After a mass shooting left 19 children and two teachers dead in a Texas elementary school classroom on May 24, gun violence prevention advocates across the country began their familiar work of organizing rallies and protests to demand changes to gun laws.
A little over a month later, an alleged gunman fired more than 70 rounds into a crowd of spectators during a 4th of July parade in suburban Chicago, killing seven.
Between those two gruesome events, organizers who were previously affiliated with the now-defunct Colorado chapter of March For Our Lives, a youth-focused activism group founded in the wake of the 2018 shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school, began organizing a Denver rally to coincide with other demonstrations happening around the country on June 11.
While the scourge of gun violence came home to Boulder last year, when 10 people were shot dead at the Table Mesa King Soopers on March 22, the city wasn’t represented among those who organized last month’s demonstration less than 30 miles south. Before the state chapter disbanded in 2021, March For Our Lives Colorado typically had several members from Boulder County, but no Boulder residents were on the team that organized the June 11 rally, according to the rally’s lead organizer, Brady Roland, a senior at Arvada West High School.
As mass shootings continue as a grim fixture of American life, Boulder Reporting Lab spoke with three local young people who have moved on from gun violence prevention activism to understand their experiences and why they stepped away from advocacy work.
‘Overnight, I became the adult in the room.’
Emi Ambory, 21, was a junior at Fairview High School when the Parkland shooting happened in February 2018. As a reporter with the student newspaper, she covered her school’s resulting walkout in response to the shooting. That coordinated, student-led action would serve as the catalyst for Ambory’s involvement in activism surrounding gun violence prevention.
“I was so inspired by what my friends and members of the community were able to accomplish that day, and how badly everyone deserved change,” Ambory said.
Ambory joined a local chapter of Students Demand Action, a national youth gun control advocacy group affiliated with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, and quickly got involved organizing town halls and teaching other young people how to get involved at her school.
One month into her activism, Ambory met members of leadership from March For Our Lives Colorado at a protest in Denver. Those leaders welcomed her into the organization and took her efforts to the statewide level.
“Unlike a lot of students or young activists, my passion for this issue didn’t trickle away as other parts of life got more complicated,” she said.
With her dedication remaining firm, Ambory quickly rose through the organization, becoming the state director of March For Our Lives later that year. During her time in this role, she helped lobby the state legislature to pass Colorado’s red flag law in 2019 and organized dozens of marches and rallies across the state.
“At the time, it just kind of felt like I was doing real work, because to be that kind of busy I must have been getting something done,” Ambory said.
But that level of involvement eventually took a toll on her, forcing Ambory to grow up fast with no time for reflection.
“It felt like, overnight, I became the adult in the room,” she said. “I never once during the process slowed down to think about how it was impacting me.”
As a result, Ambory began to take time for herself and focus more on her studies. She enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder in the fall of 2019 as a journalism major but stayed in close contact with her activist colleagues.
Ambory’s views of gun violence prevention activism would change dramatically on March 21, 2021, when an alleged gunman killed 10 people at the Table Mesa King Soopers in Boulder.
Ambory was taking a walk near the grocery store when she learned about the shooting. She began calling and texting friends who might have been at the store to make sure everyone was OK. That’s how she learned that Denny Stong, a friend from high school, had been killed in the shooting. The 20-year-old Boulder resident and King Soopers employee was the youngest victim that day.
Now more than ever, Ambory said the true cost of gun violence was clear to her. But the mass shooting that took the life of her former classmate shook loose difficult feelings surrounding her previous work to prevent such tragic events.
“When it’s an old high school friend who died in your neighborhood grocery store, in your town, where no one thinks gun violence would happen, it’s a different reality to face,” Ambory said. “I immediately just got consumed by guilt and frustration and disgust for the work I had done as a kid.”
Ambory said those feelings came from a lack of understanding of the true human toll of mass shootings, which was drawn into sharp relief by the violence in her hometown. Reeling from the loss of her friend, Ambory began to question the motivations behind her earlier work as a gun-control advocate. She said much of her activism was focused on the impact gun violence could have on her own life, but the Table Mesa shooting made those efforts feel hollow.
“The shooting changed my attitude towards activism because there’s also this kind of selfishness that was tied up with it that I only recognize now with some time and perspective,” Ambory said. “Once I saw it in my grocery store of all places, it just felt like [my activism] truly was all for nothing. Besides a temporary ego boost, a resume point and experience at public speaking, what did I do?”
‘I just didn’t know what to do with myself.’
