To be a child in public school in America is to know existential fear and endure it daily.
Two-plus decades of mass shootings have conspired to blanket our public schools with a mist of foreboding, a sense of broader futility. The number of school shootings in 2022 alone is approaching 30. This unyielding but random threat of gun violence has been an all-too-standard experience for Black and Brown communities. It seems that communities historically insulated from gun violence and those that haven’t have an increasing and tragic form of common ground. Will this shared experience, if still divergent overall, be sufficient to thaw the glaciation of gun law reform?
The smoldering anger held by so many would seem to indicate it’s at least possible. Recent polling, in the wake of tragedies in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, puts support for enhanced gun control at nearly 60 percent. Even a majority of gun owners—56 percent in the same survey—say reducing gun violence should be prioritized ahead of 2nd Amendment concerns. Is this renewed anger enough? As Malcolm X told us, people don’t do much when they are sad, but when they are angry they really take action.
This issue is personal to me, not just because I am a Black man and a Black public school educator who has seen what gun violence has done to my community and others like it over the decades. I lost a cousin to gun violence and I am myself a victim of gun violence.
Shortly after I graduated from college I was shot while playing a pick-up game of football. The 19 year old that shot me for an in-game dispute had dropped out of school during 8th grade. Being shot is actually what set me on the path to becoming an educator—I wanted to work with young people who were headed toward a life of violence, to support them where society had failed them. And society has failed them: our deeply inequitable public education system leaves too many young people damaged and ill-equipped to navigate the hard reality of poverty in America. Such a grim today coupled with an ever bleaker tomorrow awash in easy access to guns means that violence can be just a mundane dispute away in too many communities.
I am also a gun owner. But even as a gun owner, I know access to firearms is entirely too easy. In many states, it’s easier to buy a gun than get a driver’s license or even vote. As a result, guns are everywhere. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, our country accounts for 46 percent of global civilian-owned guns. That availability means that even small conflicts of everyday life can be decidedly deadly—fully 53 people a day are killed by guns in the U.S. That’s the equivalent of more than two Ulvalde or Sandy Hook-scale shootings every single day.
Hopes for a bipartisan bill that would take some small, but still important steps to tighten gun laws, are very much up in the air. Republican Senators are wavering under the pressure of pro-gun constituents and a gun lobby that exercises effective veto authority over who leads their federal regulators, even in Democratic administrations. This, despite the fact that massive majorities of voters support many of the measures contained in the proposed bipartisan effort. It is yet another referendum on the ability of the U.S. Congress to tackle big challenges.
So, whether the Congress demonstrates it can still do important things or not, we will still need to look at solutions beyond the current legislative effort. That should start with building communities. Our politics and economics have through the history of our nation been too often premised on division rather than unity. We pay the price of that division in the form of inequity and injustice: social, socioeconomic, and personal.
A focus on building up communities and people that are now marginalized and disadvantaged is critical. Closing achievement gaps, ramping up connections to the world of work, and scaffolding social and emotional support for our students is a good place to start. A school that serves as the center of its community, with the appropriate resources and programming, can be transformative. Such community schools offer a model for how our public institutions can and should work to create safer, healthier outcomes for all Americans by focusing on the holistic challenges and needs that communities experience.
Reorienting our public institutions toward enhancing equity and opportunity rather than eroding it will be a generations-long endeavor at our current pace but its vital that we continue it. Doing otherwise would be to give into the despair that has filled the lives of our children, the streets of our neighborhoods and the halls of our schools with fear.
We all deserve better than that, especially our kids.