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21 Years After Columbine: Are Our Kids Any Safer?

This was going to be a depressing article. It was going to look back at the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 and then at all the others that have happened since, wondering why we still haven’t solved the problem of gun violence in this country. But if you’re here, you’ve probably clicked on and read articles like that before. They probably made you incredibly angry, sad, scared, and maybe even hopeless. So this is not going to be that article. That’s not the story Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is here to tell us.

“The reality is the NRA is weaker than they’ve ever been,” Watts told SheKnows last week.

And yes, she said this despite the fact that gun sales have gone up in response to the coronavirus crisis. She said this even though social distancing measures have suddenly and drastically changed her organization’s plans for grassroots organizing and voter-registration drives before November’s elections.

But the need for gun sense legislation is every bit as urgent as it was before the pandemic. Sure, our kids aren’t at risk for a school shooting at the moment, but that was never the biggest threat guns posed to children’s lives. The bigger threat comes from the streets for some — cities like Chicago are seeing a surge in gun violence, for example. And it lurks at home for others, either from domestic abusers, or from accidental access, particularly if kids’ parents have just bought their first guns.

“Tens of millions of children are unexpectedly at home from school, and these new gun owners may not have training requirements or be familiar with secure storage practices,” Watts explained. “Then we have teens, young adults, and other Americans who are struggling with isolation, who are suffering economically and also now have easy access to guns and gun suicide is likely to increase as well.”

This is all the more reason for Moms Demand Action, along with Students Demand Action and umbrella organization Everytown for Gun Safety, to move forward with their goals, “digitally ringing doorbells” instead of going door to door. Even as it may be hard to think about other issues, we’re taking this moment to look at what has changed in gun laws and the gun sense movement on the anniversary of that awful day in Colorado.

Gun-control activists: Then and now

The events of April 20, 1999, galvanized many parents to take action. Tom Mauser, the father of 15-year-old Columbine victim Daniel Mauser, became an advocate for closing the gun-show loophole — which doesn’t require background checks for gun purchases at gun shows in some states. A year after the shooting, 750,000 activists spent their Mother’s Day in Washington, D.C., for the Million Mom March.

“They were able to organize without the benefit of all of the technology that we have today,” Watts said.

Sadly, some point to the Million Mom March as a failed movement, since the NRA seemed only to grow stronger and continued to block gun-control legislation on the federal and national level. A particular blow to the movement: In 2004, the federal assault weapons ban expired.

Following the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Watts and others thought it was time to try again. This time they had the benefit of social media, beginning with Facebook, where she started Moms Demand Action.

“We stand on the shoulders of all the women who did that work after Columbine,” Watts said. “But now, thanks to technology … we’ve been able to organize this huge grassroots army across the country. We’re now mothers and others, not just moms and women and also Students Demand Action. And that’s really what I think this movement needed was a grassroots army of activists who could go toe-to-toe with the gun lobby. We’ve been doing that now for almost eight years and winning.”

With a reported 6 million supporters and 350,000 donors, Moms Demand has managed to move legislation forward and elect gun-sense politicians to office.

So, are our kids any safer now than kids were in 1999?

If you look just at the stark numbers, the answer is no. From 1999-2017, one study found that 38,942 children ages 5-18 died in gun-related incidents in this country, with “epidemic” increases starting in 2009 and 2014. Another study in 2016 stated that guns were the second-highest cause of death of children ages 1-19 (after motor vehicle crashes). It said that children were 36.5 times more likely to die from a firearm in the U.S. than in a dozen other high-income countries, and five to six times higher than in a sample of middle- and low-income countries.

But if you look at gun safety on a state level, Watts said that some kids are safer today.

“We all want that cathartic moment of Congress passing a background check on every gun sale, for example, but in the absence of their leadership, we have pivoted and done this work in state houses and in the boardroom,” she told us.

Here are some of the victories the movement can point to: 21 states have passed laws requiring background checks for every gun sale, and 19 states and the District of Columbia now have red-flag laws allowing law enforcement to remove firearms from people who are a potential danger to themselves or others. Many believe this kind of extreme risk law would have prevented the Parkland shooting.

A less well-known campaign Moms Demand leads is educating people about secure gun storage. The organization has coordinated with schools in major cities like Los Angeles and Denver to send information home with students to inform parents about preventing gun-related accidents at home.

“Another piece to think about is the fact that we play defense,” Watts said. “We have a 90 percent track record for the last five years of stopping bad NRA bills like arming teachers, forcing guns onto college campuses, and stand-your-ground laws.”

Watts said all of this is possible because organizations like hers were able to influence elections, such as the 2018 midterms and the 2019 Virginia state elections.

“It is a marathon, not a sprint, but certainly we have surpassed the gun lobby in our wins and our strengths as a movement,” she said.

Not slowing down in 2020

The students of the Parkland, Fla., massacre helped make gun control a central issue in 2018, with the March for Our Lives and their subsequent activism. Watts doesn’t think that momentum has gone away. The people who joined the movement then haven’t stopped thinking about it, and it’s still a top issue on the minds of Democratic voters this year.

Moms Demand Action and Everytown have pledged to spend $60 million dollars on this year’s elections. They’re looking to get a Democrat in the White House and to flip the Senate, of course, but they’re also donating to state-level elections in places like Texas. Students Demand Action, meanwhile, is working on a major digital campaign to register young people to vote. People can get involved, even during lockdown, by doing things like phone banking.

Progress on the very local level

As we hope for better gun laws to get passed, parents still face that fear of gun violence every day we send our kids to school (even though the chances of them getting shot at school is actually 1 in 614,000,000, according to the Washington Post). At the same time, we’re also now coming to realize that the active-shooter drills schools have implemented since Columbine might be doing more harm than good, psychologically speaking. Some of these exercises have involved using actors, playing the sounds of gun shots, and sometimes not telling the kids it was a drill.

Everytown’s comprehensive plan for the prevention of gun violence in schools recommends that schools stop using such potentially traumatic methods in their drills. The National Association of School Psychologists drafted its own list of best practices for these drills, and if your child’s school isn’t using them, you might want to pass this along.

We also think you shouldn’t give up on making a difference on the very, very local level, as in, the family members and friends you might know who say they don’t support common-sense gun legislation. Moms Demand Action put together these tips for how to debunk gun myths at the dinner table. And Watts said her 2019 book, Fight Like a Mother, addresses this issue as well.

“[W]hat has for too long been the silent majority, 90 percent of Americans, do support stronger gun laws,” she said. “As long as you’re having these conversations with facts and data, and not buying into the rhetoric and the anecdotes of the gun lobby that these people have been listening to for decades, I think it’s easier to have a fruitful, productive conversation.”

You also can use those conversations as practice before signing up to help the movement. Just visit or text the word “Ready” to 64433.

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