This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by VICE.com intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the country.
On January 12, 1995, a 15-year-old student at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, opened fire on his community. He injured two other students before being arrested. One of the survivors was Rachel Gruenwald.
I was 15 years old the day of my school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly in 1995. At the celebration, two kids got into a fight over a joint. The security guards broke it up and let them go their separate ways instead of sending them to the principal’s office. One of the kids went home and took a 9 millimeter gun that he had stolen from his grandfather’s glove compartment earlier that summer, and he brought it back to school. He went into the lunchroom and found the other kid, started a fight with him, and pulled out the gun. They ran into the hallway, which was crowded because it was lunchtime and a lot of people were picking up their Winter Ball photos that day. I had gone down to get my picture when I heard what sounded like garbage cans being slammed together. Not many people had been shot in school at that time, so we didn’t really know what was happening. As soon as we realized, some people ran into the auditorium but I decided to run for the front doors.
It was only after I was outside that I noticed I had been hit with a ricochet bullet. At first I thought that somebody had kicked me. There’s almost a hole in your knee between the kneecap and where the tendon is and it went straight through there—in and out. It shaved some of my kneecap off and a little bit of the tendon but it was like a $1 million wound because I was able to keep my kneecap. I didn’t have to have surgery or anything. My gymnastics coach said that an angel was riding the bullet. I’m not religious but I do think that’s kind of an interesting way to think about it.
The shooter’s story was actually kind of sad. He was picked on a lot and he didn’t have a great home life. He said he was trying to sell the joint for money to pay for driver’s ed. But the fact that he had access to a gun—that he could just take it from his grandfather—shouldn’t be the case. Luckily he didn’t really know how to use it, so although he got about 13 rounds off, I was one of only two people shot, the other being his original target, who was hit in the butt.
I was technically the first person to be shot in a Seattle public school, so when they realized I wasn’t going to die, I had a whole bunch of reporters in my room asking me all kinds of questions. At 15, I decided to be an advocate instead of a victim. And for the next five or six years, I really poured myself into being that voice people listen to more than others because they could relate to me a little bit more. I did a lot of public speaking. I started a students against violence group. I got together with Mothers Against Violence in America. We did a lot of anti-bullying because the year after the shooting at my school the Moses Lake shooting happened, which was technically one of the first “trench coat” shootings.
I think that people who buy guns should know how to shoot them, should know how to clean them, should know how to secure them. That should be a class, or at least a test they have to take. And I don’t care what size gun it is, because there are a lot of accidental shootings by five-year-olds who get guns because their parents aren’t locking them up. I also think that semi-automatic weapons have no place in America. I have plenty of hunter friends, and you’re not going to shoot a deer with a semi-automatic weapon. And of course, standard background checks. Basically, the idea that it should be hard to get a gun is important, and the people who are responsible gun owners are fine with that.
As a longtime advocate, one of the things that makes me so proud of the students from Florida is that they’re not letting this go quietly. The politicians only listen to one side—the side that’s screaming the loudest—and not what should matter. I think social media has helped to amplify their voices, but I also think kids are just fed up with being scared to go to school. These 17-year-olds have grown up in a society where school shootings are “normal.” I was one of the first and it shocked everybody and it was really big for a month. Now it’s really big for a week, if that. These kids aren’t letting it go away, and I think that that’s the powerful piece of it. They’re just fed up.
Companies are finally starting to listen, too. The fact that Walmart and Dick’s raised the age required to purchase firearms to 21 and stopped selling assault style rifles, and Fred Meyer just this week announced they would stop selling guns altogether, is huge. I emailed the CFO of Dick’s and said, “Thank you. I’m sure you’re getting a lot of bad criticism, but you now have a customer.” What these kids are doing is working and I just don’t want them to fall silent and give up, like I felt I almost had to. I worked really hard for a long time and then it just started getting frustrating because nothing was changing. But I can see things changing now.