“Damn!” says Royce Christensen, 22, beaming at his mother, Darla, as they troop through Saturday’s March for Our Lives demonstration in Salt Lake City, Utah. They make their way along the route from West High School to the steps of the state Capitol building, and the crowd chants, “Vote them out!” It’s a huge turnout. “And this is a red state!” Christensen exclaims.
“Imagine what D.C. is like,” replies Darla.
“Yeah,” Christensen nods. “D.C.”
Royce wore a T-shirt to the march that identifies who he is: “Survivor,” it reads. “#VegasStrong.” Nearly six months ago, Royce and several members of his family were working as security guards at the Route 91 musical festival in Las Vegas when a barrage of bullets rained down in what would come to be known as the worst mass shooting in modern American history. Royce felt the bullets zipping overhead, kicking up shards of aluminum as they hit the stage. He saw people drop.
And so on the cusp of the half-year anniversary of the Las Vegas massacre, we traveled with Christensen and his family as they drove north from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they met up with Christensen’s fiancé to attend the March for Our Lives rally. It’s the first political rally that Christensen has ever marched in. On the drive up, he had said he wanted to “make something happen” after the Vegas shooting, and when he saw “the opportunity join something that seems to actually be gaining traction, that seems to be gripping onto the steps of the government for once,” he had to be part of it.
He began the morning “ready for this,” but also nervous. He’d heard that there would be a counter-protest and that some of those demonstrators would be carrying weapons. He was also nervous that his ideas about gun control wouldn’t entirely align with those expressed at the rally. He’s had fun target shooting in the past. He doesn’t want the Second Amendment abolished. On the one hand, “Guns are awesome,” he says. On the other: “They need to be controlled.”
Mother Jones first met Christensen two days after the Las Vegas massacre last October at a candlelit vigil, where he told the story of how he had tried to keep people calm and hidden as the gunfire blared on. When it was finally over, thousands of bullets and 10 long minutes later, he saw a truck, its bed filled with the wounded, speeding toward a hospital. The concert ground was “a maze of bodies.”
“As much as my photographic memory has helped me in the past, it’s really kicking my ass now.”
Christensen wasn’t hit with a bullet during the Las Vegas massacre, but he’s been suffering ever since. He has a hard time sleeping, and when he does, his sleep is filled with nightmares. Tall buildings and balconies that someone could fire from make him nervous. When a car backfires or someone lights fireworks—not uncommon occurrences in Las Vegas, where he lives—he reacts, diving behind his bed or running through the house, switching off lights and pulling down blinds. He takes medicine for post-traumatic stress and sees a therapist at least once a week. Christensen has the rare gift of photographic memory, but nowadays, it feels like a curse. “As much as my photographic memory has helped me in the past, it’s really kicking my ass now,” he says.
At the rally, there’s a booming crowd of “people who care about what has happened,” he says. “I thought maybe 30, 50 people [would show up]. I think this is at least 400 people already. I did not think this many would show up at all.”
He’s looked at the signs people carry and has listened to their goals for gun safety, and their fight for gun control doesn’t feel too extreme for him.”These people want common sense changes,” he says. “They don’t want to get rid of the Second Amendment.”
If the counter-protestors are here with their guns, he doesn’t see them.
As protesters chant, “Enough is enough!” and “Never Again!” he chants with them. When he meets other attendees, he introduces himself as a “proud survivor of the worst mass shooting in modern American history” and tells them that he’s marching with the hope that there will never be a new “worst mass shooting” again.
Once the march reaches the Capitol building, Royce sits with his fiancé and his mother on the steps, facing a crowd that has grown to 8,000 people. While they listen to speeches from the student organizers, he and Darla lock eyes, and Darla weeps.
After the last speech ends and the plaza clears, Christensen remains on the steps, awestruck. “I have not seen this kind of motivation before,” he says. “This is something new; I can feel it in the air.”
Prior to the trip to Salt Lake City, Christensen sent a note to Mother Jones, full with anger, but also hope: “Pardon my French but when the worst shooting in United States history happened absolutely fucking nothing was done. When the church shooting that soon followed again absolutely nothing happened government-wise. Now after the Florida school shooting a large outcry is finally loud enough and has the staying power. I want to make sure that everyone remembers all the lives lost. I think this time these kids might change the world.”
Now, after the rally, he’s even more hopeful and motivated. “This is change coming.”