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I so want Kema Leonard to be right. A junior at North Carolina A&T University, and president of the College Democrats of North Carolina, he forcefully spoke last week at a student rally in the state capital of Raleigh condemning gun violence in the wake of the fatal shooting of professor Zijie Yan at North Carolina Chapel Hill. The rally also came five months after the fatal shooting of A&T freshman Deja Reaves at a party near the school’s campus.
Leonard vowed that gun violence will be a driving force for his generation in the 2024 elections. “You best believe we’re coming out in droves,” Leonard said. “Another day, another undue shooting, another life taken, another school year tarnished, and yet still another complacent governing body. We, the young people of this state and the young people of this union, call on our current elected officials to do the work to match your prayers, or count your days in office.”
Gun Rights vs. Our Children:
The number is so high that the Education Department said the data should be interpreted “with caution.” That caution is likely a temporary hedge to blunt criticism from the gun lobby, even as the number of school shootings with casualties is undeniably on a steep climb. There were 27 such shootings in the 2015-16 school year. By 2018-19, the number nearly tripled to 78.
We collectively have placed gun rights over the right to childhood innocence. The Washington Post has estimated that more than 350,000 school children have been exposed to gun violence since Columbine. The fear of shooters roaming hallways has permeated school culture to the point that 4.1 million K-12 school children experienced a lockdown in the 2017-18 school year.
The trauma of lockdowns is bad enough, without a bullet being fired. As the Post wrote: “The sudden order to hunker down can overwhelm students, who have wept and soiled themselves, written farewell messages to family members and wills explaining what should be done with their bicycles and PlayStations.”
Hunkering down has become all too frequent in college as well. A report by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City found that the number of shootings on or near college campuses zoomed from 40 in the period of 2001-2006 to 101 in the period of 2011-2016. The number of people killed or wounded soared from 61 in 2001-2006 to 208 in 2011-2016.
In absolutely no surprise, the report found nearly two-thirds of college campus shootings occurred in Southern states with lax gun laws. Tennessee had the same number of shootings as California even though the latter has nearly six times the population.
Is there any reason to think that more people care about this than in the feckless past? Is there any reason to believe politicians quake in their brogans and high heels when a college student says, “count your days” as they count the cash from the gun lobby? After all, according to Open Secrets, gun rights lobbyists have showered Congress with nearly $200 million since 1998, six and a half times more than the $30 million spent by gun control advocacy groups.
Gun rights groups spent a record $15.8 million in 2021, as President Biden took office pledging action against gun violence. As North Carolina students protest violence on their campuses, the state’s U.S. senators occupied two of the top four spots in donations from the National Rifle Association, according to estimates by the Brady gun control advocacy group. Richard Burr, who retired at the beginning of this year, received $7 million during his career from the NRA. Thom Tillis, now the state’s senior senator, has received $4.4 million.
Despite this, there is reason to believe that the answer to those questions is a hopeful “maybe.”
According to a National Public Radio/Marist Poll this spring, taken a year after the horrific elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, 60 percent of adults, the highest percentage in a decade, say it is more important to control gun violence than to protect gun rights. Ten years ago, just 49 percent agreed with that statement. Conversely, the percentage of respondents who say it is more important to protect gun rights has dropped from 48 percent in 2013 to 38 percent today.
And for all the crazed calls by gun rights advocates for teachers to be armed after every school shooting, people say by a 2-to-1 margin that their first reaction to a mass shooting is that this nation needs stricter gun laws.
A CNN poll also taken in the spring had some similar findings, with 64 percent of respondents favoring stricter gun control laws, up from 51 percent in 2017. The percentage of adults in this country who oppose stricter gun laws has dropped from 55 percent in 2014 to 36 percent today. And by a 2-to-1 margin, people think it is too easy to obtain a firearm, in a spring Pew poll.
