Gun Violence

Gun Violence: Acknowledging a Crisis

“I’m graduating, I’m going to college, I get to go home, I get to see my dog, I get to do all this when they don’t. It’s just really hard.”

In the midst of this season’s joyful graduation celebrations, one commencement ceremony stood out in a heartbreaking way because of the friends who were missing. Emma Ehrens told an interviewer she was a six-year-old first grader in December 2012, looking forward to making gingerbread houses later that afternoon, when a gunman armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle burst into her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. When the gun jammed for a few seconds, one of those classmates, Jesse Lewis, yelled, “Run!” Emma ran, but Jesse was one of the 20 children and six adults who were killed at Sandy Hook that day. On June 12, about 60 survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting graduated from Newtown High School. Like Emma, many of them were still grappling with their memories of that day, the missing teachers and administrators who might have been in the audience, and the other beautiful students who should have been crossing the stage too.

A group of these high school students have joined the Junior Newtown Action Alliance. The alliance is part of a national grassroots organization founded in Newtown after the shooting to transform their town’s tragedy into meaningful action. They work to end gun violence and reverse our nation’s escalating gun violence epidemic through the introduction of smarter, safer gun laws and broader cultural change. The students of Junior Newtown Action Alliance join Hadiya Pendleton’s friends, who began the Wear Orange movement after she was shot and killed standing in a Chicago park; the survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who led the March for Our Lives movement; and other young people across the country taking action. As Ella Seaver, also a Sandy Hook survivor, Newtown High graduating senior, and Junior Newtown Action Alliance member, explained: “Putting my voice out there and working with all of these amazing people to try and create change really puts a meaning to the trauma that we all were forced to experience. It’s a way to feel like you’re doing something. Because we are. We’re fighting for change and we’re really not going to stop until we get it.”

Young people across the country are demanding the same thing. They know guns are the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in the U.S., they have seen firsthand how the threat of gun violence affected their childhoods, and they are determined to do something about it. On June 25, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared gun violence a public health crisis for the first time, underscoring what the American Medical Association and many others have believed for years. The Surgeon General’s advisory notes that gun violence leads to cascading harm across our society: those who lose their lives to guns, those who are injured, those who are direct witnesses, those who lose their loved ones, those who are exposed in affected communities, including schools, and those who experience collective trauma and fear. The majority of Americans fall into one or more of these categories, including the nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults who report feeling stress from the possibility of a mass shooting, and the more than half who say they or their family members have personally experienced a firearm-related incident. And we know the threat of gun violence is devastating for young people.

The report found half of U.S. teens ages 14-17 say they worry “about a shooting happening at my school or a local school near me.” Like all Americans, children and young people are the victims of all kinds of gun violence: homicides, suicides, community gun violence, domestic gun violence, and accidental or unintentional shootings. The report notes that 56% of unintentional gun deaths among children and adolescents happened in their own homes, and in cases where there was information about how guns had been stored before accidental shootings, 74% of the guns used were stored loaded and 76% were stored unlocked – most commonly accessed from inside or on top of a nightstand, on top of a bed, or under a pillow or mattress.  

There is so much more we can do. The Surgeon General’s advisory includes recommendations for a number of common sense measures, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, secure storage requirements, including child access prevention laws, and increasing federal funding for gun violence prevention research and community investment in educational programs and mental health resources. As National Gun Violence Awareness Month draws to a close, this advisory provides new momentum for our nation to stay focused on ending this crisis. As Surgeon General Murthy said: “Our children should not have to live in fear that they are going to get shot if they go to school. None of us should have to worry that going to the mall or a concert or house of worship means putting our lives at risk, or that we’ll get a call that a loved one in a moment of crisis has taken their own life with a firearm. All of us, regardless of our background or beliefs, want to live in a world that is safe for us and our children.” And all of us should be listening to the children and young people who are already leading on gun violence prevention, who are tired of losing their siblings and friends and classmates, and who are demanding that our nation protect them, not guns.