Day, Tarr was a high school senior, president of the Stoneman Douglas TV production club, and a member of the school newspaper and politics club. She’s a self-described “lover of English” and aspired to study journalism at the University of Georgia.

"One minute, [DJ] is talking about her senior plans, and prom and whatever,” her mother, Jen Tarr, said. “All of that is out the window now. Everything now is about being an advocate."

The younger Tarr, like many shooting survivors, is confronting a new reality — one that is filled with consoling classmates in the same hallways that took their innocence.

"This has completely upended my priorities and my perception of everything," she admits.

Her uncertainty, however, is a signal of just how much her life has changed in the wake of the shooting. At 17, Tarr quickly has found herself emerging in a new role as a gun control activist — challenging the status quo against political leaders and the NRA.

"We’ve been using our voices as high schoolers, as people who aren’t afraid to back down, who have nothing to lose, and who are eloquent enough to make sense in what they’re saying," Tarr said.

In the immediate days following the shooting, Tarr traveled to the Florida statehouse in Tallahassee to meet with legislators and discuss stronger gun safety proposals. But coming out of those meetings, she called them "disappointing" at the subsequent rally.

Clad in oversized glasses, Tarr took the podium — flanked by fellow students — to deliver a powerful statement: "We are not here to be patted on the back."

"We know what we want, we want gun reform. We want common sense gun laws," she said.

Tarr defiantly bucked those lawmakers who did not discuss policy, calling out those who "failed us" and proclaiming, "Soon we will be given the ability to vote and we will vote them out."

"This is to every lawmaker out there," she said. "We are coming after you."

In that moment, Tarr metamorphosed into a gun control advocate unafraid to demand action from Florida’s state legislature and Congress.

'Moving in the right direction' on gun reform

Tarr remains adamant that this time is different, that she and her fellow survivors will undo the normalization of gun violence — setting themselves apart from other gun safety advocates who have survived tragedy by using the power of social media.

"I think this time we have a voice that is pretty unprecedented," Tarr said. "We’ve used Twitter in a way that no other shooting survivor has been able to use ... [we know] how to get people to notice us and listen to us."

"We’re working as hard as we can and we know that the wheels of bureaucracy are slow turning," Tarr said. "This isn’t necessarily something that can wait."

This pack of high schoolers is pushing for changes to the Dickey Amendment, implementing "no fly, no buy," bringing paper records into the 21st century, closing privatized gun show loopholes and straw purchases, and prioritizing universal background checks, Tarr said.

"These are the simple things," she said. "The easy things that can get done now."

Heightening the urgency for action, Tarr declares, "People are dying. People died [Wednesday], people died the 14th and they are going to keep dying unless something actually happens."

And some progress has come since Parkland. Three weeks after the shooting, Florida enacted sweeping gun safety legislation that raises the minimum age to buy firearms to 21 from 18 and also includes a measure to arm some teachers with state training. This is the first gun reform legislation in decades in the same gun-friendly state that passed the controversial "stand your ground" law.

Raising the minimum age requirement is one of the policy proposals that has received a lot of attention in the post-Parkland gun debate, according to Dr. Shannon Frattaroli at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

On March 14, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the first piece of gun legislation since Parkland — the STOP School Violence Act — to provide grants for school training and make schools safer. The omnibus spending bill that passed both chambers of Congress and was signed by President Trump contains several gun safety measures including offering states funding in exchange for compliance with the federal NICS background check system, implementing the STOP School Violence Act, and stipulating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can study gun violence, rebuking the 1996 Dickey Amendment.

Tarr is aware that under the current Trump administration and makeup of Congress, there are still limits to progress, but she remains hopeful.

"We’re doing a lot and even if it is not necessarily the assault weapons ban yet,” she said. “We’re getting there. We’re moving in that direction and that’s undeniably true."

The pinnacle of their momentum will be at Saturday’s March For Our Lives — expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital — but Tarr aims to carry that momentum into the 2018 midterms as she herself is on the cusp of voting for the first time.

Turning 18 in '18

She turns 18 in July and is filled with excitement over the prospect of casting her first ballot. Tarr said that the stakes in 2018 are "at the point where I am voting for my life."

As the most political member of her family, according to her mother, Tarr’s enthusiasm to vote has only amplified and her engagement on the gun issue has become more and more central to her decision-making process as she heads to the ballot box.

"Before it was voting for the country, and voting for myself and voting for the people around me," she explains. "According to our government, we do have the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness but that’s what I’m voting for. I’m voting for my own life and I’m voting for the lives of so many others."

"We know that with a shift in the people that are elected comes a shift in policy," Tarr said.

To the detractors who might say that a nearly 18-year old might not be old enough to speak on this issue, or even have an opinion, she said: "We’re expected to know what college we want to go to, what we want to major in, what we want to do for a living at this age so why can’t we be leaders? Why do we have to wait for permission to take charge?"

"I’m not here to be told from a politician that it’s okay to give my opinion because I know that it’s ok for me to give my opinion and I’m going to keep giving it," she added.

Her mother feels the same.

"They can go out there and buy a gun at 18, but they can’t have an opinion," Jenn Tarr asked rhetorically.

While it is still too early to tell how the Parkland shooting could impact elections come November, Kristin Goss, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University, said that an important question this cycle will be “whether the people that have pro-control feelings feel more strongly and prioritize it more highly in their political behavior including voting.”

As she looks forward to joining the newest class of voters, Tarr wants simply the opportunity to educate voters on gun control so they know exactly what they are voting for, rather than who.

"Ultimately, I’m not here to tell people which way to vote," she said. "I’m here to educate people so they can vote and know what they’re voting for."

And she wants people to understand the power of one person's voice and vote.

"I want every single person to know that they can make a difference and that they don’t have to wait for permission to make a difference," she said. "They don’t have to be grown up, they can do it now."