A deadly mass shooting at a suburban Michigan high school brought back a familiar American routine: utterances of shock, followed by condolences, blame, and then calls for action that fall on deaf ears.
Last week’s school shooting came as young people across the US are reckoning with a historic surge in gun violence. While shootings on school campuses declined significantly during the pandemic – incidents where a gun was fired at US schools dropped from 130 to 96 between 2019 and 2020, according to a database from Everytown for Gun Safety – community gun violence rose dramatically in that same period. Gun violence deaths rose a staggering 30% from 2019 to 2020 nationwide, the sharpest rise in 60 years.
In California, where homicides – mostly by guns – were up 30% last year, six teens told the Guardian about their experiences in the past year and a half. They spoke about hearing about fatal shootings through the grapevine and on the news during the pandemic months, and watching their peers become caught in the cycle of violence. Gun violence has rocked their communities for years, the teenagers say, but the pandemic years have been particularly scary and isolating.
And they talked about gun violence creeping back into their school lives, pointing to easy access to guns, social media beefs and petty arguments as catalysts for violence among their peers. Addressing this cycle of violence, they warned, would require a combination of support in schools and communities.
“A lot of us have plans that we can’t even make happen because we die at 18 and 19. It’s just a big war zone that we’re facing and I don’t know how it’s gonna be stopped,” says Cianna Williams, a 19-year-old San Francisco Bay Area native.
“Some young people really want help but just don’t know how to get it,” she adds. “They cry for help but no one sees them and adults will just give up on kids and say, ‘Oh, they’re just bad anyway.’”
Growing up in East Oakland, Williams was never personally caught up in gun violence, she says. Still, there were frequent shootings in the neighborhood and seeing how it affected her peers often hurt. So when she was 16 she started going to YR Media (formerly named Youth Radio), an Oakland non-profit where students learn multimedia production and storytelling. There she learned to turn her feelings into poetry.
Williams went to high school in San Lorenzo, about 12 miles outside of Oakland, and graduated in 2020. Even on campus guns were a presence, she says. In 2018, two students were arrested for having loaded 9mm handguns on campus, one in March and the other in May. “We had to go through that lockdown twice. But that’s what happens when a kid has a gun.”
Less than a year after she graduated high school, the violence would hit close to home. On 11 April 2021, Williams began receiving messages from people telling her that they were sorry for her loss. She was confused until a friend FaceTimed her in tears and told her that her close friend Demetrius Fleming-Davis had been shot and killed by a stray bullet the day before. Williams had been friends with Fleming-Davis since they were seven. He had encouraged her to use her voice and poetry to express herself and process her feelings about gun violence.
“I was so hurt when it happened. I had never experienced losing someone so close to me,” Williams recalls.
Williams had to quit her job at Home Depot after Fleming-Davis was killed, unable to stop crying on the job. “I was dealing with a lot of depression. I couldn’t do anything and I couldn’t connect with anyone.”
Four months later, Williams would receive more tragic news. Her friend Danny Trask, 19, was found dead in Dixon, a rural town about 20 miles outside of Sacramento. The Solano county sheriff’s department declined to comment on the cause of Trask’s death but said authorities believed foul play had been involved and that three people had been arrested in connection with the teen’s death.
“When Demetrius passed, I thought something was against me. Then Danny died a couple months after and I couldn’t understand why I was losing people so close to me,” Williams says.
At least 258 people under the age of 20 were killed in California in 2020, 208 of them with a gun, according to a Guardian analysis of 2020 homicide data. That number is up from 214 people in that age range killed in 2019. One hundred and sixty-four of the slayings were with a firearm, according to the same analysis. And while there is no firm data yet on the number of youth killed in 2021, the highs of 2020 appear to be holding this year, though shootings and homicides are happening at a slower pace, according to a July 2021 report from the Council on Criminal Justice.
The burden of this violence fell disproportionately on California’s Black and brown communities. About 45% of the state’s more than 2,200 homicide victims in 2020 were Latino and 30% were Black. Latinos make up nearly 40% of the state’s population and Black residents make up just 6%.
Seventeen-year-old Samantha Walter has experienced gun violence in the Bay Area during the pandemic as a “disaster”.
“I know a lot of people have guns to be safe but you shouldn’t have to because you’re a kid, you should be worrying about school and living life,” says the San Francisco resident, who works with Us 4 Us, a youth development non-profit. “We have to see that violence and we can’t go outside and have fun without knowing that somebody just died out there. I just wonder, ‘Damn, who’s next?’ Nothing should be so serious to where everybody is just killing each other. We’ve got like little kids, sisters and brothers out here that don’t even make it to 18.”
“I know people die all the time and I had friends who died when they were 17, 18 and 19,” says 17-year-old Dophie Collazo, also an Us 4 Us participant. “After a certain amount of bodies, you’re not gonna feel the same type of emotion, but you still can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that the rate is higher now – a lot higher.”
Collazo and Walter say tensions have been aggravated by social media, with small issues and rumors blown out of proportion as everyone spent more time on their phones at home during the pandemic. The ease with which teens can get a gun – whether stolen from cars and homes or bought online or on the street – can turn Instagram spats into fatal encounters.
“I’ve seen things go from a crumb to a whole loaf of bread. Everybody’s got a gun, you can order it to the house and have it done in a few minutes,” Collazo says. “There are people and influences and stuff that make it seem like guns and shooting is OK and it’s cool and people will catch a body trying to earn a stripe.”
Damien Posey, the founder of Us 4 Us, says he’s also seen social media beefs intensify as more students were online due to digital learning and boredom during Covid-induced lockdowns. “The arguments and jealousy are nothing new but the issues enhanced through social media, and the young people today have access to 30-sticks and 50-drums and 100 rounds,” Posey says of the types of ammunition youth get their hands on.
