Jaxon O’Mara wishes she didn’t have to do this.
The 17-year-old Great Mills High School student wishes life could go back to the way it was before, when her friend Jaelynn Willey, 16, was still alive, and her southern Maryland school hadn’t been added to the ever-growing list of shooting sites.
She wishes she didn’t have to lead rallies against gun violence like the one Saturday in Annapolis and push elected officials to do more to prevent gun violence.
“It’s been awful,” O’Mara said of life after Willey’s death. “It’s been hard and terrible and I shouldn’t have to do it, but I am doing it.”
Willey was killed when a 17-year-old student walked into the school with his father’s pistol just minutes before the first bell on March 20 and shot her in the head, according to the St. Mary’s County sheriff’s office. That bullet also struck 14-year-old Desmond Barnes in the leg.
Since then, Great Mills High students have been thrust, reluctantly, into activism.
“I want to do something to make sure no other community has to go through this,” O’Mara said. “I wish I was home sitting on my couch enjoying the Saturday. I wish I didn’t have to be out lobbying.”
This week, O’Mara and her fellow students felt they had a breakthrough. Their Saturday rally drew dozens, despite pouring rain. And they met face-to-face with both leading candidates for governor: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and his Democratic challenger Ben Jealous.
The rally, organized by Students for a Safer Maryland, also honored the victims of the recent Capital Gazette shooting in which five newspaper employees were killed in a June 28 attack: editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, 59; sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34; sports writer and editor John McNamara, 56; and reporter Wendi Winters, 65.
Before the rally, the students met with Capital reporter Selene San Felice, a survivor of the newspaper shooting. San Felice spoke later at the rally.
“I feel like it’s going to happen to every single person,” San Felice said of encountering a mass shooting. “This is normal now. I’m so used to sitting at my desk and turning around to CNN and seeing the next thing happen. It just feels like it’s going to happen to every single person.”
The students’ meeting with Hogan Thursday was significant, O’Mara said, because she had been pushing to meet with the governor for months. Hogan surprised O’Mara by inviting her and three other students to the governor’s office this week, she said.
“I was very concerned going into the one with Hogan that it would be more of a wall,” O’Mara said. “Surprisingly it wasn’t.”
O’Mara said Hogan quickly agreed to reject any money or support from the National Rifle Association — a pledge his spokeswoman confirmed.
“He said he would reject endorsements from the NRA and reject any money,” O’Mara said. “He would be open to signing the ‘No NRA Money’ pledge.”
Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, described the meeting with the students as a “very cordial” and “productive dialogue on an issue that these students are rightly passionate about.”
“The governor and the students found common ground on a number of issues, and discussed potential legislation the students plan to advocate for in the next session,” Chasse said. “The governor encouraged them to continue being active in the public sphere and fighting for their beliefs.”
Chasse noted the governor visited Great Mills several times after the shooting and met with Willey’s mother. And, she said, Hogan has signed every gun control bill that advanced to his desk.
The governor also wrote an opinion piece in the Capital Gazette published online Saturday saying he supports a national background check system.
“Maryland already has the toughest gun laws in the country, but it is clear to me that an effective, nationwide, universal background check system to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill is a tool police need to stop more shooters,” Hogan wrote. “That’s just common sense and it is something I will continue to support.”
Jealous met with the students at a Starbucks Saturday prior to the rally and told them he would fight the NRA at every turn.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a wanted poster up there of me from my days at the NAACP,” Jealous said of the NRA.
He questioned why Hogan won’t release a questionnaire he filled out in 2014 that earned him the NRA’s endorsement in the last election.
Jealous said he was an early proponent of “red flag” legislation, banning bump stocks, and closing loopholes in existing laws. The Democratic nominee also emphasized the importance of providing robust mental health services in Maryland.
“We need to shift to a health care for all model, which means mental health care for all,” he said.
Speaking to San Felice, Jealous praised the news media.
“I’m a fan of the First Amendment and I’m a fan of the press,” he said. “I think you guys are heroes.”
O’Mara said she has more activism planned. She hopes to raise enough money to take several of her classmates to visit the site of another tragic shooting — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed.
The two schools have formed a bond over common tragedy, grief and support, she said.
After meeting with both Hogan and Jealous, O’Mara feels hopeful that more can be done to stop mass shootings.
“Our original goal was to make our voices heard to the governor; we’ve been successful in that,” she said. “I feel very strongly both Ben and Governor Hogan want to support us.”
She thinks gun laws can be made more strict, such as requiring adults to keep their guns locked up in the house, so teenagers and children can’t get them like the shooter at her school did.
But she’d like to put the pressure on lawmakers to come up with solutions, not high schoolers.
Latest Anne Arundel County
“I’m a student. I shouldn’t have to be fully versed on Maryland gun laws,” she said. “I should be fully versed in trigonometry.”