‘Sick of Thoughts and Prayers’: Students Press Lawmakers on Gun Violence

Students from UNC-Chapel Hill and NC A&T State, the sites of recent shootings, held a rally outside the General Assembly on Tuesday demanding that lawmakers pass tougher gun laws. (Photo by Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

September 13, 2023

Students from across North Carolina held a rally to warn lawmakers that the ‘lockdown generation’ would vote them out of office without meaningful action on guns. 

When an active-shooter alarm blared across UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus two weeks ago, Luke Diasio and other students barricaded themselves into a restaurant bathroom near campus because they’d heard that two gunmen were heading their way.

Another student, sophomore Hailey Baldwin, was in a campus dining hall when cafeteria staff started shouting to get away from the windows. She stayed glued to her phone, surrounded by strangers, as rumors spread among them that the shooter had already killed 10 students and was moving door-to-door dressed as an FBI agent. She and others considered going upstairs where they might be better able to hide, but chose instead to stay downstairs because there were more escape routes. 

A third student, Amie Boakye, also a sophomore, tried to calm her panicked suitemates in her dormitory, even as she asked God if she was going to die that day. This was the third major shooting she’d experienced. Every time she hears loud bangs, she shudders; every time there’s a siren, she checks her phone to see if she needs to run again. She’s 18 years old.

These students were among dozens from across North Carolina who came to the General Assembly in Raleigh on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to do something—anything—to prevent the next shooting. 

Because while the UNC shooter may have ultimately targeted just one victim, it was no isolated act of violence. 

During a press conference in the morning and a rally in the afternoon, the students had a blunt message for lawmakers: This “lockdown generation,” which has seen so many mass shootings and gotten only thoughts and prayers from elected officials in return, is angry, galvanized, and heading to the voting booth in 2024.

‘An Excuse for Inaction’

Kema Leonard, a student at North Carolina A&T State University, the site of another shooting just days before Chapel Hill, said that young voters had run out of patience. 

“Another day, another undue shooting, another life taken, another school year tarnished, and yet still another complacent government body,” Leonard, the president of the College Democrats of North Carolina, said at the news conference. “When you call out this complacency to certain officials, they will wag their finger at you and tell you that this issue is much too nuanced to properly address,” he said.

“I grow weary of the pro-gun legislators in this body citing nuance as an excuse for their inaction.”

He added: “They are telling you that your life, our lives, the lives of their constituents are not worth protecting.”

Lawmakers had a choice to make, he said. 

“Do the work to match your prayers, or count your days in office.”

An Unfriendly Landscape

Rep. Laura Budd, a Democrat who represents Mecklenburg County, said at the press conference that over the last several years, Democrats had proposed nearly 20 pieces of legislation or amendments seeking to protect North Carolina’s youth from gun violence, the leading cause of death among young people nationwide. 

Because Republicans have a supermajority in both the House and Senate, gun bills introduced by Democrats never get a vote.

“Not a single [guns] bill filed by a Democrat in the House or Senate has made it out of committee,” Budd said. 

“What we need is the Republicans to stop being afraid of democracy. Put those bills out there, allow them to be heard, allow them to be debated, allow public comment on them, and ultimately allow them to be voted on on the House or Senate floor. That’s democracy.”

The students who came to the General Assembly demanded legislative action, calling for red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily remove weapons from anyone deemed a threat to themselves or others, and stronger background checks—both of which have near zero support in the Republican caucus. 

Instead of passing gun safety laws, Republicans in the General Assembly this spring repealed a law requiring gun buyers to pass a sheriff department background check in order to get a pistol permit. While public sales still need a federal background check, private sales do not, and that, opponents of the bill said, creates a big loophole, especially for domestic abusers who they said should not be allowed to buy a gun.

Soon after a similar law went into effect in Missouri, gun violence increased.

The students said they understood that their efforts might not change the minds of those pro-gun lawmakers, but they wanted to make clear that the status quo was no longer acceptable. 

