Editorial: Fighting gun violence

From the March-April 2019 issue of News & Letters

When a student shooter with an assault rifle opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018, the incident could have become only the latest mass school shooting to capture national attention and inspire a great amount of talk but little change. But new passions and forces alive in the U.S. ensured that the toll of this shooting would not fade into the political ether.

A slice of the huge crowd in the youth March For Our Lives in Oakland, Calif., April 24, 2018. Photo: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters.

Students at Douglas resolved to organize marches to press for tougher gun regulations, and the idea spread around the country. As Peyton Dauley, who organized a walkout at his high school in Massachusetts, said on WBUR: “There’s just this cycle whenever there’s a school shooting and no one really gets anything done. It’s time for students to take charge and say, ‘This is what I want.’”

BLACK AND WHITE YOUTH PLAN TOGETHER

Black youth in some of the same states and cities had been marching for years against daily gun violence in their communities and against gun slayings perpetrated by police with impunity. One of the most monumental events leading up to the March for Our Lives occurred when Black Chicago youth and Parkland students met for face-to-face conversations over pizza. Each was dedicated to making sure youth living in the nation’s inner cities would be participants and leaders in this surging movement. On March 16, 2018, 15 high schools in Broward County, Fla., held walkouts. Black and Brown students were the majority in the streets.

Nationwide protests the following week dramatically revealed how the students’ outrage resonated. While they called for universal background checks on all gun sales, a ban on bump stocks, and a new ban on high capacity magazines, the marches did not feature a large push for more security officers in schools, as then President Obama had asked for in his 2013 draft gun measure.

MILITARIZED SCHOOLS HURT STUDENTS

On the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, student organizers Amina Henderson and Brandon Dasent penned an article in ColorLines titled “Teens from Parkland and Chicago Ask: ‘How Many More Must Die?’” The authors explain why their movement does not call for more security officers in schools:

“Illinois schools reported 4,985 arrests of K-12 students in 2013-14. That amounts to more than 25 students arrested every school day across the state. And more than 75% of the students arrested in Illinois were kids of color.

“For us, reflecting on the anniversary of Parkland is about remembering all victims of gun violence—no matter where or how it happens, violence hurts….We saw a need to push for solutions that support rather than traumatize and criminalize students of color.”

The students then announced the launch of “a campaign to establish a grant for school districts to provide increased mental health services in schools.” They point to the assessment by the Association for Children’s Mental Health that half of school-age children live with a mental health challenge and do not receive any care.

Striking teachers in Los Angeles were feeling this deeply too. In January, the hiring of new physical and mental health staff was brought up by the UTLA union at the negotiating table. A teacher speaking to a crowd gathered at the L.A. Unified School District’s Soto St. office on Jan. 16 said that her school had “a nurse on duty only one day a week,” with a social worker present only on two days.

In a haunting revelation that portends the consequences of these cutbacks, the South Florida Sun Sentinel has noted that the Parkland shooter told a school administrator on at least one occasion that shooting guns helped him relieve stress, but apparently neither that administrator nor any other staff member was able to follow up.

YOUTH SPEAK—WHO WILL HEAR?

A current bill that passed the House of Representatives would increase the federal waiting period from three days to 10. More time to process a background check might have prevented the sale of a gun used to murder nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Even though expanded background checks are supported by a majority of the membership in the National Rifle Association, let alone over 80% of the U.S. public, the NRA leadership opposes the bill. On threat of removing campaign donations and transferring them to a future challenger, the NRA may be able to corral enough U.S. Senators to kill the legislation.

Should the bill pass, the background check expansion is the minimum needed to address rampant gun violence. Far beyond point-of-sale reforms, reform means equitable and democratic funding to schools and communities. North Lawndale College Prep student Audrey Wright, of Peace Warriors, says that her Chicago organization does condolence runs to express love and support to classmates who lose a loved one. “Last school year, we did 178 condolence runs out of the 183 school days, most of them due to someone dying behind a bullet….We need more resources in our minority communities and better funding for our schools. We need a city that cares.”

U.S. youth need to be heard, both about the urgency of preventing gun deaths and about just how deeply this society needs to change.

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