I’m excited to bring to Step Up a column on why this generation of changemakers needs to pay attention to current political issues. Each one will emphasize finding solutions and taking action as a young person in today’s political culture.
This week, I’m calling on you to pay a little more attention to something the news probably hasn’t let you forget: guns in schools.
We know the numbers.
17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the deadliest school shooting in five years.
It’s one of about 14 shootings at schools across the country in 2018 -- an average of about one each week.
We know that the US has the 31st highest rate of gun violence in the world, ranking far higher than other industrialized countries of similar socioeconomic status.
But what we can’t seem to figure out is what to do about it.
Everyone seems to have an answer to why gun violence happens, from President Trump blaming violent video games to gun-owning conservatives blaming mental illness, and everyone seems to know the solution: banning certain types of guns and increasing the legal age to purchase from 18 to 21 have been popular ideas lately.
While many measures of gun control would certainly help, not all of them are as politically feasible -- or probably even as effective -- as other options.
Some have suggested arming teachers so they can protect themselves and their students in the event of an attack. Teachers responded by asking to be armed not with weapons, but with increased funding, school psychologists and more opportunities to get to know and provide support for individual students.
America rarely listens to its public school teachers -- for example, it took a two-week strike for West Virginia educators to get a five percent pay raise -- but their solution is exactly what we need to pay attention to.
Why should we pay attention?
On the Friday after the Parkland shootings, experts in the study of school violence came together to discuss not just the causes of what had happened, but what could be done to prevent it from occurring again.
They organized as the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, spent the next two weeks sharing ideas and information from their work and ultimately produced the Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America.
What they found reaffirmed the teachers’ responses: additional security alone isn’t going to cut it.
The document, which calls for a “comprehensive public health approach to gun violence" supported by scientific research and free from politics, has since been signed by national education and mental health organizations, school districts and over 200 universities, as well as more than 2,300 individual gun- and school-violence experts.
It outlines three levels of prevention, the first being “promoting safety and well-being for everyone."
On this level, the Group calls for all schools to assess their educational environment, identify gaps and establish a community of respect, anti-bullying and anti-harassment.
This comes from the research that indicates that children who are bullied, neglected or otherwise marginalized might retaliate through extremely violent measures.
For example, in 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had been bullied in school.
The first level also includes banning “assault-style weapons, high-capacity ammunition clips, and products that modify semi-automatic firearms to enable them to function like automatic firearms."
The second level includes strategies for outreach to those who may be at risk of becoming violent.
It echoes teachers’ requests for increasing numbers of mental health professionals in schools and communities while “recognizing that violence is not intrinsically a product of mental illness."
Disciplinary action reform “to reduce exclusionary practices and foster positive social, behavioral, emotional, and academic success for students" also makes the list.
Current discipline policies, such as suspensions and expulsions, are largely ineffective and often isolating to at-risk students who act out at school. Educators, experts and researchers have been developing tiered systems of dealing with behavioral problems in schools for the last decade or so, including the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER Approach, which prioritizes talking out students’ feelings before behavioral problems manifest or worsen.
Rather than a harsh, punitive approach, these facilitate communication and help students access the resources they need to deal with underlying issues in healthier, more positive ways -- without expecting them to bottle up their unresolved emotions.
RULER and approaches like it have been proven to improve school climate, reduce depression and anxiety in students, increase their emotional intelligence and social skills, decrease bullying and even uplift teachers’ morale.
The second part of the second level calls for universal background checks for all individuals applying for gun licenses.
Finally, the last level includes direct intervention for violent individuals.
The Groups calls for the establishment of a national training program for school and community threat assessment and intervention teams, including mental health professionals and law enforcement.
The other steps in this tier include “removal of legal barriers to sharing safety-related information" among qualified responders when individuals have threatened violence and the establishment of laws which allow law enforcement to collect and temporarily remove firearms from those individuals.
While this eight step Call for Action prioritizes mental health, it’s important to note that it very carefully avoids blaming mental illness for gun violence as many have started to do.
Mental illness and emotional instability are easy scapegoats for opponents of gun control, but it unfairly marginalizes the mentally ill, who already face tremendous discrimination in our society.
It also provides an easy excuse for choosing to recognize America’s gun problem for what it is.
It’s easy to understand why so many Americans struggle with the idea of gun control: this country was founded on freedoms and liberties, and Americans rank individuality and independence more highly on their lists of central values than people from other countries. It’s ingrained in us that we should be able to do nearly anything we’d like to, and the idea of losing any freedoms at all scandalizes and scares us.
For example, nearly three-fourths of gun owners reported that owning a gun is essential to their freedom, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
The way our society works, however, is by choosing which values to prioritize over others. This time, it comes down to our right to bear arms and our right to life.
The penultimate paragraph in the Call for Action is as follows: “Congress and the executive branch must remove barriers to gun violence research and institute a program of scientific research on gun violence that encompasses all levels of prevention. We contend that well-executed laws can reduce gun violence while protecting all Constitutional rights."
In short, balancing our freedoms with our safety is not as simple as banning guns, arming teachers, reducing exposure to media violence or increasing security in schools. It’s much more complex, but with caring and caution, it’s more than possible.
What can you do about it?
Young people often feel excluded and unheard in political conversations. Gun violence is one issue on which these voices should be prioritized the most. Here are a few suggestions for getting involved:
The most important first step to enacting policy change is agenda-setting: getting people to pay attention to an issue by explaining to them why they must act.
This is why protests are more effective than many people think -- their purpose is to get attention. They don’t have to gain national recognition like the Women’s March or March for Our Lives, either; they can be local walks through your community or the increasingly popular school walkout. (One of our own writers, Malavika Kannan, wrote an article for Step Up about her experience leading one of these school walkouts!)
Other forms of protest include choosing not to shop at stores that sell guns to individuals under 21 years of age or refusing to support organizations and politicians affiliated with the NRA.
2. Contact your reps.
If you want to push for more legislative action in our area, it’s easier than ever these days to contact your representatives.
Find out your state Senators’ stances on gun control, and review their statements and remarks post-Parkland. Use this site to find out who they are and how to contact them. If they aren’t working towards goals you support, you can reach out to them and let them know what you as their constituent wants to see happen.
Many organizations and individuals on social media have written and shared scripts that you can use when reaching out to politicians, or you can come up with your own response.
3. If you can vote, do it.
I don’t recommend becoming a single-issue voter, but make sure that gun policies are something you look at when choosing your candidates. Use sites like Ballotpedia and VoteSmart to see candidates’ statements, votes and actions regarding a specific issue, and use OpenSecrets to see which organizations or individuals donated to their campaigns: if gun control is an issue to you, for example, you’ll probably want to avoid politicians who sit in the NRA’s pockets. (You can also use these resources to help you learn about individuals who are currently in office.)
Make sure to pay attention to officials on all levels of government, not just the President or your Senators. Your vote is more important than you think, especially on the local level.