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Matt Deitsch, Chief Strategist For ‘March For Our Lives,’ Wants to Talk About Guns

The March For Our Lives' Chief Strategist talks the NRA, good guys with guns, and party politics.

On February 14th, 2018, Matt Deitsch was buying balloons and cake. It was his little sister’s birthday and their family was excited to celebrate later that night. Then his mom called him. It was about 2:30. She said there was something happening at the school. Matt texted his brother, turned on the television. Helicopters hovered over Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, where he had graduated just the year before. There were helicopters hovering above the building. Reporters were saying there were multiple casualties.

Now, that date means something very different to Matt. His two siblings survived that shooting, but he lost friends and friends of friends. In the aftermath of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas, where 17 students and faculty members lost their lives, Matt and his younger brother joined a new movement comprised of fellow students. Matt became the Chief Strategist and that movement became March for Our Lives, which culminated in nationwide marches, policy platforms, and media blitzes in order to help change the conversation on gun policy and push for change.

In anticipation of, Glimmer of Hope, which Matt co-write with his fellow March for Our Lives members and tells their story, and releases on October 16th, we spoke with Matt about gun control, the what he cares about most.

Were you interested in activism before March For Our Lives got started?

Leading up to the shooting, I was working with my friend on t-shirts that we were going to make and sell to make money for microloans for war-impoverished nations. We had designed the shirts over the course of January and early February. We had a whole business plan; our “posterboy,” we used to call him, was Joaquin Oliver. He was killed in the shooting.

The shooting was a Wednesday, and we were supposed to film the promo on Saturday. Instead of filming the promo, I was at his funeral. It was an open casket. I saw someone younger than me in an open casket. That moment will never leave me.

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That must have had a galvanizing effect on your decision to work on gun control.

I went straight from that funeral to my friend’s house, where they were organizing. We had to make something happen. We couldn’t let this happen again. I knew that if I didn’t do something, and this kept happening, that I’d be wasting my time as a person on this earth. That I needed that fire in me, that anger of seeing Joaquin — I knew that I needed to keep fighting to change something. The first thing I did as a strategist was look at different articles about different shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas. They were all written the exact same way.

In what way were they written?

We cover certain shootings, but we don’t cover other shootings because we don’t care. That’s really what my world has been engulfed by. When we were on the 63 day bus tour around the country [Editor’s Note: Deitsch is referring to the MFOL Road To Change campaign, in which MFOL organizers visited 80 communities in 24 states in just over 60 days to register young people to vote], every day we heard a new story of loss. In Wisconsin, a man’s daughter was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend. In North Carolina, a woman was out at a club and there was a drive-by and it killed her friend. This guy’s mom couldn’t get mental health services for 30 days, but she was able to buy a gun and kill herself that night. Every day we hear these stories. That’s what we carry as an organization; as a coalition of people fighting for this issue around the country, to not forget about all of those who are affected by this.

In your work, you’re constantly confronting what happened to your siblings, to your friends. How do you deal with that? How do you avoid burn-out?

I have the best support system in the world. I am doing this with my family and my friends. The trauma is there. But I know that there are people that have intense trauma that never get to confront it in the ways that my collaborators do. I know that there are tons of people in this country that want to ignore that trauma. Ignoring that is not going to get us anywhere. If I can help one other person understand what hundreds of thousands of millions of young people have gone through in this country, I’m doing my job correctly.

Why did you decide to write Glimmer of Hope?

The book, I think, will serve as a blueprint of empowerment for a lot of people. I think they’ll see, although none of this is easy, how possible it is for anyone to step up to the plate and do this. The book is about how we couldn’t have done it alone, that we needed these coalitions that we created with the incredible young people all across the country. We are not taught our true history as empowered young people. We aren’t taught that young people organizing has changed this country for the better, time and time again. That is purposely left out of our education.

We need everyone to realize their power before this happens to them. That’s my biggest regret as an activist:  that I did not have this fire as intensely as I had it until after I saw this happen to my community.

What do you mean by that?

I posted about every mass shooting when it happened. I tweeted that it was disgusting and that we can’t let this happen. And I felt like I was doing my part, in that way. But I wasn’t working every single day like I am now. If I realized what I was capable of, or if these kids around me realized what they were capable of, before the tragedy happened, then maybe we could have stopped it.