Posey, 43, was shot five times on three different occasions by the time he was 18 and says he’s trying to keep today’s teens away from the situations he faced in his youth. While classes were held online, he continued his work with San Francisco students and held weekly Zoom conversations about current events.
“When I asked how they felt about the shootings, some were numb to it, and many were discouraged about their future,” Posey says. “They knew they weren’t involved in anything but people who aren’t involved still get shot in their neighborhood.”
Exposure to gun violence affects people at the neurological level and is especially harmful in the still-developing brains of children and teenagers, Dr Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general, tells the Guardian. The pandemic has made it more likely for teenagers to see and experience traumatic situations while stripping away the safety net that school and extracurricular activities provide, she argues.
“The pandemic has been a huge stressor and also limited people’s access to the buffers against stress like safe, stable nurturing relationships and exercises with coaches, basketball teams,” Burke Harris says.
Now that in-person teaching is back, Posey sees community gun violence and its ramifications bleeding on to campuses. He says that some students aren’t going back to campus and others, as young as 13, are returning to campus with firearms so they won’t be caught off guard if something happens on campus or off.
“A lot of kids aren’t going back to school because they’re afraid of being shot or they’re afraid of getting caught with their gun because they have to have it,” Posey said. “Others are coming back with guns. I’m sure it’s happening more than we know, because the students know they’re not supposed to have them, so they keep it a secret.”
As of 7 December, there have been at least 149 incidents in which a gun has been fired at or near a school, according to a database maintained by Everytown for Gun Safety. They include shootings in hallways, outside of basketball and football games and on nearby city streets. A few days into the school year, on 13 August, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, middle school student was shot and killed by one of his peers on campus. On 20 August, 19-year-old D’Anthony Fields was gunned down after a high school football game. Last week’s shooting in Oxford, Michigan, killed at least four students and injured another seven people.
Thirteen-year-old Nathalia Jackson says she’s concerned that she and other students at her Los Angeles middle school may not be prepared or equipped if something similar were to happen on their campus.
“We haven’t done [active shooter] drills this year. At this point in time I feel like we should be doing this monthly,” Jackson says. “I always think about that. And it’s not like I’m overthinking or overreacting. If a school shooting were to happen and I come face to face with this, there’s no realistic way that it will end up good. There’s no way to hide. There’s no way to run.”
School shootings are just one type of gun violence that is on Jackson’s radar. Her father, Kenny Jackson, was shot and killed in 2013 during a robbery at his Van Nuys electronics store. Nathalia was only five when her dad was killed but she has been vocal about her family’s pursuit of answers and has become a vocal gun violence prevention activist with local organizations including Justice for Homicide Victims and Justice for Murdered Children.
“I was forced to grow up because of the circumstances. I really wish I wasn’t because now I feel like I take everything too seriously,” she adds. “As much as I’d like to talk about with my friends, gun violence is so sad and you don’t want to be the downer.”
Joseph Bejar, 15, is a part of the same organizations as Nathalia and has been attending rallies and workshops since his family came across a group that supports the family of homicide victims during a visit to his father’s gravesite. Bejar’s father, Vincent Bejar, was shot and killed in Bellflower in 2008.
Joseph was just a toddler when his father was killed. He, like Nathalia, struggles to talk about what he’s been through with his peers but feels that these honest conversations with his family and other group members who’ve lost loved ones discourages him from getting involved in gun violence. “I feel like if I didn’t have my family to talk to, I would just be a different person and filled with more anger,” he says. “I feel safe and know I don’t have to turn to the streets. People say it’s a brotherhood in the streets but I feel bad for people who have to turn to that because it’s all fun and games until you get caught up.”
DonoVan Baldwin, 16, says he’s had several close calls with violence on and off-campus. His older brother, Robert Anthony Proano, was shot and killed at age 22 in Long Beach in 2014. DonoVan was in third grade at the time and was on his way to a nearby skate park with his other brother and aunt when they heard the gunshots that killed Proano and rushed home.
“That shattered us. I looked up to my brother like a best friend. He taught me so much,” DonoVan says. “I went through therapy for like seven years and still today, I have PTSD. I’m scared of guns. It’s messed me up.”
Since then, DonoVan says he’s been shot at while walking with friends and gets confronted by local gang members about where he’s from and who he’s affiliated with. He’s a part of the marching band at Jordan high school in Long Beach and says he’s even been “banged on” – confronted by gang members – when leaving games and practices.
And while he says he’s never felt he needed to carry a gun himself, a couple of run-ins that could have turned violent, and seeing family and peers emulate the gun culture they see in music videos and on social media, have him reconsidering. “A lot of people know my face and they don’t see me as an enemy, but I’m scared for my safety all the time, because I know I can be a loose cannon and I’m not just going to let nobody just think that they’re going to walk over me,” he says. “But I try to be more patient now because I don’t want to lose my life over stupidity.”
The teens say they don’t get enough support – whether it’s from their schools, the government or communities – to deal with the gun violence that they witness. They say that adults who have lived through the violence of the 1990s and early 2000s should step into anti-violence and mentorship work in schools and community centers, as Posey has.
“When kids experience gun violence in the community, one of the first places they go to after that is school,” Burke Harris said. “That’s the first institution that interacts with them and they need to be equipped to act as a buffer for students.”
Outside of schools, Posey says violence interrupters and mentors like him need support from cities so they can scale their work and make sure their programs are sustainable. “I want to see the city provide financial support, technical support and support us in the media,” Posey says. “What I’m trying to do is not perfect, it’s not the end-all be-all, but it’s something in a lot of places where young people don’t have anything.”