Imagine going to school, the movie theater or simply taking a drive in your car. These are all normal, daily activities for many Americans. These acts, however, have become riddled with deaths and gun violence.
With the rise of mass gun violence in the United States, Utah and Westminster students have come together, working towards combating this issue with grassroots activism.
From 2000-2018, the amount of mass shooting incidents have multiplied 27 times, according to the study, “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.,” by the Pew Research Center. However, the amount of deaths caused by gun violence – including suicide, mass shootings and other incidents – has decreased over the years.
According to Westminster College associate professor Julie Stewart, there is a misconception among Americans and the amount of gun violence that actually happens.
“I think part of why our perceptions are the way they are is because person-on-person gun violence almost never makes the news,” said Stewart, who teaches the Westminster course People, Power and Protest. “Those numbers have gone way down. One person engaging in violence against a group of people has gone up and that makes a lot more news.”
Despite the misconstrued perceptions and the real decline in gun violence over time, the U.S. still has one of the highest amounts of gun violence when compared to other developed nations. Gun violence in the U.S. is between 4.5-12 times higher than countries like Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Spain, according to the Pew Research Center.
With an increase in media attention surrounding mass shootings and an increase of mass shootings themselves, the number of protests regarding gun violence have gone up significantly in the past two years.
“I think we have seen an increase in protests because there are very few things that are worse in terms of our imagination, in terms of our lived lives, than having an innocent life lost due to someone’s paranoid or misaligned imagination on the world,” Stewart said. “One reason we feel so fearful about it is because the way our media works. It promulgates so many messages about these incredibly rare incidences and overlooks the common incidences; which the common incidence is we have seen a dramatic decrease in gun violence.”
In response to media coverage, the public gets a misconstrued idea of gun violence in the U.S. according to Stewart. This fear and response to the media has lead to Westminster and Utah students joining in the advocacy against this issue.
“The fact that I was in high school and I only had a couple months left really influenced me [to take a stand],” said KC Carter, a Westminster sophomore communication major. “I was like, ‘Okay, I am here. This is happening to students like me. This is my time to make change.’”
Carter led St. George’s Tuacahn High School’s walkout in 2018, following the trend set forth among many high schools after the Parkland shooting. What led to her advocacy for gun violence, however, was another shooting in the neighboring city of Las Vegas.
Describing the 2017 shooting at the Las Vegas strip, Carter said, “I didn’t have any contact with my parents. That was terrifying.”
The walkout in St. George was one of many that took place in Utah. Elizabeth Love, a former student at West High School and current sophomore at Columbia, also led her school in a walkout, but her advocacy began long before 2018. Love started her advocacy against gun violence during her sophomore year of high school with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.
“Our strategy was lobbying at the legislature,” Love said. “Our focus was on keeping worse legislation from being passed.”
Lobbying and changing legislation is a major part of making a movement successful, according to Stewart.
“Protests alone, no it’s not going to get you to the policy change you want to see,” Stewart said. “The political process from problem identification to solution is a long process and the protest is typically an early part of that. There’s other work that has to happen. […] They should express their opinions and then they need to follow the legislation federally and on the state level.”
Despite the lengthy political process, Love began her advocacy a bit backwards and found her way to the protests. Love said lobbying wasn’t quite enough for her.
“I was so upset that these people I had thought of as people who were going to protect me and protect the American people weren’t doing it,” Love said. “My instinct was ‘If they aren’t going to do something about it we have to do something.’”
Love founded the Utah chapter of March for Our Lives and lead the public protest in March of 2018. However, much like the mass shootings in America, her advocacy against gun violence did not end there. Love said she continued on to lay the foundation for the future of March for Our Lives Utah and lead other forms of public disobedience.
According to Stewart, this movement is at the beginning stages and has a long way to go before reaching a solution. But that only means more time for students to continue to make an impact.
“It has to start with a cultural change and I think we are in the middle of it,” said Gus Slagle, a first-year student at Westminster and advocate against gun violence. “People are starting to realize just how dangerous it is for firearms to be so easily attained.”
Changing the culture is a long process but rewarding, Slagle said. But advocacy doesn’t end after a protest or demonstration, he said. Slagle created a platform for others who are more impacted by gun violence – like those from marginalized communities.
One person Slagle helped create a platform for is Westminster first-year Daud Mumin. Mumin is also a chief student strategist for the national March for Our Lives.
“Get involved. Find things that you are passionate about,” Mumin said. “And just like Gus did, elevate other people’s voices, give them a platform to speak and give yourself a platform to speak. It’s about hearing all the voices and not just one person speaking for everybody.”
Lobbying and staying politically active are also two ways students can help make a difference, Stewart said. Voting strategically for your state representatives can help make this change, according to Stewart and Love.
“This is a super important issue,” Love said. “You have power in the way you vote and choose to use your time.”