By A. Campbell
A rapt audience recently gathered at the Susan Eley Fine Art (SEFA) gallery to listen as victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting spoke about their harrowing experiences, political advocacy, and hopes for the future. Survivors and parents of the victims spoke at length about how their lives have been forever changed since February 14, 2018, as they now devote countless hours to the fight for stricter gun controls throughout the United States. Fourteen students and three faculty members were killed during the shooting, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation’s history.
The panel discussion was held in conjunction with “Voices of Parkland”, an exhibition of black and white portraits taken by photographer Jeff Vespa and on display at SEFA gallery through Thursday, June 20th. Vespa visited Parkland in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and spent the next several months taking more than 50 portraits of students, teachers, and parents of the victims.
“I went down to Parkland about ten days after the shooting and started working on videos, portraits, and the testimonials of people telling their stories of what happened that day,” Vespa said. “Some of these kids had suffered a lot of trauma because they saw their friends dying in front of them, and I think doing the testimonials was very therapeutic and cathartic.”
Brian Lemek, Vice President of Development for Brady United Against Gun Violence (Brady), served as a moderator for the panel discussion. Lemek emphasized that Brady’s mission is not partisan but instead is devoted to electing legislators who will advocate for common-sense gun control laws throughout the country. Lemek noted that in the 100 days that had passed since House Resolution 8 (HR8) was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, it had subsequently been sitting idle in the Senate.
“In that timeframe, 10,000 people have been shot and killed, 21,000 people have been injured by gunfire, and 400 kids between the ages of 1 and 17 years old have been killed,” he said. “[Brady is] not trying to get Democrats elected, we’re not trying to get Republicans elected. We’re trying to get violence prevention advocates and a gun violence prevention majority elected to both the House and the Senate.”
Many voters still remember the organization’s namesake, Jim “the Bear” Brady, who served as White House Press Secretary under President Ronald Reagan. During an assassination attempt on the president on March 30, 1981, two law enforcement officers were shot and Jim Brady suffered a traumatic head injury that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Afterward, Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, embarked on a campaign to prevent gun violence. Their efforts culminated in the passage of the Brady Bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in November 1993. The law requires background checks on all handgun purchases from federally licensed firearm dealers.
However, Lemek noted that the Brady Bill was written during an era very different from today.
“The reality is that the bill that’s in our namesake – signed into law 25 years ago – is not able to save lives the way it was intended to because you can purchase guns online without a background check and you can purchase guns at a gun show without a background check,” Lemek said.
With help and encouragement from Vespa and Lemek, student survivors like Kai Koerber have become vocal proponents of gun control and mental health reform. Koerber graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the end of May and he plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley in the fall. Koerber credited Vespa and Lemek for helping him start Societal Reform Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness around mental health issues.
“The fact of the matter is, the people committing these mass acts of terrorism are not well,” Koerber said. “If we can provide communities across the country with the resources to mitigate negative emotions and to create positive outcomes, we can help reestablish their connection with humanity.”
The “Voices of Parkland” exhibit will be on display at SEFA gallery until Thursday, June 20th. The gallery is located at 46 W 90th Street and is open Monday – Thursday from 11:00am until 5:00pm and by appointment.