He died in Parkland. Today he’s calling Congress to act on gun violence.

Gun Rights

Hearing each of the victims’ voices is unsettling. What’s more unsettling is that we’ve reached a point where recreating the voices of the dead may be one of the only ways to get Congress’ attention.

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Gun violence is a uniquely American problem.

The death rate in 2021 was seven times that of Canada’s and 340 times higher than the rate within the United Kingdom. The United States is the only peer nation where gun violence is the leading cause of death for children.

Our children spend part of their school lives learning how to hide during active shooter drills. Generation Z in particular – dubbed “the lockdown generation” – has learned to be wary of movie theaters, concerts, nightclubs and places of worship due to the tragedies we have seen occur in these spaces. Now, Generation Alpha is getting passed the same traumas.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Congress continuously fails to protect us from this horror. They just keep looking away. A campaign released Wednesday is asking whether they will ignore the voices of victims.

Congress has ignored US gun violence

  • Last year, Congress ignored 656 mass shootings and more than 43,000-gun violence deaths.
  • Congress has ignored the more than 360,000 students who have experienced gun violence at school since the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, according to data collected by The Washington Post.
  • Congress has also ignored that more than half of 2021 deaths involving gunfire were suicides. Another sizable chunk – 43% – were homicides.
  • More than 80% of all murders in the United States in 2021 involved a gun.

No legislation was passed to help make those number go down. Sure, there was bipartisan legislation signed into law in 2022 – the first major gun safety legislation in almost three decades – but it was relatively weak, mainly incentivizing states to pass their own laws and expanding on the existing legislation that keeps domestic abusers from owning firearms.

I watched my teacher get shot in 1993. I thought lawmakers would never let it happen again.

Gun control activists hope Congress can’t ignore voices of the victims

Wednesday is the six-year anniversary of a gunman killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It is the deadliest shooting at a high school in U.S. history, surpassing the 13 killed at Columbine’s massacre.

March For Our Lives, the gun control advocacy group created in the wake of the Florida tragedy, is recognizing the anniversary by letting the victims of gun violence speak to members of Congress directly, through artificial intelligence. The group rolled out the project Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill.

“It’s been six years, and you’ve done nothing – not a thing to stop all of the shootings that have continued to happen since,” says the voice of Joaquin Oliver. “The thing is, I died that day in Parkland. My body was destroyed by a weapon of war. I’m back today because my parents used AI to recreate my voice to call you. Other victims like me will be calling, too.”

Oliver is one of six voices recreated for The Shotline, a website that uses these AI-generated monologues to call elected officials and demand gun control legislation. The voices were created using audio and video clips from the family members of the victims – the people who have repeatedly asked Congress for action, to no avail.

The project is spearheaded by Manny Oliver, Joaquin’s father and the co-founder of Change the Ref alongside his wife, Patricia.

‘Thoughts and prayers must always be followed by action’

Hearing each of the victims’ voices is unsettling, but it’s supposed to be. What is more unsettling is that we have reached a point where recreating the voices of the dead might be one of the only ways to capture the attention of members of Congress. 

“They’re not acting,” Giselle Webster, whose son Jaycee is one of the voices, says of Congress. “They’ll tell you, ‘Oh, you’re in my thoughts and prayers.’ Now, I’ll tell you: Thoughts and prayers, they do work, but the thoughts and prayers must always be followed by action.”

‘We did nothing’: Trump is a coward. At NRA gun show, he admitted as much.

Other voices include Ethan Song, a 15-year-old killed by an unsecured gun at a friend’s house in 2018; Mike Baughan, a man who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2014; Akilah Dasilva, a 23-year-old who was killed in a mass shooting at a Waffle House in 2018; and Uziyah Garcia, a 10-year-old fourth grader killed in the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

March For Our Lives wants background checks, ending gun marketing to minors just like alcohol

March For Our Lives is asking Congress to pass universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and legislation like “Ethan’s Law” (named after Song), which would set national requirements for safe firearm storage.

The advocacy group is also supporting the Protecting Kids from Gun Marketing Act, introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would require the Federal Trade Commission to regulate gun marketing toward minors, just like alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

These voices provide a reminder that the victims of gun violence are more than statistics. They are real people – in many cases, young people – whose lives were cut short because of Congress’ failure to act after other mass shootings.

Webster, whose son Jaycee was almost 21 when he was fatally shot in 2017, says she wants Congress to know her child’s point of view: “You’ve heard about this shooting. You’ve heard about this and that. That’s who I am. You would not listen to my parents, to friends, family, students. Now you’re going to listen to me.”

It’s unthinkable that anyone could ignore the pleas of those directly affected by gun violence. It is what has gotten us to this point, where recreating the victims’ voices might be one of the only ways to actually get lawmakers to pay attention to the pain caused by a lack of gun laws in this country.

At the very least, hearing these voices should remind Congress that these families and advocates will not give up until better gun laws are passed.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Sara Pequeño on X, formerly Twitter, @sara__pequeno and Facebook facebook.com/PequenoWrites

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