Since last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I, along with hundreds of thousands of people across the country, have been immensely impressed by the poise, composure and courage of the students leading the March for Our Lives movement. These teenagers have engaged intelligently with one of the most historically complicated debates in American politics and have challenged powerful people and the special interests that fund them. Yet commentators on social media, television and in newspapers have repeatedly characterized them as rude and overly emotional grandstanders.
I agree that it is important to not resort to hyperbole and scare tactics when we talk about guns. That’s the National Rifle Association’s job. But talking about mass shootings is not a scare tactic; mass shootings are just scary. Hiding from a shooter who was once your classmate is scary. Wondering if your kids will come home from school is scary. Wondering if your parents survived their day at work is scary, too. I know this because I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the shadow of the third deadliest mass shooting in American history. Eleven years ago today, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people with two semi-automatic handguns. My parents, both professors at the university, were on campus that day and lost colleagues, friends and students. I was lucky to come home from lockdown to find both of them alive, but some of my classmates were not so fortunate.
I know firsthand that these mass tragedies do not just make people “understandably distraught.” They end lives, they change lives and they change communities. And the Parkland students are responding to their tragedy by trying to change policy. These students are not calling for “overreaching legislation,” nor are they threatening the rights of law-abiding gun owners. In fact, in a recent interview, March for Our Lives leader Cameron Kasky said that he lives in a gun-owning home but that his family “lives on the principle that there are some guns that are made to protect your family … and there are some guns that are made for war.”
It’s these military-grade assault weapons, guns that are designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, that the Parkland students have focused on banning. In Parkland, it took 6 minutes and 20 seconds for Nikolas Cruz to kill 17 people with an AR-15. The Sutherland Springs shooter used an assault rifle. So did the Vegas shooter, the Pulse shooter, the San Bernardino shooter, the Newtown shooter and the Aurora shooter. The federal assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. In the following decade, 89 people died in gun massacres (defined as shooting incidents resulting in at least six deaths). In the ten years since the ban lapsed in 2004, 302 people have died in gun massacres. Banning military-grade assault weapons is not the solution to America’s gun violence problem, but it would target the one common denominator that unites the past decade’s deadliest mass shootings.
Initially, I too was skeptical about the March for Our Lives, not because of the Parkland students’ proposals, but because of the populations they represent. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located in an affluent area, as was Sandy Hook Elementary School. My hometown of Blacksburg is also predominantly white and predominantly middle class. While these communities have been irreparably shaken by the tragedy of mass shootings, there are many communities where gun violence is routine and expected. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2017, 52 people were shot in Chicago, over twice as many as were shot in Parkland. These shootings do not spark national movements, celebrity donations or a march in Washington. But the March for Our Lives organizers acknowledged their own privilege and included voices from urban communities of color in the march. Edna Chavez, a 17-year-old resident of South Los Angeles spoke, telling the crowd that “I learned to duck bullets before I learned to read.” Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler talked about a black female high school student who had been shot and killed after Parkland, saying, “For far too long, these black girls and women have been just numbers.”
I would guess that every student at Yale has been affected by gun violence. Some of us come from small towns that, like mine, have been rocked by mass tragedy. Others of us have lost classmates, friends and family to gun-related accidents, suicides or homicides. And nearly all of us have hidden under desks or in closets during the active shooter drills that have become a routine of American schooling. These are the experiences that make us the mass shooting generation. When I marched in Washington, I did take a picture. But not just for Instagram. I took a picture to document the moment when our generation stood up and said they’d had enough.
Claire Ewing-Nelson is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article was published in the April 16 print issue.