When I tell people I’m from America, guns tend to get mentioned in an instant. I’ve often gotten casual remarks like “So you can just go over to Walmart and get an AK-47, can’t you?” or “well, at least we don’t have school shootings here.” I usually tend to laugh these off, but the reality is that when the exaggerations are stripped away, what remains is a grim – but accurate – picture of the state of affairs in America.
While growing up, school shooter drills, or “Code Red,” as we called them, were quite typical. Our classroom procedure used to go something as follows: our principal would first make an impromptu announcement on the loudspeaker – “Code Red. I repeat this is a Code Red” – and we would promptly begin shutting off the lights, closing the curtains and locking the doors. We would then take all our classroom desks and construct two mini-barricades: one by the doors to create a buffer in case a shooter was to enter the door, and the other in a corner of the classroom which was most out of the line of fire. We’d all then huddle in the corner behind this little barricade and our teacher would silence our whispering voices and muffled giggles as local police officers came to our school campus to make sure we were doing the drill correctly. As sad as it sounds, like clockwork, we repeated this procedure twice a year, every year.
But, for me, it was no sooner than 2nd grade (Year 3) when a real situation necessitated putting what we had learned in our drills into action. Over 10 years later, the memory is still vivid in my head. There was an active shooter by our campus so my primary school and the local high school nearby were put on lockdown. I remember us working expediently through the drill procedure that we had so diligently practised – the only difference being that this was no drill. We kept pestering our teacher, “Is this actually real?”, “Is there a shooter here?”, “Are we going to die?”, to which she didn’t reply, hoping not to provide us with false solace. As she kept us quiet, I remember some kids began to cry, and others were curled up in a ball trying to pray for a sliver of hope. I personally did neither. All I can remember is a sick sinking feeling in my stomach as if this was how it was all going to end.
Yet around 3 hours later we got another announcement on the loudspeaker: the shooter had been caught by the police, his bag of guns was confiscated, and we were free to go home for the day. The magnitude of the situation only dawned on me a long while later: at the age of eight, I had experienced a school shooting.
But despite the gravity of the event, I had this same experience again in 5th and 10th grade (Years 6 and 11). When I hear from students from other countries that this is not something they have experienced, it baffles me. In America, it is taken for granted that every six-year-old child knows how to protect themselves in the case of a school shooting.
Current affairs looming in the news also put my experience into perspective. Last month, during the Capitol insurrection, a lot of people around the world, and around me, experienced shock and horror as Congress members recounted their traumatic experiences from being locked down in a holding area while the building was secured. Though part of me felt empathy, it largely just reflected the “standard procedure” I grew up following. Crouching in a corner and holding your breath as you hear voices and sirens outside is the norm for me.
This past weekend, while most celebrated Valentine’s Day, the somber shadow of the third anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida where 17 were killed and another 17 were injured was still lurking. Since that tragedy, youth anti-gun activism has reached a new peak. The initial March for Our Lives protest took place in Washington DC on March 24, 2018 where nearly 1.2-2 million people attended similar events worldwide, making it one of the largest collective protests in modern history. Students staged walkouts at their schools across the nation and used their voices for a difference. In fact, schools in my own area took to the streets downtown with megaphones and poster boards as they marched towards city hall to make themselves heard.
And since then, activists have continued to voice their opinions. Cameron Kasky, one of the cofounders of March for Our Lives, recently commented, “Mitch McConnell and my little sister now have something in common, which is that they are going to have to go through mass shooting drills.” Kasky’s father commented, “The Republican Party has done a masterful job of conflating gun ownership and the Second Amendment and patriotism.”
But even beyond anecdotal experience, gun violence is experienced and perceived as a bipartisan issue, even though ownership is right-wing heavy. Pew Research Centre found in 2017 that 83% of US adults said they consider gun violence in the US a big problem — including 50% who called it “a very big problem.” In 2018 it was found that students themselves even brought guns to school at least 392 times over the course of the year for various reasons, be it protecting themselves, wanting to gain respect or having the intention to harm. While a multitude of issues get associated with gun reform including poverty and lack of mental health support, it is a simple fact that where gun laws are weaker there are more mass shootings.
The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution grants Americans the right to bear arms, and this gives people the privilege to both buy and carry guns. While laws currently differ from state to state, the basic principle remains that apart from convicted criminals or those who are mentaly ill, virtually anyone has the access to firearms should they want them, a principle that is very divisive and has been prompting calls for stricter ownership regulation measures.
Despite the lack of action as of yet, things are looking up on a legislative front. President Joe Biden on Sunday called on Congress to institute “common sense gun law reforms,” including widespread firearm sales background checks and a ban on assault weapons, highlighting an “epidemic of gun violence” in the US on the third anniversary of the deadly Parkland school shooting.
While it seems callous to say, I am optimistic that the recent Capitol insurrection will remind politicians why stricter gun control should be mandated. Even though the impeachment motion failed, I am hopeful that both living through and recounting their traumatic experiences will remind them why such reform is necessary, not only for youth but for a generally safer society.
Image credit: Peter Cedric Rock Smith via Flickr & Creative Commons.