We were at lunch when we heard about the El Paso Shooting. The room got quiet and the almost 2,000 moms, students, and gun violence survivors wrestled with the 250th mass shooting. I sat at a table of students whom I’d met only two nights before as we looked at each other in shock and frustration.
Gun Sense University is a conference put on annually by Everytown for Gun Safety. This year, it ran August 1-3 in Washington D.C., and hosted over 2000 activists from Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety in America, Students Demand Action, and the Everytown Survivor Network. People from all 50 states of the United States gathered to meet and do trainings on being a gun sense activist, and as a Students Demand Action Volunteer in Rochester, I was lucky enough to be a part of it.
At the conference, I sat with students and collaborated on how to create a mission statement for our own students demand chapters. I learned the 5 key practices to organizing student power. I took a training called “Gun Violence Through an Equity Lens” where students spoke up and shared their stories. We discussed why daily gun violence isn’t widely reported in national media the way mass shootings are. We talked about how gun violence disproportionately affects people of color. I went to trainings and case studies with Moms and learned about using art and cultural events to reach across the community and build a more diverse group. I learned about what other Moms and Students Demand Action chapters have done across the country, and how they’ve affected change on a local level. I learned about building an elevator pitch and techniques for meeting with legislators and taking local action.
I listened to speeches and rallying cries from Shannon Watts, Mayor Bloomberg, Senator Chris Murphy, and Brenda Moss, and watched a compilation of videos that 2020 presidential candidates sent in about the importance of supporting the GVP (gun violence prevention) movement.
And then I went to lunch on Saturday and heard about El Paso.
It was like the air had been sucked out of the room. We sat in a moment of silence and processed what was happening. Some people searched the internet for updates, which we shared with each other in whispered voices, contributing to the general murmur of the shocked crowd. One student took the stage and reminded us all that while we mourned the lives of those lost in El Paso, we also must recognize the daily gun violence that people don’t mention.
That night was supposed to be the Wear Orange Banquet, a celebration of all that we’d done this past year and learned at the conference. Dinner that night was strange. Half of us had dressed up in full orange, as was the original plan for the conference. Others were still in their jeans and Students Demand Action shirts from the day.
I’ve gained such an apathy towards gun violence, and I think that holds true for a lot of people. If I had been home when I heard about the El Paso shooting, I would’ve been angry for a few hours, texted my peers from Students Demand Action, and moved on. But being at Gun Sense University that weekend made it impossible to have that response. At dinner, we were encouraged to get up and give each other hugs. I roamed between tables, hugging strangers I had never met before, and I started to cry.
Dinner was tense. Half the room seemed to get up early and leave, planning to go protest at the White House and the Capitol. Students under 18 scrambled to figure out if we could go. I sat and wrote an email I never sent about the importance of voter registration, barely paying attention to the food I was eating.
That night was one of the most chaotic nights of my life. People marched out of the hotel in droves. Buses showed up and people piled on, ubers were filled with moms, students, and survivors who had never met before, and still more people flocked out the doors of the hotel and out onto the streets of DC.
There were points that night when I thought I was 100% going out to protest with everyone, and other points when I thought I was 100% staying in.
At a certain point, going to protest became less about the shooting in El Paso and more about me being there for the experience. And once I realized that, going to protest became a lot less important. I met a small group of students who, like me, had decided to stay in, and we sat together in a conference room researching our elected representatives’ policies on gun reform and drafting emails.
Standing up and fighting means different things for everyone, and different things everyday. For some people that night, it meant protesting in front of the White House. For me, it meant staying in and researching gun laws. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to go to GSU and join forces with people from all over the country, and I look forward to next year when we’ll all be in the same place again. Until then, we’ll keep marching, and researching, and fighting to pass gun legislation, and I’ll continue to do whatever I can to be a part of it.
If you’re looking to get involved, visit everytown.org to learn more about the gun violence prevention movement and find a group near you! If you’re a student interested in joining the gun violence prevention movement, you can also text STUDENTS to 644-33 to get updates on what Students Demand Action is working on and learn how to get involved.
Miya served as a summer 2019 intern at the Gandhi Institute