‘Everyone Else has Figured It Out’

“No other wealthy country experiences this level of gun violence,” Diasio  said. “I cannot be convinced that this is an unsolvable problem when we are the only country with this problem. Everyone else has figured it out.”

Some of his friends who had been neutral about guns or gun violence before the shooting, he said, were neutral no longer.

“I am so sick of thoughts and prayers,” he said.

That was a resounding theme during the rally, as well. 

“Until they do what it takes to save lives,” Samuel Scarborough, a UNC student said, “they can save those thoughts and prayers. Keep them.”

He added: “Our legislators need to pay more attention to the trauma that guns bring to our communities.”

That trauma is bigger than one campus, he said, and it has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“North Carolina’s Black and Native American communities die from gun homicide at a rate seven times higher than their white counterparts,” Scarborough said. “We demand that the General Assembly stop ignoring the deaths and suffering of marginalized people.”

Before he spoke, he asked the crowd to repeat a saying: “I am, because we are.” The idea, rooted in Southern African philosophy, “tells us we are all part of a larger community,” he said. “When one of us feels pain, we all feel that pain.” 

It was time legislators looked past their own interests, he said. Past time.

‘Am I Going to Die Today?’

In the 24 years since 12 students and a teacher were shot to death at Columbine High School in 1999, more than 300,000 students have been on campuses nationwide during a school shooting.

Those numbers negate any argument, as was made in some circles online, that UNC students were overreacting because they were never in any danger. 

It’s an absurd argument, gun violence survivors and mental health experts say.

The collective trauma of gun violence can last for years even in people who did not directly witness a shooting. The issue is so pervasive, psychologists say, that it should be considered a public health threat, rather than simply a criminal issue.

At Chapel Hill, the fear, uncertainties and terrifying rumors went on for three hours. The effects  may linger for weeks and years.

Boakye told the crowd that she still has flashbacks from her first major experience with gun violence, which came at the Kentucky State Fair when she was 14.

She often relives the moments and the images flood her brain as she tries to sleep, a common symptom of trauma. She rattled off the thoughts as she experiences them over and over again. 

“It’s August, 2019 again. I’m 14, the shots are ringing out, I’m running, watching moms with children wailing, scared for their lives, my face is wet but I don’t know why, I don’t want to die this way, please God, are you there? I’m sorry I haven’t been praying as much as my parents tell me to, is this my punishment? Am I going to die today? Is my friend going to die? There’s children here, please God don’t let me get shot, don’t let the children get hurt, I promise I’m faithful, I’m scared, Mommy and Daddy, I’m sorry.”

Chapel Hill, she told Cardinal and Pine before the rally, was meant to be an escape from all that. 

‘Something Meaningful’

Though it was only the first experience with gun violence for Baldwin, the student who hid in the dining hall, the trauma  is already noticeable, she said. It has been hard to focus on school in the weeks since. 

“I woke the next morning with a tightness in my chest and a deep sense of anxiety,” she said. “I was perpetually exhausted and emotional. The smallest thing made me want to cry.”

For several days, she said, “I couldn’t touch my backpack.” 

Still, she and Boakye said, getting involved gave them hope.

“If we can save even one child’s life, then we need to do something,” said Boakye, who worked with lawmakers in Kentucky on the issue as well.

This was also Baldwin’s first experience with advocacy, but she hoped it would “turn [her] frustration and hurt into something meaningful.”

‘Vote Them Out’

After the rally, dozens of the students and advocates went to the General Assembly and, when the House came back in session, quietly sat in the gallery.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican and UNC graduate, asked lawmakers to recognize the students from his alma mater. Lawmakers clapped. The students stood, then began to shout.

“Vote Them Out,” they chanted over and over and over again.

Moore gaveled for order, and looked up at the gallery, shaking his head as officers removed the students.

Their chants from outside the chamber could still be heard inside as Moore tried to move on. For several moments, the students continued to drown him out. 

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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