Washington, DC – When a gunman killed four students at a high school in Michigan last week, the tragedy not only invoked painful memories for Patricia and Manuel “Manny” Oliver, it pushed the couple to renew their call for action.
The Olivers, who lost their son Joaquin in a deadly 2018 attack at a high school in Parkland, Florida, are staging an open-ended protest in Washington, DC, to demand a meeting with President Joe Biden – and to urge him to “declare war on gun violence” in the United States.
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“We need to increase the urgency and expose the message that we urgently need to do something different and not think these shootings are normal things,” Manuel told Al Jazeera, sitting on a white cement block across from the White House.
The couple’s son was one of 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland when a 19-year-old former student – armed with a legally purchased AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle – opened fire on students and staff for six minutes.
Patricia described her son, 17 when he died, as “very special”, sweet and intellectually curious. “I was numb. I was in shock. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t see,” Patricia told Al Jazeera about how she felt after her son’s death.
That grief, she added, never diminished; she only learned to power through it and said activism was part of that process. “I am here because Joaquin is letting me stay here.”
The Parkland attack was one of the deadliest school shootings in American history – but far from the last.
There were 31 school shootings in the year following the Parkland incident, according to a CNN report, while a database by the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security has documented hundreds of gun-related incidents on school grounds since 2018.
In one of the most recent incidents, four students were killed, and seven other people were injured on November 30 when suspected shooter Ethan Crumbley, 15, opened fire at Oxford High School, north of Detroit. Crumbley is facing several charges, including murder and terrorism.
The Michigan shooting was a “trigger” for the Olivers to step up their activism, Patricia said.
“We understand perfectly those parents and what they’re going through now,” she said. “We were in that position almost four years ago. So, today when this happens again, we have the strength to take action right away.”
Dressed in a zipped-up black jacket with a necklace featuring a photo of Joaquin, Patricia said she and her husband are getting a lot of support for their protest. Friday was the couple’s ninth day near the White House, and several passersby stopped to greet them and laud their efforts.
Day #9! Let's prioritize the fight against Gun violence. For us, this issue has always been a priority, and we plan to fight against any barrier in our way. @POTUS let's get offended for every single victim. #MeetWithManny pic.twitter.com/WtRFMPpnIY
— Manuel Oliver (@manueloliver00) December 10, 2021
They are using the hashtag #MeetWithManny to spread awareness. Manuel, who campaigned for Biden and met with him last year, said turning to the president after the shooting in Michigan was a logical course of action.
“What’s the highest authority in this place that we can talk to? That guy,” Manuel said, pointing at the White House.
Biden urges legislation
Amid a spate of deadly shootings earlier this year, Biden denounced gun violence as a “national embarrassment” for the country and pledged to do more to tackle the problem. He has called on Congress to pass gun control legislation, and pledged additional funds for community-based violence prevention programmes.
“Talk to most responsible gun owners and hunters, they’ll tell you there’s no possible justification for having a hundred rounds in a magazine,” Biden said in June. “There [are] too many people today buying guns that shouldn’t be able to buy a gun.”
But with a political deadlock in Congress, where a mechanism known as the filibuster grants the Republican minority in the Senate veto power over major legislation, the push to enact stricter gun laws faces an uphill battle.
On Friday, Manuel Oliver said Biden nevertheless should declare a national emergency and use his influential platform as president to prioritise the issue.
“If the president decides to declare war on gun violence and addresses that message at the State of the Union, that will mean a lot,” he said, referring to the annual presidential address. “I’m just talking about the attitude from the leader of this country.”
Manuel showed Al Jazeera a statement that a White House official sent them via email this week in response to the protest.
The official highlighted three House-approved bills to tighten gun-control rules that are stuck in the Senate, including one that would require universal background checks for gun buyers, as well as Biden’s social spending legislation, which includes funding for gun violence prevention.
“Americans young and old are dying from gun violence every day,” the statement said. “Every one of those individuals has a family and every one of those individuals leaves a hole in their community. That’s why the president will continue to pursue steps he can using existing authority to reduce all forms of gun violence.”
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution grants the right to “keep and bear arms” and gun rights advocates argue that weapons in the right hands can save lives.
Powerful gun lobby groups, as well as some US legislators from both major parties, are also opposed to putting stricter rules in place, arguing that such measures would violate the Second Amendment.
But the push for stricter gun laws has gained momentum in recent years, in large part due to the activism of Parkland shooting survivors. Months after the shooting, thousands gathered across the country as part of the student-led March for Our Lives movement.
While the student activists succeeded in bringing gun violence to the forefront of the national debate, prompting the passage of dozens of gun control laws at the state level, gun violence has worsened since 2018.
“It’s going to take a while. Just like the tobacco industries today have very little power … the same thing will happen with the gun culture and the gun industry – I think it is going to vanish with time,” Manuel said.