Gun violence is a public health emergency that requires urgent action | Opinion

·6 min read

I vividly remember being at Roberta T. Smith Elementary School in Rex, Georgia, just southeast of Atlanta, giggling with my friends as we practiced active shooter drills. They were also known as intruder alerts.

Our teachers would turn off all of the lights in the classroom and move students away from the windows. My peers and I treated it like it was a brief break from learning. We'd all cram up together underneath the desks, in closets or tucked away in a corner, whispering to each other until the principal indicated the drill was over.

It wasn't until I got to high school that I realized they were trying to prepare us for a real life-or-death situation. There were plenty of times when my high school was put on lockdown because of a report of a gun on campus. One time we spent the entire school day on lockdown, stuck in our first period classes as the police searched the school for a weapon.

As a child, you shouldn't have to worry about someone bringing a gun to your school with the intentions of hurting you, but in this day and age you have to be prepared.

I don't think there are enough conversations about how to fix the gun violence issue in this country. It seems like most people charge the lives of those lost to gun violence to "the game of life" rather than attempting to fight for tighter gun control laws that would help keep people safe.

More: Opinion | It's more important than ever to have talk about gun violence

Mass shootings are increasing in America

The year 2021 superseded 2020 as the worst year for gun violence in decades. According to the Gun Violence Archives (GVA), 44,796 people died from gun violence in 2021, compared with the 43,638 people that died from gun violence in 2020.

Some may argue that this is just a side effect of the dragging COVID-19 pandemic, but I don’t find that to be the only reason. This country’s gun control issues started long before March 2020.

Mass shootings have been a problem in this country for decades now. The Columbine High School massacre took place in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 — leaving 12 teenagers and one teacher dead.

Since then we've seen endless national news coverage of deadly school shootings over the years: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018; Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, also in 2018 — just to name a few.

On Nov. 30, 2021, a mass shooting took place at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Michigan, which left four teenagers dead and six others wounded at the hands of a 15-year-old with a hand gun purchased by his parents.

Mass shootings increased by 106% from 2018 to 2021 according to GVA. Despite the increasing amount of gun violence across the country, not much has been done to combat the issue.

We’re only seeing such a historical spike now, because of COVID-19 — which we know has been the far gone systems and problems that this country has been facing for decades.

Gun violence is a health epidemic and economic crisis

Tennessee has the 14th highest rate of gun violence in the country according to Everytown for Gun Safety — a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence.

Students, Yara Ali, left, and Zoe Newcomb comfort each other, as they protest against gun violence on school campuses after walking out of class at John Overton High School on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Nashville Tenn. The walkout was part of a national student movement to protest for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim in the Parkland school shooting in Florida.
Students, Yara Ali, left, and Zoe Newcomb comfort each other, as they protest against gun violence on school campuses after walking out of class at John Overton High School on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Nashville Tenn. The walkout was part of a national student movement to protest for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim in the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

The rate of gun deaths increased 28% from 2010 to 2019 in the state, compared with a 17% increase nationwide. According to Everytown, an average of 111 children and teens in Tennessee die by guns every year — 62% of which are homicides.

Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. Black Tennesseans are two times more likely than white Tennesseans to die by guns. They are also eight times more likely than white people to die by gun homicide.

Yet, Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that allows people 21 or older to carry a handgun without a permit, which went into effect on July 1, 2021. This new law only makes it easier to obtain a gun. Who's to say that the gun won't end up in the wrong hands?

There's been a constant rise of stolen guns from vehicles in Davidson County. According to the Metro Nashville Police Department, there was a 35% increase of guns stolen from vehicles in Nashville from 2020 to 2021. More than 70% of all guns reported stolen in 2021 (1,852) were taken from vehicles.

Concerned citizens hold a rally at the state capitol to end gun violence Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.
Concerned citizens hold a rally at the state capitol to end gun violence Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.

There's no way to know where these guns have ended up, but it's safe to assume that they aren't with anyone responsible since they were stolen to begin with.

Gun violence is not only a growing epidemic, but it's also an economic crisis. According to Everystat.org, Tennessee has the 8th highest societal cost of gun violence in the U.S. Gun injuries and death cost the state $9 billion annually of which taxpayers are paying $433 million. That's $1,346 per Tennessee resident each year.

If innocent children and dedicated educators dying isn’t enough motivation to put a stop to gun violence, maybe the thought of saving money will spark some interest in gun control.

No parent should have to bury their child

I've lost a few friends to gun violence over the years and it never gets any easier. I remember the first time it really hit me that kids my age could actually get shot and die.

A few weeks before I graduated from high school, a friend of mine was shot and killed at his college acceptance party. I still think about how Jesse never got the chance to celebrate his 18th birthday, continue his basketball career or walk across the stage and accept his high school diploma.

Kyra Watts- headshot
Kyra Watts- headshot

I still think about the fact that his parents had to bury their baby just two weeks before his graduation and 18th birthday.

No parent should ever have to bury their child because of an act of gun violence. It's time for a new approach to solve this country's gun violence issue.

It’s always the same initial sorrow, sympathetic tweet or Instagram post and lack of action after unintentional or mass shootings. It's time for our government officials, like Gov. Bill Lee, to address this raging issue — not support it with a constitutional carry law.

We need laws that strengthen the background check system in order to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. We need to initiate and prioritize programs for local city gun violence and help heal those devastated communities that were impacted.

It's time to heal this traumatized country by making schools safer for children. It's time that we start to treat gun violence like it's a public health emergency — because it is.

Kyra Watts, an Atlanta native, is a graduate of Florida A&M University, and a writer and editor on the opinion and engagement team at The Tennessean in Nashville. She can be reached @Kyrawatts98 on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Gun violence in Tennessee: Address this public health emergency