Several months after the Parkland shooting, Lauren Hill, now 20, met Samuel Craig, then-state director for the Colorado chapter of Students Demand Action, in her history class at Chatfield High School. He offered to help her get involved in the movement to prevent gun violence. Hill said she was excited by the opportunity to make a difference.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that helped people, and I felt like politics was the way to do that at the time,” Hill said.
Unlike other activism groups, Hill said she could relate to the young people leading the charge for gun-control legislation after Parkland. She was a similar age to those activists who, like Hill, had grown up with media reports of school shootings as a constant reality.
“I just felt really inspired by the kids in Florida who were getting involved at that level, and I think I saw myself in them,” she said.
Hill would go on to coordinate events for March For Our Lives Colorado and would eventually take the role of state director after Ambory stepped down in 2019. That’s when Hill was confronted by the biggest challenge of her time as an activist.
That moment came in another burst of violence, when two teenagers opened fire at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Douglas County on May 7, 2019, killing classmate Kendrick Ray Castillo days before graduation. Hill had a personal connection to the school. Her brother had graduated from STEM, which her cousins were attending at the time.
March For Our Lives Colorado was asked to help organize a candlelight vigil for Castillo, alongside several other Colorado activism organizations. Hill said things took a turn for the worst once it got started — partly because of how the event was marketed.
“[It] should not have been advertised as a vigil at all,” she said. “That’s not what it was. It was more of a rally.”
Several activists spoke at the event, advocating for various gun-control policies to help prevent future shootings, which left some audience members who later spoke with Hill feeling like they had been lied to about the purpose of the gathering. Hill watched as a large portion of attendees walked out of the venue in anger.
“STEM is a relatively conservative school and they were not happy that people were making it a political thing so quickly,” she said.
Hill said this was the first time she felt like what she was doing harmed the people she was trying to help.
“Everyone across the board generally seemed to agree that this was a good thing I was doing, and then this community of people I felt very much connected to … was very upset about the thing we were doing,” Hill said. “All of a sudden I just didn’t know what to do with myself.”
After that day, Hill said her energy for pursuing activism was depleted. She felt as though she was not creating enough change and was actually doing harm to a community she cared about. Whatever she might be able to achieve as an organizer, Hill worried that it would be dulled by the political nature of activism in a polarized cultural climate.
“[The vigil] just made me realize nothing I was doing was going to be enough and nothing I was doing was going to actually meaningfully protect the people I love,” she said.
Resulting from her experience as a youth organizer, Hill is no longer interested in being involved with politics. And she hopes the general public will put pressure on the system to change, rather than on the youth to change it.
“When you see young people as the face and the leaders of these movements, the very first thought that should come to your mind is that this should not be happening,” she said. “It should be terrifying to people that kids are the ones dealing with these existential problems that face our society.”
‘What am I doing this for?’
Rachel Hill was a sophomore at Columbine High School when the Parkland shooting happened, nearly 20 years after her own school was thrust into the national spotlight as the site of one of the country’s first high-profile, mass casualty school shootings of the modern era. Moved to act, she organized a walkout among her classmates in remembrance of the victims of both the Columbine and Parkland shootings.
“I had known for as long as I remember there was a gun violence massacre at my own high school,” she said. “Once the Parkland shooting happened, I guess something just clicked for me.”
After the walkout, Rachel Hill decided she wanted to do more. It wasn’t enough for her to remember victims of gun violence — she wanted to help prevent future tragedies from happening.
“I really do think we need to focus on communities who have already been affected by tragedy. But I think it’s also super important to take preventative measures for gun violence,” she said.
Rachel Hill has mixed feelings about her time with March For Our Lives Colorado as the state coordinator for the organization, but does have positive memories of the experience.
“I made some lifelong friendships through it, and we’re all really supportive of each other, but it was definitely a super weird high school experience,” she said.
Rachel Hill would work with the organization through 2020, while she was a student at CU Boulder, but eventually started to feel burnt out. “Of course, I still cared about [gun violence prevention], but it was just hard to keep up with it,” she said.
She believes March For Our Lives Colorado was able to make a difference, despite the challenges the organization faced. Now, Rachel Hill is an executive of CU Boulder’s student government. She’s hoping to take her experience as an activist and her new leadership position to try and advocate for change, including the banning of concealed-carry firearms on campus, as daunting as it seems.
“In reality, gun violence will never go away as long as guns exist, which they always will,” she said. “I like to say I am hopeful. Because if I’m not hopeful, then I mean, what am I doing this for?”