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Survey examining youth experience of gun violence underscores need for action

On Feb. 8, 2016, my 75-year-old mother and her friend were killed while reading the morning paper and drinking coffee – two elderly women shot point blank for their credit cards.

My mother was visiting a friend who had recently lost her husband when the perpetrators broke into the house. She was killed with a gun purchased online without a background check. This will never be easy for me. What happened that morning in my mother’s sleepy retirement community will never make sense.

But what also makes no sense is that our country continues to suffer from mass shootings and daily gun violence. Every day in the U.S., at least 120 people are shot and killed, and more than 200 are shot and wounded, one analysis found. Countless other people experience the collective trauma of gun violence – lives taken, and lives forever changed. And it’s not a matter of someone being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Your child’s school is not “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Neither is someone’s place of worship or home.

It’s clear there’s a deadly problem in this country.

Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with its allies to produce the U.S. Youth Attitudes on Guns Report, which found that four out of five youth agree that the level of gun violence in the U.S. is a problem. And for good reason: Guns are the leading cause of death for children, teens and young adults in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the report found that 51% of youth surveyed reported being worried about a shooting happening at their school or a school near them. Such fears are tragically well-founded, as youth surveyed know, on average, at least one person who has been injured or killed by a gun.

This month, the SPLC and its partners released the second part of this project. Unlike the first report, which featured statistics from the youth surveyed, this report provided qualitative findings, a look at how young people are experiencing the gun issue in this country as documented through focus group interviews. The latest report – a partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University – is our youth speaking to us, and they need to be heard.

Overall, the report’s findings illustrate a “looming presence of guns – in both a physical and psychological sense – in the lives of young Americans.” Consider this finding: “Rumination and hypervigilance about a mass shooting happening at work, school or in their neighborhood were common symptoms found in our sample, as were detachment and numbness.”

Recognizing that numbness is key.

That’s because adults become numb, too. And that numbness becomes inaction, which we cannot afford. These types of reports reinforce what we hold true: Success depends on our commitment to counter the hate, violence and rhetoric used to exploit our fears. And there is reason for hope. Seventy percent of Americans in a 2022 poll said they prioritize laws reducing gun violence over gun rights laws.

That’s despite the pervasive lie from far-right activists and politicians that we are safer with guns.

We can reduce gun violence. Great movements have at their core strongly connected grassroots members. I keep my hope rooted in the fact that I am a powerful participant and witness to the transformation in society and that there are actions every person can take with their family, community, schools and political leaders. 

This is what drives me every day when I get up. It’s why I shared my tragedy with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2021 when it examined gun violence.

It may seem at times that the gun violence prevention movement is not making a difference. However, for every life that is not lost, every person who is not shot, it makes a difference. Every gathering to raise awareness makes a difference. Every report, like this one, makes a difference. Gun violence prevention is not hopeless, and we are not helpless.

While I miss my mom every day, I move forward in the spirit of hope. We must remain steadfast in our demand for gun safety laws. And we must vote out complacency. That’s because the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with millions of people with a vote.

Robin Brule is the program officer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Vote Your Voice program. The views expressed by the author are not an official position statement of Vote Your Voice.

Photo at top: “Gun violence prevention is not hopeless, and we are not helpless,” says Robin Brule, the program officer for the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice program. (Credit: Malcolm Jackson)