Sam Zeif had just finished a math test when the shooting started. It was Valentine's Day, and the 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, was looking ahead to a picnic with his girlfriend. At first, some of the kids around him suggested the noise might be some kind of drill, he said—there was chatter that maybe the shots were blanks. Somehow, Zeif knew otherwise, and sheltered in place with his classmates while texting his younger brother, whom he quickly realized was just one floor above him.
Zeif and his brother both got out alive. But the next day—his 18th birthday—Zeif found out his best friend, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, was dead.
Since the mass shooting that killed 17 people made Parkland the latest city to host a uniquely American spectacle of carnage, the nation has watched the teenage survivors take control of the gun control debate. Angry and devastated at the loss of those closest to them—and of their school as an ostensible zone of safety—the teens have been appearing on television, tweeting, organizing rallies, and lobbying legislators. Their message has been buoyed by its simplicity: This can't keep happening. And while these newly seasoned activists know Congress may never be able to guarantee unhinged people will not get their hands on deadly weapons, they're confident we can make it a hell of a lot harder than it is now.
It's early, but there's some evidence all of this is having an effect on the public consciousness: A CNN poll released last week found support for stricter gun laws had cracked 70 percent, the highest mark in decades and well above the 52 percent the same survey recorded after the Las Vegas concert massacre in October.
Along with his neighbor Emma González, whose passionate plea for gun control cast her as a breakout star of this new movement, Zeif has been in the thick of it, making the rounds on the cable news circuit. He also appeared at Donald Trump's White House listening session with survivors last week, where he got to tell the president to his face that waffling on gun control, because of fealty to the NRA or for any other reason, is simply unacceptable. I caught up with Zeif over the phone on Friday, as he was catching his breath from the first full week of his new life as a gun control activist. We talked about his transformation from a relatively normal, apolitical kid to powerful national voice on the scourge consuming America—and how he's handling it. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: Do you mind walking me through the moment that day when you realized that something was wrong?
Samuel Zeif: I was watching a show on Netflix. I heard—I thought I heard but I could feel it throughout the building—seven or eight shots. I knew exactly what was going on. There had been rumors the past few weeks before that—we had just had code red training [for] if there was ever a shooter on campus. Thank God we did, because if we didn’t I think the numbers would have been triple.
And then the smoke from the gun set off the fire alarm, and we were told not to go anywhere. So we just stayed put. My teacher kept everyone calm. We kept our phones dark to not let any light through. We had been trained to block off the window to the room, so no one would be able to see in.
Did you know the shooter, or had you heard anything about him?
I had never spoken to him, but I had seen his face and heard stories about him. We had gone to the same schools since I was 12 years old.
A lot of people have been talking about all these warning signs that the shooter was giving off. That failure to respond to warnings is almost a separate issue from gun control, a system failure.
Yes. You know, there’s a whole other page that should have already been in place. I don’t understand how anyone could see this person walking to the [gun] store and not see the damage in that person. You can see damage in people. We always saw damage in that kid. I don’t understand how you can see the damage in that person and sell them a weapon. Let alone an AR-15. Any weapon.
I’m sure you heard about the sheriff announcing the armed deputy on campus was there and stayed outside.
You bet I heard about that. He could have stopped it. He was not supposed to wait for backup. He watched unarmed security guards run in to save lives while he hid behind a wall. [Editor's note: After this conversation took place, it was reported that three additional Broward County Sheriff's deputies remained outside the school while the shooting was ongoing.]
Had you met him before or seen him around?
I’ve seen him. All he really cared about was getting my friends in trouble and kids in trouble for using their e-cigarettes in class. When the time comes to it, he didn’t want to protect us. He just wanted to get us in trouble, and that’s exactly what he did.
You lost your best friend. Can you talk about the moment you realized that and how that’s influenced you?
We were on the same basketball team, so we had a group chat together, and his dad was in the group chat as the coach. When everything happened, I tracked all my friends on Find My Friends. His dad said: "Has anyone heard from Joaquin?" I saw that he was on the other side of the school, so I was relieved. But I guess my service must have been messed up because later I tracked him again, and his phone was in the building. And then we heard on the news the next morning.
Everything I’m doing is for him. People see how much I’ve done, and they said I’m making such an impact. I can’t imagine the impact that he would be making if he still had a voice. I firmly believe that he’s the one making an impact. I don’t think this is me. I think it’s really him with me.
Before this happened, did you think of yourself as an activist or a politically engaged person?
