Two weeks ago, Emma Gonzalez led the life of a typical high school senior. But after speaking out in an 11-minute speech at an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale just two days after a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student fatally shot 17 of her peers, she’s quickly become one of the country’s most visible gun violence prevention activists at just 18 years old.
During her speech, Gonzalez vowed that she, her classmates, their parents and teachers and her community wouldn’t stop fighting — they want to be the last mass shooting survivors in American history.
“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” she said. “Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because … we are going to be the last mass shooting.”
She added, “That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the student now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.”
Along with several of her schoolmates, the Parkland, Florida, native is taking the reins of the conversation about gun violence. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 345 mass shootings in America in 2017 alone.
At a town hall for Stoneman Douglas students, teachers and parents, among others, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was grilled on what he planned to do about gun violence. President Donald Trump even ordered the justice department to create regulations to ban bump stocks, which can make semi-automatic weapons automatic, and thus, more deadly, according to the New York Times, a stark departure from his most recent past rhetoric.
But it was Gonzalez and her peers who have spearheaded the urgency of the discussion.
Who is this 18-year-old activist who has captured the world’s attention and is changing the way even the United States’s most influential figures talk about gun violence prevention? Learn more about Gonzalez below.
1. She didn’t expect such a huge reaction to her speech.
“I didn’t think it would go viral at all,” she told PEOPLE of the reaction to her speech. “It went so far and so fast. I’ve got celebrities tweeting about me. I wanted people to feel what I was feeling.”
Gonzalez’s speech caught the attention of celebrities like Laverne Cox and Zendaya. She had to make a Twitter account — which was near-instantly verified — since she didn’t have one before. Since then, she’s racked up over 370,000 followers (you can follow her at @Emma4Change.)
2. She’s not surprised her peers are taking a stand against gun violence.
Gonzalez is just one of many of her classmates speaking out about the need for gun violence prevention and wanting to change the conversation. The wave of activism comes as no surprise to her, though. She says that they’re using what they learned in school to support their positions.
“I feel like we’ve been writing these arguments for years,” she says. “I utilized the things we’ve been taught. This school is full of people who are old enough to know when they’re being lied to.”
3. She’s the girl who stood up to NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch at the CNN town hall.
Following her speech in Fort Lauderdale, Gonzalez also spoke at the CNN town hall with Dana Loesch, the NRA spokeswoman. She asked her about the organization’s stance on automatic weapons and bump stocks, and didn’t mince words in doing so.
“I want you to know that will we support your [Loesch’s] two children in a way that you will not,” she told her. As Loesch responded, jeers and boos from the crowd started to overwhelm the space. Gonzalez quieted them down, saying: “If I can’t hear her statement, I can’t come up with a rebuttal.” And when Loesch answered in a way Gonzalez felt was off-topic, Gonzalez stopped her and reminded her of the question at hand.
3. The midterm elections are a priority for her.
The work, of course, is just starting. Going forward, Gonzalez told PEOPLE that a priority for her and her classmates is to see the politicians who are being funded in part by the NRA lose their seats in the midterm elections later this year.
“We’re trying to make sure those elected officials that are being supported by the NRA are no elected in the upcoming midterm elections,” she said. “That is one of the strongest mission statements we have right now. We don’t want these people in charge of us anymore. We were supposed to be in charge of them and now they’re in charge of us and it’s horrific.”
4. So is bringing down the NRA.
Just as she wants to see the elected officials the NRA supports out of office, Gonzalez wants to see the NRA lose its vast influence, and hopefully, topple altogether. She says: “What would make the death bearable is if the NRA was destroyed and if we were the ones to destroy it, at least for me.”
5. But first on her radar is the March for Our Lives.
Before the midterms comes the March for Our Lives, set to occur on Mar. 24 in Washington, D.C. and in other cities throughout the country. Gonzalez told PEOPLE that the march is her focus at this moment.
According to The Washington Post, organizers of the event, including Gonzalez, are expecting over 500,00 people to attend in Washington. The march has collected over $2 million in donations, including $500,00 from George and Amal Clooney and an additional $500,000 from Oprah Winfrey.
6. She’s planning on going to college after graduation.
Graduation is set for June 3. She hopes that she’ll be able to go back to her school again before then, and that the school will still open. But after this summer, she’s got her eyes set on college. Just four days before the shooting, Gonzalez was looking towards the future on a tour of New College of Florida, a liberal arts school in Sarasota. She says that “as of right now,” that’s where she’s headed.
7. She doesn’t want to lose momentum.
At this moment in the movement, one of Gonzalez’s biggest fears is that the a new piece of news will break, and country’s focus will turn to something else, leaving the survivors of Parkland feeling like a statistic or without change to show for their efforts. She says that talking with celebrities and media outlets who are amplifying their voices are helping to prevent that from happening.
“[I’m racing against] people forgetting, the momentum slowing down,” she said “These celebrities that are talking to us are wonderful. I want to make sure we can utilize their platforms at a time when people, the fans of these celebrities. Every bit helps.”
“And we’re trying to race against the possibility that something giant happens, like a break in the Russian investigation,” she added. “I can only pray nothing happens right now that could distract the nation from paying attention to this. We were very close to being swept under the carpet and we did not let that happen.”
8. This is only the beginning.
There’s already a few important dates on Gonzalez’s calendar: The March for Our Lives and the midterm elections, to name two. But those are only the first of what is sure to be many moments and actions in the students’s fight to end gun violence, she said.
“Our motivation is each other,” she said. “Each and every person and putting together a brilliant argument one at a time. We’re taking inspiration from each other and we’re all taking the grief that we feel for our friends that we’re not allowed to feel because we’re having to be the adults in this situation — we’re taking that grief and putting it forward. We’re taking care of business the only way that we know how.”
• Reporting by ELAINE ARADILLAS