I was five years old the first time I visited my family in rural West Virginia.
I travelled to my grandparents’ hometown of Beckley on the train with my grandma, a 13-hour journey that to five-year-old me felt like being transported to a completely different world. How was it possible that a place could look so different, that people could be so different, but still call the same country home? I remember being overwhelmed by this unshakable feeling, but not being totally able to explain why. It was not until later that I learned the proper term to describe those emotions: culture shock. And nothing came to define that divergence in my mind more than attitudes toward guns, which seemed to permeate every aspect of the culture. This, of course, was not just a figment of my imagination — West Virginia is regularly ranked as one of the most “gun-friendly” states in the nation; on a smaller scale, that is true of Beckley, and of countless cities and towns across the state.
In stark contrast stands my hometown of Chicago, a city which infamously continues to be ravaged by gun violence, often conducted with illegally trafficked firearms. Chicago once had some of the toughest restrictions in the country, but aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association has left those city ordinances largely unrecognizable and ineffective. And now we’re paying the price: last year, 664 of the more than 3,400 people shot within the city limits were fatally wounded—fewer than the previous year’s record setting 771 killed with guns, but still well above the average of 400 to 500 murders annually in the previous decade. As our country is left reeling in the wake of yet another mass shooting, I am reminded that this plague of gun violence is sadly routine in some places like the nation’s third largest city, which is devastated by its effects every single day. It has been particularly devastating to the city’s long-neglected poorer and Black communities.
Too often, culture clash is used as a pretext to a failure to compromise, and the rural-urban divide between places like Beckley and Chicago is no different. We all call this expansive and diverse country home, but more often than not it feels as though we are worlds apart. We dig in, and chalk up disagreements to the other side “just not getting it.”
But on this issue in particular I have seen both sides, and I do get it.
Surely there is some way to both protect the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in places like Beckley and to keep lethal weapons off the streets of places like Chicago. In too many communities across the country, attending a classmate’s funeral has become a rite of passage, as routine as walking across the stage at graduation. We cannot accept that, and we should not tolerate as normal the idea that a classroom full of dead children is the price we must pay for an unfettered right to bear arms. For too long, our public outcry for action has been met with deafening silence from our elected officials.
Seven years ago, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords survived an assassination attempt that claimed the lives of six of her constituents, including a federal judge. Her colleagues in Congress did nothing. Just before Christmas in 2012, 20 schoolchildren—all seven years of age or younger—and six of their teachers were murdered in their classrooms in Sandy Hook, CT. Congress did nothing. In 2015, a white supremacist walked into a Black church in South Carolina and murdered nine of its congregation members during a prayer service. Congress, again, did nothing. Two summers ago, 49 LGBT people were murdered in an Orlando nightclub. Congress did nothing. And just a few short months ago, 59 people were murdered, and nearly 500 people were injured, at a music festival in Las Vegas, and Congress, once again, did nothing.
Today, we have reached a breaking point where no public space truly feels safe—neither our schools nor places of worship; neither our movie theaters nor concert halls; neither our nightclubs nor grocery stores; neither our military posts nor office buildings. To be clear, I do not believe we can legislate away hate. Bad people will do bad things, but that is no excuse for inaction. It is hard to imagine any other issue bringing about this level of carnage and our elected officials choosing not to act.
While silence often follows these events, with elected officials offering no more than their thoughts and prayers, the survivors of the Parkland shooting have resolved that this time will be different. It is inspiring and humbling to see young people so determined to see new light after they have experienced such incredible darkness. They have stood up in opposition to some of the most powerful forces committed to maintaining the status quo, and they deserve our unqualified praise and our unwavering support.
On March 24th, the Parkland students have planned, in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, a demonstration in Washington, D.C. and in cities across the country to demand that Congress finally do something to address this issue. From Florida to New York and West Virginia to Illinois, March for Our Lives will bring together thousands of people across the country who, like these resilient young people, have had enough and believe in their own power to finally bring about change.
I will be joining them, marching in memory of all those we have lost to gun violence and for all the kids back home in Chicago who live in terror in their own communities each and every day. I hope that, in your own way, you will join this cause as well. We can’t afford to wait until these tragedies personally affect us to begin to speak out.
Students interested in participating in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. can learn more at https://www.marchforourlives.com. Students are also encouraged to reach out to their student governments to learn of any group participation.