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Family of student killed in Parkland shooting, gun violence experts discuss petition to combat gun violence

Lexi Critchett | Photographer
Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin Oliver, speaks at an event held by GW Law.

The parents of a student killed in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and gun violence experts discussed the family’s petition for stricter gun policies in the United States to prevent mass shootings in Lerner Hall on Thursday.

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, parents of their late son, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, joined law professor and Director of the GW Civil and Human Rights Law Clinic Arturo Carrillo, Global Action on Gun Violence Founder Jon Lowy, and Michael Haggard, the Oliver family’s attorney and an expert on gun violence to discuss their work in gun violence prevention. Kailee Vick, Caroline Uehling and Laura Mezzanotte — students of the law clinic — also spoke on the panel, which was hosted by GW Law.

Joaquin Oliver was one of 17 students and teachers killed in a shooting at the Parkland, Florida, high school in 2018. His parents and family attorney filed a petition Thursday with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — an independent judicial body of the Organization of American States — that argues U.S. gun policy violates international human rights laws by infringing on Joaquin Oliver’s right to life. Global Action on Gun Violence and the GW Civil and Human Rights Clinic supported the petition.

Manuel Oliver and Patricia Oliver said it is their job to protect their son’s rights and hopes the petition will establish a precedent to reduce gun violence. 

“Today we are using legal power, very common sense human rights, to call out the fact that the government failed,” Manuel Oliver said. “I am Joaquin’s dad, I have to protect the legacy of my son. It’s actually today starting to bring a major change to the reaction from families of victims in terms of how to do things.”

Carillo said petitions that go to the OAS take a long time to get there due to the organization’s inefficiency. He said CHRL clinic students expedited the complaint because of structural deficiencies behind gun violence, like the under-regulation of the gun industry in the United States.

“The goal is to get it through the different stages of the procedure before the American commission to a final decision on the merits, which is what we were talking about comes out in the shape of a report. It’s essentially a declaratory judgment,” Carillo said. “Not a court but a legal body that says there’s international responsibility here. The United States has failed in its basic duties to protect Joaquin and to redress the harm to him and his family.”

Lowy said he worked at the Brady Center — a nonprofit that advocates for gun control and against gun violence — for 25 years and led the legal division for the majority of that time. He said he left the organization to get out of U.S. politics and work in the international sector for human rights, where he can work to combat gun violence globally.

“We can create new pressures on U.S. policy and also help other countries that are affected by U.S. gun policies like Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Canada, other countries that have strong gun laws but are being flooded with guns from the U.S.,” Lowy said. 

Lowy said people should not accept the excuses American lawmakers make for their inaction on gun violence prevention like the power of the National Rifle Association or the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court. 

“The fact is, civilian gun violence causes an overwhelmingly greater number of deaths and injuries than all of the armed conflicts combined,” Lowy said. “The majority of that problem is caused by U.S. gun policy.”

Haggard — who also represents the family of teacher Scott Beigel, a 35 year old who was also killed in the shooting as well as other victims’ families — said a ban on assault weapons in the U.S. is the “first step” to allow his clients suffering from gun violence to feel justice. Haggard said an assault weapon ban is the most sensible way for American lawmakers to avoid guns ending up in the wrong hands.

“We do have a mental health problem,” Haggard said. “We allow people who have a lot of trouble open access to guns, that’s not a good solution.”

Haggard said American politicians are waiting for gun violence to affect everyone before changing gun laws.

“We all love our country, but our country has failed us, and they should be shamed, and they should be called out, and you know what they should do?” Haggard said. “They should change and fulfill the dream that is our country.”

Patricia Oliver said she continues to keep faith to honor her son, which is vital to fight for change.

“We need to believe that we can make it happen,” Patricia Oliver said. “It will take a while. It will take big changes. It will take always a lot of time.” 

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