‘Change needs to happen now:’ Teen urges Congress to address gun violence

WASHINGTON — Ever since Ernest Willingham was a young boy, gun violence has hit close to home.

“I have seen my brother, my father, my cousin and my best friend become victims of gun violence,” Willingham, now age 19, said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The Chicago native and Northeastern University student traveled to Washington D.C. to share his story with members of Congress directly.

“Imagine being scared to go out in public or go to family gatherings after being shot in fear of being shot again,” said Willingham as he described his brother’s experience.

Washington Correspondent Samantha Manning spoke with Willingham one-on-one after his powerful testimony.

Willingham said he credits his grandmother for shielding him from the danger as a kid, but said the violence was still ever present around him.

He’s now calling on the Senate to move fast on gun safety legislation.

“The change needs to happen now,” said Willingham. “We’ve waited way too long. The issue is already out of hand.”

The Senate panel also heard calls for increasing school security.

Max Schachter’s son Alex was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“On Valentine’s Day 2018, I sent my little boy Alex to school thinking that when I said goodbye to him, he would come home to me,” said Schachter. “Never for a moment did I think that he would be murdered in his English class.”

Schachter is calling for Congress to pass a bill establishing a centralized system for best safety practices for schools.

The Luke and Alex School Safety Act, named after his son, would codify into law a clearinghouse of information for the best school safety practices.

“School officials need proper guidance on what evidence-based practices work and do not,” said Schachter.

Wednesday’s testimony came as Republican and Democratic leadership in the Senate said it’s inching closer to finalizing an agreement on gun safety legislation.

The text has not been finalized yet, but Senators involved in the negotiations said it is expected to include measures to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed a danger to themselves or to others and to enhance the screening process for gun buyers under age 21 among other changes.

For teens like Willingham, the need for change is urgent, as the threat of gun violence remains a danger from coast to coast.

“This is something that young people should never have to prepare themselves for yet it remains the lived experience of so many children and youth around our nation,” said Willingham. “It is the responsibility of this legislative branch of this government to initiate stricter gun laws and uphold a standard of safety for all people across this country.”