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Gun violence is as much about changing our culture as it is about changing our laws, says UVA undergrad activist

People lined up next to a podium with a man in a suit speaking at microphones, two on the edge are wearing red and black t-shirts with slogans on them. There is a historical painting behind them.

The first time I confronted gun violence, I was 15 years old at Madison West High School in Wisconsin in 2018. We were celebrating Valentine’s Day when a student threatened a security guard with a gun and the whole school went on lockdown until he was disarmed and in custody.

The second time, I was 19 at the University of Virginia in 2022. I went on lockdown in a library overnight — but this time, three students were killed.

Since that first encounter, gun violence has been constantly on my mind. Community safety alerts flood my email inbox, updates on school shootings around the country — recently, a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee at the end of March — flood my home screen. The chatter about how to protect our communities serves as an incessant reminder of the epidemic that our country is facing.

As students rally for change in Tennessee, I too want to continue to address gun violence. I already knew we needed new laws in high school, when I realized that gun violence costs lives, and joy too. But I’ve come to see my advocacy as a struggle for a cultural, not just legislative, change.

On Valentine’s Day, 2018, we learned about a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A 19-year-old former student shot and killed 14 students and three staff members, and injured 17 others. It was the first major school shooting that I was old enough to truly understand.

Two days later was my favorite day at my high school in Wisconsin. It was called “Singing Valentines,” when on the Friday closest to Valentine’s Day, groups of students traveled classroom to classroom serenading their friends and distracting our teachers from important coursework. It was on this special day in 2018 that my own school in Wisconsin went on lockdown. In the days following, my school debated whether they could allow students to travel unaccounted for in the hallways for the tradition. They eventually decided to keep the celebration, but added additional security, like more security guards and a stricter hallway policy.

The majority of victims in the Parkland shooting were freshmen, just like I was. After experiencing a lockdown, I felt an intense relationship with those victims. I understood their excitement for their future, their anxiety over performing well in classes, and the way typical teenagers interact with their friends. I could not understand why that excitement had to be stripped from them. My heightened empathy added a depth to my understanding of the dire need to address gun violence. I started a chapter of March For Our Lives at my high school, a non-partisan, youth-led organization that taught me the potential of bottom-up movements. I became the organizing director for Wisconsin and facilitated the creation of chapters across the state, to help students use their voices to make change in their communities.

For the rest of my time in high school I organized walkouts and other student-led campaigns. We encouraged young people to reach out to their elected officials on important issues and registered those who were eligible to vote. We gathered thousands of supporters at the Wisconsin state Capitol, demanding legislative change and the implementation of common sense gun laws. We listened to survivors.

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I came to intimately know the triumph — and the frustration — of organizing work. Working within the limitations and pace of legislative change posed obstacles, but also led me to understand a deeper, cultural issue. When our society rethinks how we glorify guns as a tool for safety, legislative change will follow. Young people have the power to spark this re-evaluation. 

My Twitter feed these days is filled with videos of young people filling the Tennessee capitol building, and joining together in moving renditions of “This Little Light of Mine.” We frequently hear that we are the next generation and must fight to make the world a better place for our future. While this burden cannot rest squarely on young people’s shoulders — older generations must be accountable for the ways they have created these conditions — young people can, indeed, shape our own futures. The power of youth protest has been proven time and time again, effectively keeping the issue of gun violence in the public eye and contributing to the passing of multiple state-level gun safety laws. Following the Parkland Shooting, for example, Florida passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, banned bump stocks and imposed a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases. 

And yet, our lives remain inundated with the realities of gun violence.

I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to organize around a cause when it doesn’t remind you of a traumatic event you just experienced. On Nov. 13, three students were shot and killed, and two were injured, on my college campus, UVA. 

Organizing and hearing survivors  is much easier than seeing the “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT” notification on your own phone. I was at Clemons Library on Grounds that Sunday. I had a microeconomics test, a term paper, a policy memo and a politics test that coming week, and by 10 p.m. my brain was fried. I was finally packing up to leave when we received the first community alert about an active shooter. I flipped my phone over and continued packing — we get these alerts so often that I rarely stop to process them. It wasn’t until a friend received a text that students on a class field trip had been shot, and that the shooter was on the run, that I agreed to wait at the library.

At first, my friends and I looked around for hiding spots. We hid under tables and booths and in the study rooms, in case the shooter came to the library. Without many updates, we feared the worst. For the next five hours, we were tuned into police scanners and texting our friends to try to get any information. We spent the rest of the time trying to distract ourselves with crosswords and sitcoms.

After the shooting at UVA, I was sad, scared, angry and frustrated with myself, with this country and with its gun policy. Frankly, I was disenchanted with the gun violence prevention movement.

Karly Scholz, undergraduate student at UVA

But by 3 a.m., there was no end in sight. Desperate to get home, seven of us piled into a car and watched each other closely as we were dropped off one by one. Many other students stayed at the library overnight until the stay in place order was lifted the next morning. 

After the shooting at UVA, I was sad, scared, angry and frustrated with myself, with this country and with its gun policy. Frankly, I was disenchanted with the gun violence prevention movement. I worked tirelessly for years and still I could not stop gun violence from reaching my own beloved community.

While trying to reignite my passion for making my community safer, I found an approach that changed the way I thought about gun violence in our country.

I now serve on the Youth Council for Project Unloaded, an national nonprofit organization that shares basic facts, citing public health and policy studies: Gun violence, both intentional and accidental, is the leading cause of death among young people in the U.S. Gun ownership has been increasing drastically in the last several years. And gun deaths, both suicides and homicides, are also on the rise. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2021, the year I started at UVA, more people died from gun-related injuries than any other year. A Pew Research analysis of that data found that, while the rate of gun-related deaths has gone down, the U.S. still has higher rates than most other developed nations. 

There is clear evidence that owning a gun increases the chances of suicide, homicide and intimate partner violence. I now believe the solution is to change the cultural narrative surrounding guns, and want to do so by engaging young people while they are forming their beliefs.

After organizing direct action throughout high school, I’ve shifted my focus to flipping the script on gun culture so that young people choose, on their own terms, to be unloaded. I think that, after changing the way the media and major industries portray gun violence, showing the real danger guns pose, legislative change will follow.

Through a series of social media and on-the-ground campaigns, including a strong Instagram presence and the strategic use of TikTok influencers to appeal to young people, I am working with Project Unloaded to elevate the facts and create a community for those who choose not to own a gun. A Project Unloaded survey of 1,000 people, aged 13 to 25, found that most young people believe that guns make them safer, and I believe presenting clear information on the risks is the key to fostering an organic, generational shift.

There’s a gap in our conversations around gun violence. We need to be talking about the culture — not necessarily the policies surrounding it, but the way people interact with guns in everyday life. I hope to continue to arm students with facts about gun risks, fostering a generational shift in the perception of gun safety, and saving the lives of my peers in the process.