“Hundreds turn out for gun control protest at Frist.”
You would be hard-pressed to identify when that headline came from. That goes to show just how routine gun violence has become in this country, a frequency that not only demonstrates the severity of the problem but also presents a significant barrier to a solution.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. On the subject of gun violence, our country is insane, both in the government’s inaction on gun control and in the public’s response to shootings.
A couple of weeks ago, we went through the chillingly routine process again: reports come out about another school shooting, this time in Santa Clarita, Calif., where a 14- and a 16-year-old student were killed.
A community mourns. Politicians feign disbelief that it could be happening again, and public figures tweet out their thoughts and prayers. Stories honor the people who were injured and killed. Horrifying testimonials convey the fear that children felt as they heard the pops of gunfire outside their classrooms. But eventually the dust settles and we accept that this is the new normal. Every few weeks, mass violence will happen, and we’ll run through the formula again. But nothing changes. Somehow the personal anguish never translates into political change.
In the time between my first draft of this column and this final draft, the space of about a week, another mass shooting occurred, this time in Fresno, Calif., where what police believe to be a targeted attack killed four Hmong men and injured six others as they watched football in their backyard.
That headline about the Frist protest was from 2018, after the Parkland shooting. That was before I arrived at Princeton, and I have seen little similar activism in my time here, even as an engaged member of political groups on campus. I did not notice any response to the most recent shootings, showing just how numb we have become to the gun violence that surrounds us. The unrelenting wave of shootings makes it hard to consistently muster the force we need to change the status quo. I cannot remember a time when gun violence was not a constant facet of life.
I remember where I was when Sandy Hook, the first mass shooting I can recall, happened. I was in sixth grade, driving home with my sister and our babysitter, when the report came on the radio. I was one year out of elementary school and one state over from Connecticut. The proximity of the violence filled me with fear. It was not totally displaced, either. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, more than 236,000 students have experienced gun violence in their schools, with little policy change over that time after an assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Children of our generation have grown up in a culture defined by mass violence.
Rather than passing legislation that limits access to firearms, we do everything we can to react to it. Ninety-five percent of schools now hold active shooter drills, which often cause more trauma than they actually help prepare kids. Parents are even buying bulletproof backpacks to protect their children from gun violence. As a country, we accept that students go to school in fear.
Gun violence is not limited to schools either. Last spring, after the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, I wrote a column about how we should learn from their swift and decisive action. We have not. In just this summer, 126 people lost their lives in 26 American mass shootings. None were at schools.
But since Congress has come back into session, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans have shown no interest in gun control legislation, even basic legislation, like universal background checks, that the overwhelming majority of Americans support. Instead, private companies like Walmart — the site of a mass shooting this summer — and Dick’s Sporting Goods are taking their own action.
We have seen that we cannot rely on those with power to act substantively to limit gun violence. So long as the government continues to drag its feet, we need to act ourselves. That means seeing the frequency of violence as a reason to redouble our efforts, not a reason for futility. It means challenging ourselves to see the urgency in every shooting, and to switch from a reactive to proactive posture in our engagement with gun reform.
If you have ever wondered what politics has to do with you, there is no clearer issue than gun violence; unfortunately, this is especially true for young people. This is why voting matters, why engagement with your representatives matters, why activism matters. Politicians have proven that they will not move until their positions become untenable. Sandy Hook did not make them move, nor did Parkland. This will only happen with an upsurge of public pressure we have not seen before. And that takes everybody.
America is unlike any other country on the planet in terms of amount of firearms and frequency of gun violence. Continuing to do nothing enforces this pattern, and the cycle will continue. Now more than ever, we have to stand up.
Julia Chaffers is a sophomore from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.