Evidence that We are Tired of Gun Deaths:
As to whether that translates to gun violence being a voting issue in 2024, there’s significant hope for that, too. Last year, the Uvalde tragedy forced 15 Republicans, including Burr, Tillis, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and even the NRA’s top recipient, Utah’s Mitt Romney ($13.6 million) to join with Democrats in passing modest firearms restrictions, the first in more than a quarter century. The 65-35 vote came despite the conservative Supreme Court striking down New York State’s strict requirements to carry guns outside the home.
Then, in the 2022 midterms, about 140 volunteers for Moms Demand Action, the gun control group founded in the wake of Sandy Hook, won races around the nation, primarily in state legislatures.
The victories helped flip Minnesota and Michigan to states where the “gun sense majority,” i.e. Democrats, control the governor’s office and the state legislature. The diversity of candidates helped give Minnesota its first-ever Black and LBGTQ+ women in the state senate, the first Black woman to represent her county in the Missouri House and the first Black person to represent her district in the Indiana Senate.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, was so emboldened by the midterms that she told the Washington Post, “We have changed the political landscape in this country. This decade of grass-roots advocacy and electing gun-sense champions up and down the ballot has really enabled this seismic shift in American politics.”
The diversity included youth along the lines Leonard spoke for.
Florida Representative Maxwell Frost, a 25-year-old Afro Latino American from Orlando, is the first member of Generation Z to serve in Congress. Seared by Sandy Hook, the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando and the 2018 Parkland, Florida high school massacre, Frost was a teenage gun control activist who calls Generation Z the “mass shooting generation.” In March, after a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee claimed the lives of three children and three staff members, Frost blasted Republicans from the House floor as “cowards” who are “bought and paid for by the NRA.”
In Illinois, Democrat Nabeela Syed, a 23-year-old Indian American and Muslim, became the youngest member of the state Senate, beating an incumbent Republican. Fighting gun violence was a driving issue in her campaign. She told the Chicago Tribune that she was shaken in third grade by active shooter drills, and stunned during her campaign trail by parents who now tell her, “their kids are doing shooting drills in day care.”
In Minnesota, Zaynab Mohamed, 26, is one of those first Black women to be elected to the state Senate and one of the first from Gen Z. She won her race, despite getting an F grade from the Minnesota Gun Owner Caucus. In Georgia, Nabilah Islam, 33, and Ruwa Romman, 30, became the first Muslim women to be elected respectively to the state Senate and House.
In a state that allows the concealed carry of firearms without permits, Islam and Romman are among Democrats who have declared gun violence in Georgia, a “public safety crisis.” According to the Citizens Crime Commission report, Georgia was tied with Virginia for the third most college campus shootings between 2001 and 2016.
So, when Kema Leonard says, “we’re coming out in droves,” perhaps that march has already begun. Unfettered access to guns are a huge concern to communities disproportionately affected by school shootings, lockdowns and street violence. Polling of Black people in North Carolina, California and Georgia by the Black to the Future Action Fund found that gun violence drove them to the polls in the 2022 midterms about as much as concerns for jobs, the cost of living, abortion access and racism.
“By and large for Black voters,” Black to the Future found, “crime and violence is best addressed by getting guns off the street and investing money in safety nets and services.”
By and large, gun violence has become a concern to women regardless of party or race. A survey conducted by All in Together and Echelon Insights (the latter run by Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson) found that 61 percent of GOP women (which generally translates to White) favor restrictions on some kinds of weapons, compared to only 41 percent of Republican men. Lauren Leader, the founder of All in Together wrote in Politico in June:
“For years traditional women’s issues in American politics have been defined by paid leave, equal pay, childcare, abortion, and education. But our poll indicates that concerns about gun violence are galvanizing women on the left and center and establishing common ground with some conservative women.”
If that common ground continues to grow, perhaps the day is coming when politicians who don’t match their prayers with action against guns can count their days in office. Maybe that team that so often in the past felt like it had an 0-12 record, and now fueled by the energy of the next generation, can pull off the political upset that will benefit generations to come.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a former Boston Globe columnist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary.
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