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Life Neither seen nor heard: pitfalls of the gun reform movement

Apr. 29, 2019
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Illustration by Sky Kim.

When I first heard about the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I couldn’t comprehend how I was feeling. Sitting in my algebra class and watching my phone screen light up with notifications as more details emerged and the death toll increased nauseated me. I remember going home that evening and being unable to turn off the news. 

I was halfway through ninth grade when the shooting occurred, and I remember how I had begun my freshman year vowing to never talk about politics. In previous years I had been branded a bit of a political loudmouth by my classmates, and at the time, I wanted nothing more than to lose that label and redefine myself. Somewhere between seeing the Parkland students confront politicians and watching students across the country speak out against gun violence, I realized that remaining apolitical in this situation would make me part of the problem. 

In the weeks following the shooting, I threw myself into local organizing. I led a walkout at my school, organized rallies, and created an activist union in my school district. I suddenly found myself immersed in a world of protests and voter registration, and for the first time, I discovered that even in the conservative Texas suburb I lived in, there were people who shared my views and beliefs. My first few months as a fledgling teen activist felt electric and nothing short of invigorating and inspiring; however, as time progressed I began to question things.

When the kids from Parkland who had founded March for Our Lives came to my city as part of their nationwide Road to Change tour, everyone and anyone with a mild interest in gun reform flocked to their event. Swaths of squealing teenagers rushed to take photos with many of the more prominent faces of the movement, and despite how impactful the day was, I left feeling a bit uneasy. At the event, I recall hearing people fawn over the Parkland students’ appearances. When I went home and tried to look up a gun violence survivor who I’d heard speak that day, I came across a fan account dedicated to him. The further I looked, the more I found there to be a terrifyingly prevalent subculture of romanticization of school shooting victims. Oftentimes it wasn’t as overt as an actual social media account dedicated to a certain figure, yet I came across plenty of self-described “activists” who were fixated purely on garnering praise and attention from individuals who had the most fame and influence. It bewildered me how a movement that began out of such necessity and with such good intentions was devolving into more of a celebrity cause. 

The obsession and fanaticism was certainly not the worst of the issues that plague the gun reform movement. Organizing was gatekept, and the conversation was almost always dominated by wealthy white voices, many of whom hadn’t experienced gun violence firsthand. Undoubtedly, Parkland had been the catalyst in the rise of advocacy, but it was also an upper-middle class, largely white suburb. It felt at times as though that was the only demographic being represented and appealed to. Black and brown kids rarely received equal recognition or airtime, despite having oftentimes faced gun violence on a much more direct and everyday basis. Inner-city youth were used regularly as a talking point but rarely became the face of any concrete legislative actions or lobbying efforts. 

For a long time, I ignored the issues with tokenism and race within many gun reform groups. I found myself thinking that making noise would be too polarizing, that it would only hurt the cause. It wasn’t until I came across a Refinery29 article about black students from Parkland being ostracized from the gun control movement that I realized something was deeply wrong. I saw increasing numbers of black and brown organizers nationwide resign from local positions in March for Our Lives, and I understood that complacency was only going to make things worse. In the same way that it had occurred to me last year that not speaking up in the aftermath of Parkland was willful ignorance, keeping quiet now—as more and more individuals became disenfranchised—felt like a betrayal to my own voice and values. 

I am not writing this to shame or fracture any organization. I am talking about this purely out of the love I have for this movement, and my belief that it can be far more inclusive and intersectional than it is now. I don’t blame the Parkland students, nor do I question the validity of their trauma. I am more disappointed in the ways much of this country finds more sympathy for victims of a tragedy when the victims are white and privileged. I cannot help but feel dismayed when in a time where more people are paying attention to gun violence than ever before, the people who control the narrative surrounding it choose to brush aside communities of color rather than uplifting them. I am perplexed when activists in my own city have paid more attention to wealthy schools going into lockdown drills, without the threat of a shooting, than they have to an innocent black man being shot by an off-duty police officer in his own home. 

Gun violence is not as simple of an issue as an isolated incident or a mass shooting. It is a web of tragedy involving school shootings, inner-city violence, suicide, police brutality, and a multitude of other circumstances. It is about more than a single piece of legislation, and it requires an emphasis on the people and places it impacts the most. Giving marginalized folks or people of color that importance and space is long overdue, and for many organizers, it means taking a step back and listening to someone else’s story rather than telling it for them. No one can control the privilege they have; all I ultimately hope for is that those with greater mobility and impact make sure they are using their voices to make room for the unheard.