Your activism puts you face to face with the NRA. How do you square standing up to to the NRA and the NRA’s money? Does it feel like a challenge you can actually take on?

This isn’t a partisan issue. The fact that people in power make gun control a partisan issue shows you what they really care about. I’ve spoken to thousands of NRA members, and knowing that the NRA doesn’t release how many NRA members they have, I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken to all of the NRA members. I’ve spoken to tons of gun groups. I’ve met with hundreds of gun owners. I come from a family of law enforcement, ex-military, ATF. None of us, gun owners or not, want this to continue. But there’s a strong disagreement from certain people on what will help stop this.

And that’s the problem.

We were in Texas for four days. At every single event, people were outside with AR-15s, and guns, knives, confederate flags. I could talk to them and we would find common ground. We would find policies that they believed wholeheartedly would save lives. But their leaders don’t. And those leaders don’t lead for all of us.

They’re not fighting for our lives. They’re fighting for their power, for their paychecks. When you look at something like universal background checks, that polls at 97 percent. Apple pie polls at 95 percent. Universal background checks are more American than apple pie.

Wanting stricter gun laws polls above 65 percent nationwide. In red states, blue states, purple states. We all agree that this needs to change.

Speaking of politicians, it’s clear that while your organization has a huge focus on the upcoming midterm elections, you don’t seem to be aligned to a certain party. Why is that?

We have to look at policy over people. People were asking for our endorsements week one. My team of strategists said: ‘We are never going to publicly endorse you. But you can copy and paste our policy, and the people that support us will support you, because they understand that this policy works.’

The NRA has had a stranglehold on different of political offices, including, currently, the presidency. They gave 30 million dollars to Donald Trump. They gave another 20 million to the GOP to help win senate races in 2016. They don’t give a shit about our lives, they don’t give a shit about our kids. They only care about profit and power. We don’t stand for party politics. We care about getting morally just leaders in office. We need people who care more about us than the NRA.

On Twitter, a constant argument you face is from people who say ‘illegal’ guns are the problem instead of legal ones. Even Kanye West said it in the oval office.

I’m not going to listen to Kanye West about gun policy. I just won’t do it.

The governor of Illinois refused to sign a piece of legislation that would have put stricter rules on illegal guns coming into the state. If governments aren’t actively trying to stop the movement of illegal guns, what’s the point? Why are we calling guns ‘illegal’ if we’re not enforcing laws about them?

In Texas, you’re not required to report when your gun is stolen. And let’s say, two weeks ago, when I was still 20 years old, if I were to steal alcohol from my parents and kill someone drunk driving because I was inebriated, my parents would get felonies for neglecting me. But if I did that with my parent’s gun in Texas, and killed people, they have no responsibility.

All I care about is that people are dying. We need to change something to stop it. And if that’s not what people are talking about, and they’re talking about, ‘oh, well this is really the problem, or this is really the problem,’ and they’re sitting in their Oval Office, or they’re making five million a year — like certain people at the NRA — they don’t give a shit about your rights. They don’t give a shit about your life.

How do you respond to these opinions?

My favorite thing that they say is they say that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. That’s bullshit. They’re trying to sell you two guns, one to the good guy and the other to the bad guy. In Santa Fe [Editor’s Note: Deitsch is referring to the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas on May 18th, 2018], they had armed guards, and a plan, and ten people got killed and ten people got injured.

And in that case, that was a success. Law enforcement did everything right.

That’s the whole thing. The NRA wants to spin this narrative, and there’s no evidence. There is an FBI study where they looked at 150 shootings, and less than one percent of them were actually stopped by a good guy with a gun. There’s a reason the NRA blocks funding research. There’s a reason Brett Kavanaugh didn’t shake Fred Guttenberg’s hand. There’s a reason that happened. They don’t give a shit about you or me.

What are you looking forward to now as an organization?

One thing: I just want to stress for everyone to vote November 6th. To make sure that you treat every election like it’s your last, because it could be. My friend Emma says, “fight for your life before it’s someone else’s job.” We don’t care about winning an argument. We care about saving lives.