Gun Violence
Students seen at the end of a long hallway lined with lockers

Back To School Doesn't Have To Mean Back To School Shootings

We don’t have to go back to the anxiety and fear.

By Maddie Ahmadi
Miquel Llonch, Getty Images

Your first day of school is scary — will people like you? Will you find your classes in a new building? What are the teachers going to be like? But teens like myself have more to worry about than that. With the full return of in-person learning, we have to worry about COVID-19 — but also what happens if someone comes to school with a gun?

The kids at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, unfortunately, know the answer to that. On Aug. 13, the third day of school, a 13-year-old student came to school with his father’s gun and shot and killed his fellow classmate Bennie Hargrove, who was de-escalating a fight during lunchtime. Hargrove was shot six times and died later at a nearby hospital. On Sept. 2, another school shooting made the news when student William Chavis Raynard Miller Jr. was shot and killed at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Hearing about school shootings never gets easier. Each time I hear about another devastating tragedy, I grieve for my peers and fear for the possibility of something terrible happening in my own school. Now, with schools going back to in-person learning, we’re returning to the anxiety, fear, and uneasiness of being in schools without adequate solutions to the gun violence public health crisis that continues to rage in our country.

I wanted to take action that would save lives.

In 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were at least 130 shootings on school grounds in the United States, which were responsible for 32 deaths, according to Everytown for Gun Safety research. In 2020, when many schools were closed, there were 84 shootings. And in 2021, as of the first week of September, there have already been at least 43 instances of gunfire in schools and at least 12 deaths. Gun violence is not limited to schools, either. Every day, more than 100 people in the United States are shot and killed, and more than 200 are wounded. Each of these numbers represent people, families, and whole communities that deal with the repercussions of gun violence.

This isn’t an inevitable reality. School shootings are preventable. Research from Everytown shows that in cases of gun violence on school grounds, up to 80% of shooters under the age of 18 obtained their guns from their own home, a relative’s home, or from friends. Securely storing firearms — locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition — can help prevent this violence.

In 2019, I started my own Students Demand Action chapter in my high school in Essex, Vermont, and in 2020, I joined the Students Demand Action National Advisory Board. I wanted to address the type of gun violence that makes up more than 80% of gun deaths in my state of Vermont — gun suicide. Research shows millions of kids live in homes with unsecured firearms, which only increases the risk a child can access the gun. I needed a way to show our community this was a serious problem and to get authorities to fix it. I knew that secure storage was one of the most effective ways to prevent gun suicide, and therefore an effective strategy to address gun violence in Vermont. I wanted to take action that would save lives. Secure storage was the answer.

In December 2020, our school’s Students Demand chapter pressed the Essex Westford School District superintendent to send home notifications about securely storing firearms — a tactic learned from years of Moms Demand Action organizing. We succeeded, and the letters went out in spring 2021. Now, we’re working on doing the same thing statewide. Thanks to our work and the work of grassroots volunteers across the country, nearly 9,000 students live in districts where we’ve sent secure storage notifications in Vermont. As of fall 2021, we’re on track to reach more than 2 million students around the country this year.

The threat of gun violence in my school scares me, but it also ignites me to action.

There was always pushback, but we pushed forward. Our success proves there is power in grassroots and relational organizing: By taking action on this one thing, in our own communities, who knows how many lives we could save? As we continue to face devastating gun violence in our country, the gun violence prevention movement is making progress — and there is a reason to be hopeful. Starting my own group was challenging, but I’ve already seen the benefits: It allows students to feel empowered, to reflect on how they feel during school lockdowns, and to cope with the terrifying realities of gun violence in schools.

My generation is tired of feeling the world around us slip back into normalcy just hours after shootings that rock our communities. We are tired of always getting thoughts and prayers instead of protection. The threat of gun violence in my school scares me, but it also ignites me to action. We are standing up, speaking out, and organizing to make sure the gun violence affecting our communities is being addressed.

As millions of students across the country return to classrooms for the first time in more than a year, we are facing so much more than just first-day jitters. Many are fearful for our lives, not just from COVID-19 but also from the return of shootings in places we should feel safe: our classrooms. Right now, as we head back to those classrooms, is the time to get involved with the gun violence prevention movement. Our voices, advocacy, and action are more important than ever if we want to keep our schools, communities, and homes safe from this public health crisis. It’s more urgent than ever.

Maddie Ahmadi is a high school junior in Vermont and a member of the Students Demand Action National Advisory Board.