Never. If I see something on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, I will give my opinion about it, but I just assumed I was like everyone else. I still feel like everyone else. I never imagined myself being this involved in politics.
Is gun violence something you heard a lot about locally?
No, I had only heard about it in other places. Parkland is—was—one of the top ten safest communities in the nation. That’s why my friend Joaquin moved here. His parents moved from Venezuela because it’s safer here. Now it just—I don’t feel anywhere is safe.
I think people from outside the state have heard about Florida in terms of stand your ground laws and other aspects of the culture as being very pro-gun. Was that something you were conscious of in your part of the state?
There wasn’t much of a gun culture in my community. My dad owned a handgun a long time ago—20 years ago, before I was even born. He had been planning a little experience for Jacob, my older brother, and me these past few months, and he never really told us what it was until recently. He was going to take us to the gun range. My mom told me about when he took her to the gun range a long time ago. She took one shot and couldn’t do it anymore because she could see what it does to a person. It’s just not right.
You had a chance to go to the White House to talk to the president directly. I watched. I was very moved. I think a lot of people across the country were very moved by that. There was a lot of chatter before that about how choreographed the whole thing was. Do you feel like you were screened in some way, or could you say what you wanted?
I didn’t know it was going to be filmed, let alone live. No, it wasn’t choreographed at all. We said what we wanted to. I didn’t get the chance to meet with my group from Parkland, so we didn’t discuss anything together. I saw some of them with their own written pieces. I had nothing. I wanted it to come from my heart.
Were you nervous? What was it like in the lead-up to asking the questions at the White House?
I was extremely nervous. I had no idea what I was expecting. It was extremely nerve-wracking representing my community and making sure I said the right things when it came down to it.
What did you make of the president's response?
He was sitting there like a little kid with his arms crossed, nodding his head, saying, "I hear you." After some of the conversations started, [with] words like "mental health" and "background checks"—he shouldn’t have to say that because it should already be in place. It should have been in place since Columbine and before. It’s not what I want to hear. I want sensible gun control. I want to feel safe everywhere. He is heading in the right direction with the bump stocks—it’s in the right direction, but it’s not enough. That’s why I’m hoping for more. Everything takes time. I’m hoping we get movement soon.
What do you make of how the president has conducted himself since the shooting generally?
I understand from his point of view as a businessman, not wanting to turn away money. The NRA as an organization is free to attempt to be lobbyists. But his job as the leader of our country to make the right decision based on money or not. He is already one of the most successful people in the world. I don’t understand why he needs more money from them. He could've funded his entire campaign alone. He wanted to save his millions of dollars? I don’t get it. [Editor's note: The NRA spent over $11 million supporting Trump and nearly $20 million opposing Hillary Clinton in 2016.]
You are obviously in favor of gun control. But is it specifically about banning assault weapons? Where do you come down on the possible solutions in play here?
It is about banning assault weapons. I fully respect the Second Amendment. People have the right to a small firearm for self-defense. But in Maryland, they have proved that the Second Amendment does not protect these types of weapons. They banned more than 45 different kinds of assault weapons, including the AR.
There are so many things that we need to do. I don’t think age is the issue. How many times have teenagers thrown a party with alcohol, and they're supposed to have to be 21 to drink? If they want to get it, they’re gonna get it.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the awful lie that survivors of the shooting—or at least some of them—are actors.
I have known Emma González herself since I was six years old. I’ve seen David Hogg in my school every day for years. I don’t understand. I was in California on the same day that he was with my family on vacation. People just want to shut us down because we’re going to shut them down.
I can assure you that they’re not crisis actors. That is one of the most outraging things that I've heard among many.
Is it weird having such a big platform? How would you describe the sensation?
I’m honored to be able to get the word out there. As I said, I would just do it for Joaquin. If I had the option, I would give this back—all this media, all this attention.
What do you think it is that’s making this shooting, hopefully, different from ones in the past?
The Sandy Hook children, God rest their souls, they didn’t have a voice. They were just kids. Their friends were just kids. They didn’t know what to do. I’m sure they’re still traumatized to this day. The Columbine children—that was a different time. As you saw with my text with my brother, it’s very easy to spread words. I think that’s why we are out here, because of how many people can interact with us and see what we’re talking about. The Columbine children didn’t get that chance. It was in '99—they could've rallied, but who was going to see it?
What would you tell other high schoolers about how they can get involved, and what you have learned from doing it? What advice would you have for them?
Keep your voice up. Stay strong. Even if we’re on the other side of the country, we have students and family who know what this is like. We are family now. We’re not going to stop until we feel safe.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.