How Can Teens Keep Processing Gun Violence, When Change Is So Slow?
Three-quarters of Gen Zers like me say mass shootings are a huge source of stress.
On June 23, when the Senate passed the first bipartisan gun deal since 1994, I felt a wave of relief. And on June 25, when President Joe Biden signed it into law, it felt groundbreaking. But it didn’t last. Only 10 days after the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law, I received a sharp slap in the face from a devastating headline: "Highland Park July 4th Parade Mass Shooting, six dead." The shooting occurred 30 minutes from where I live.
The day celebrating our nation’s independence ironically became an emblem of America's distinctive plague: mass shootings. Highland Park, devastated by a 21-year-old with his hands on an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, was the 315th mass shooting this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. It followed a number of other mass shootings in recent weeks: On May 14, 10 people were killed at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. On May 25, a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, at a school in Uvalde, Texas. As of July 28, the nation is up to over 370 mass shootings around the country.
Despite feeling inundated with news of more mass shootings, I found myself rocked by this shooting happening so close to home. Talking to people I knew from the area, I found many teens are still processing gun violence reaching their community, even if they don’t count themselves as “survivors.”
The placement of my generation in this is crushing.
"I was still in denial,” says Grace, a 16-year-old from the Highland Park-North Shore area who told me about the afternoon after the shooting. It was something mundane that drove reality home for her. “And then we had to close down the country club I was working at. That's when it became real." She adds, "If it can happen in Highland Park, it can happen anywhere."
Alice, 14, a rising freshman at Lake Forest High School, 6 miles northwest of Highland Park, recounted similar feelings in the aftermath of the shooting. "It was horrifying. Now, all these flags are hung half-mast." In a community as tight-knit as Highland Park, which has a population of just over 30,000, both Alice and Grace know several teenagers who were in and around the parade.
Teens like us, part of the "lockdown generation," are in a uniquely unfortunate position here: we’re on both sides of the gun violence crisis. On one side, Gen Zers are often victims of gun violence. According to the CDC, as of 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, guns are the leading cause of death among American children and teens. School shootings, like the one in Uvalde, have also burdened Gen Z students with trauma. According to the American Psychological Association, 75% of Gen Zers like me say mass shootings are a significant source of stress.
On the other side of this crisis, Gen Zers are often the perpetrators of gun violence. According to research conducted by The Washington Post, men aged 18-20 are among the highest risk of committing violence with firearms: In Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park, the shooters were all young men in their late teens or early 20s — per the publication, around 40% of mass shooters are age 18-29, and school shooters in particular are usually men in their late teens or early 20s.
The placement of my generation in this is crushing. I knew my thoughts were shared: When I talked to other teens about the recent gun violence, and what they want to see from legislators, they highlighted a lot of possibilities — and dissatisfaction with how little had been done.
"Illinois has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, yet this happened,” says Grace. “We can pass laws, but are they going to be impactful?" She firmly believes in raising the minimum age requirement for firearm ownership: "It shouldn’t be acceptable to buy these weapons right out of high school. You can't drink at 18, but you can buy a gun?"
Last month’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is the first major gun legislation in nearly 30 years, a victory for gun safety advocates and frustrated teens like me. The bill reserves roughly $13 billion for addressing mental health and school security, incentivizes states to implement red flag programs, expands background checks on people ages 18-21, and addresses domestic violence by closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”
But one of the things it doesn’t address is Grace’s concern: it doesn’t raise the minimum purchase age of a firearm, which is currently 18 except for handguns. Nor does it ban assault weapons, or require universal background checks. Polls show that most Americans, including gun owners, approve of many of these common-sense solutions: A poll released by Ipsos after the Uvalde tragedy found that across political parties, 84% of respondents supported background checks for all firearms sales, 72% supported raising the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21, and 70% backed "red flag" laws.
I don't feel protected just yet.
What gives Alice the most anxiety is the state-by-state patchwork of laws, meaning a gun that’s illegal in her own state can be easily purchased right across the border. "Our North Shore area [borders] states like Wisconsin, where it may be easier to purchase a firearm than here in Illinois."
Tyler, a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania, doesn’t find the current flagging system effective in rooting out threats. "I find it very frustrating that after every shooting, we learn that there was this trail of online violence and extremism of the shooter," he says. While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act aims to support the expansion of red-flag laws, the existing red-flag laws in Illinois weren't enforced aggressively enough to prevent the Highland Park mass shooting. According to Reuters, the system did not flag the shooter’s gun purchases, despite previous threats.
Though Tyler believes the deal's $750 million investment in red-flag state programs will make an impact, it didn't go far enough for him. "But I do appreciate the funding for mental health," he adds, referring to the billion-dollar grant funds towards school-based mental health programs and youth-aimed suicide prevention programs. He believes this funding for youth wellness is crucial to prevent gun violence amongst Gen Zers.
"I don't feel protected just yet," adds Laurence, 19. Laurence, a member of the National Advisory Board for Students Demand Action, a leading youth-led gun safety advocacy group, prioritizes universal background checks on all private sales. While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act expanded the definition of who has to conduct background checks, it’s still legal under federal law to buy and sell guns between individuals without doing a check. "I've talked with many Gen Z Republicans [and] gun owners, and we agreed in principle: No one wants violence," he says. “Common-sense solutions, like universal background checks, make sense among the people who respect their guns and understand their power."
Laurence has seen the impact of public pressure on the gun safety debate. In the days following the Uvalde shooting, he was working as a congressional intern for Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. “We picked up calls all day and heard cries,” he says. “Americans called every single member of Congress countless times and said, 'Enough is enough. We need common-sense gun laws.’ This forced senators to sit in one room, work out their differences, and pass legislation."
The system is frustrating, and change is conspicuously slow — like, 30 years slow. But Gen Z has been taking action — and it’s had effects. Marching outside each state’s capitol building, vigorously campaigning for policies, and registering young voters, youth advocacy groups like Students Demand Action and March for Our Lives have organized grassroots movements nationally, demanding their representatives hear what they want. “I've been doing this for four and a half years. We can't afford to give up now,” Laurence says.
If anything is clear, it's this: We, Gen Zers, are vulnerable — but also powerful. The lawmakers might be three times our age, but this violence impacts us manifold. We should have a significant say in the legislature that aims to protect us, and Gen Zers like me demand courage from all parties to defeat this violent epidemic. Tyler sums it up nicely: "Change doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up."
For those of us who demand action, we can enlist in chapters and attend events run nationwide by organizations like March for Our Lives and Students Demand Action. We can contact our state congressional representatives and let them know what we want from our state’s gun laws — further investment in red-flag programs, assault rifle regulations, and universal background checks, according to Grace, Alice, Tyler, and Laurence. As the generation most impacted, we must continue to work for future legislation that’s more expansive and more impactful.
Alice has hope for her community, so recently rocked by this American tragedy. "We will bounce back as a community," she says. The same is true for our generation. With hope and grit, we can forge a safer reality.