In the summer of 2019, Elimar Depaula, 19, worked as a paralegal in the D.C. suburbs. At night, she was a student, taking online college classes. On August 8, she and her boyfriend went for a drive to visit a friend. Depaula’s boyfriend, at the wheel, accidentally cut off another driver. The other driver was incensed; he tailgated Depaula and her boyfriend, yelled at them, brandished a gun in anger, and eventually fired his weapon, shooting Depaula.
As she was bleeding on the way to the hospital, she prayed and tried to stay awake, fearing death. But when she arrived at the emergency entrance, Depaula found herself unable to move her legs and was unable to exit the car. In the following hours, after doctors attended to her, they informed Depaula that she was now paralyzed from the waist down. She spent the subsequent month in a rehabilitation facility, relearning tasks that had previously been automatic to her. And though her doctors doubted that it would be possible, Depaula, now 21, is able to walk through the use of a walker and determination. But Depaula didn’t return to school. “It was too much, with the recovery and everything, so I never went back,” she said.
On November 3, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. According to Andrew Bank, an attorney at Hogan Lovells working for March For Our Lives, the case has the potential to be one of the most significant gun safety legislation decisions before the court in more than a decade. New York State currently requires licenses for possessing and carrying firearms in public, but the New York Rifle & Pistol Association is suing the state government, arguing that the permitting process is a violation of their constitutional rights under the Second Amendment.
Prior Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago extended a near-unlimited ability for individuals to possess guns in their own homes. If the plaintiffs are to prevail in NYSRPA, this right would extend into public spaces, potentially making every state more like Texas, where few, if any, limits are placed on the carrying of handguns outside of the home.
This case is of particular concern to gun safety activists like David Hogg, the founder of March For Our Lives and survivor of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Hogg told me that he fears that “the infiltration of our court system by organizations like the NRA, and the Federalist Society, with their grotesque, extremist interpretations of the Second Amendment” might result in a ruling that would exacerbate gun violence. Hogg and his colleagues at March For Our Lives began to brainstorm about ways they could show the court the “the true, real human toll” of gun violence, beyond harrowing statistics. They decided to submit an amicus brief. “We wanted the justices to know that this decision, and future decisions based on this case are going to mostly affect young people, because we’re going to have to live with the legacy of whatever decision that they are making,” Hogg said.
But this brief differs from the more traditional, typical structure of an amicus brief. Instead of being full of legal arguments speaking to theories of constitutional interpretation, the MFOL Action Fund’s brief focuses on telling the stories of seven young people (and one high school teacher turned state legislator) affected by gun violence. March For Our Lives Judicial Associate Matt Post hoped that the brief would serve as an important intervention. “For too long, the conversation around gun violence has centered on talking points and theoretical scenarios. But by filing this storytelling amicus brief, we’re hoping to ground the case in the actual devastating consequences of gun violence on our generations’ lives.” The constitutional questions at stake, for Post, extended beyond the right to “keep and bear arms.” “How am I supposed to exercise my right to free speech, vote, live, or pursue happiness if I can’t make it out of the classroom alive?” he asked.
For Hogg, the brief succeeds not only on its legal or storytelling merits. As a survivor of gun violence, he said, “we are told we’re too emotional to speak.… we’re just victims not able to say or do anything.” To him “what’s powerful about [the brief] is it’s survivors speaking for themselves.”
In recent months, Depaula began to share her story on social media, especially TikTok. “Before my accident,” she said, “I didn’t even think about this stuff.… So then I decided to post about my story, hoping it can help other people.” It was through Depaula’s TikTok and Snapchat posts that the March For Our Lives’s judicial advocacy team first reached out to see if she would be interested in sharing her story with the court. “So long as it’s helping, I have no problem sharing with people,” she told me.
Brandon Wolf, 33, is another survivor whose story was captured in the MFOL Action Fund’s brief. He was at the Pulse club the night of the shooting, when 50 people, including two of his friends, were murdered. Wolf shared that after the massacre he constantly feared that he would forget his best friend. “I listened to voicemails, I saved an old T-shirt, so I would remember the way he smelt,” Wolf said. “But on top of that I worried that the world would never get to hear his story, or know him.” The amicus brief provided relief to Wolf, as his friend’s “story, life and legacy” would now be heard before the Supreme Court.
Wolf, Depaula, and the six others affected by gun violence were interviewed earlier this year by the March For Our Lives judicial advocacy team along with their attorneys. Working together, they compiled and synthesized the interviews, and submitted the brief to the court in September. I asked Depaula what she hoped the brief would achieve. She paused, and said: “I just hope that [the court] can see where I’m coming from. What if what happened to me happened to your daughter, or your son?”