In wake of gun violence in D.C. and on college campuses, students and activists seek out change

September 23, 2023

Design by Connor Martin

As classes started at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) this August, college students went into lockdown after a graduate student shot and killed associate professor Zijie Yan.

On Sept. 12, survivors of the shooting protested at the North Carolina state legislature in favor of stronger gun control, joining a generation of activists questioning how legislation protects the lives and safety of students in response to campus mass shootings. 

Between January and August, there have been 49 school shootings in the U.S., 15 having taken place on college campuses, according to a CNN tally.

“It is frustrating and terrifying to know that this is happening all over the country. It’s happening on school campuses. It’s happening in grocery stores and in churches, just everywhere,” Naïké Savain (LAW ’13), director of policy at criminal justice reform nonprofit D.C. Justice Lab, said. “There’s this pervasive fear.”

Giffords Law Center, the legal branch of gun control nonprofit Giffords, creates an annual report card that grades states on the strength of their gun legislation. In 2022, North Carolina scored a C in gun safety, with points taken off for the state’s open-carry gun laws and lack of assault weapon restrictions, among other reasons.

In another instance of gun violence on college campuses, on Feb. 13, a gunman killed three Michigan State University students on the university’s campus and critically wounded five others. Michigan scored a C+ by Giffords Law Center for similar reasons as North Carolina.

In response to the shooting, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed common-sense gun violence prevention bills into law, most notably enacting universal background checks for all firearm purchases within the state.

Although D.C. lacks a rating from Giffords, the organization has written positively about the District’s gun laws. Neighboring Virginia, however, has a B. Guns are easily—and often—brought over state borders into D.C. from southern states with comparatively lax gun laws.

“D.C. does have some of the strongest gun laws in the country,” Carrie McDonald (CAS ’24), March for Our Lives (MFOL) Georgetown chapter lead, said. “But I think D.C.’s laws point to a bigger problem of the lack of federal action because Virginia doesn’t have strong gun laws. So obviously having gun laws in D.C. is really important, but we need to do more to ensure that guns aren’t brought across state lines.”

There have been notable instances of gun violence in Georgetown over the past couple of years, including the fatal shooting of Tarek Boothe on M Street in January 2022. Additionally, there are few gun violence policies on campus. While Georgetown University offers Run.Hide.Fight training for on-campus clubs and organizations, they are not mandatory, nor have students been made aware of these trainings through flyering, email announcements, or social media since 2021

Progress has been made, however, as emergency preparedness exercises happen periodically through the Georgetown Office of Emergency Management (OEM). While students are largely not involved, OEM conducted its most recent active shooter exercise over the course of three days in June, in conjunction with D.C. Police, the D.C. fire department, EMS, GERMS, and GUPD. A similar drill also took place at the law campus.

“A full scale exercise is where you’re practicing all of the functions without live ammunition. It’s responding to an actual incident, where we’re simulating somebody’s taking action to harm others, and then how we respond to that,” OEM director Marc Barbiere said.

The focus of gun violence prevention in the District has been concentrated on community gun violence, targeted primarily towards majority Black, low-income, and under-resourced communities in Wards 7 and 8 as poverty correlates with increases in gun violence. Michelle Chappell (LAW ’02), the legislative lead for the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action, emphasized the importance of prevention. “We want to prevent people from wanting to pick up guns in the first place. It’s all about trying to intervene in ways before it comes down to people shooting.”

One of Moms Demand Action’s initiatives—working conjunctively with Peace for D.C.—involves training people who were recently released from incarceration to intervene in hostile situations and shift the community dynamics that increase the occurrence of gun violence.

“We have these people that are really invested in changing the dynamics in their communities and preventing younger people from repeating the mistakes that they made when they were young,” Chappell said.

Savain emphasized the need for racial equity within gun violence policy.

“Direct community engagement is where I focus my efforts, so not just bringing people to us, but going to them, [and] making sure that we are constantly centering directly impacted people in the district,” Savain said. “In the district, that means almost exclusively Black and Brown, specifically Black folks, Black residents, native Washingtonians.”

On Georgetown’s campus, two large organizations exist to advocate for stricter gun laws: MFOL Georgetown and Students Demand Action, a group affiliated with Moms Demand Action.

On campus, both Students Demand Action and MFOL Georgetown can be seen tabling in Red Square, educating students about gun violence, safety, and activism. “When we table, people come up to us and tell us their stories,” Emma Vonder Haar (CAS ’26), co-founder of Students Demand Action, said. “There’s these moments that resonate with all of us.”

In spring 2022, after the M Street shooting, MFOL Georgetown called on the university to take action to ensure public safety notifications (HoyAlerts) are sent to students more quickly and further engage with community violence intervention groups in the D.C. area.

“GUPD is the only responder we have in instances or threats of gun violence. But as we also know, GUPD does not always create a safe environment specifically for our students of color,” Ari Kane (CAS ’24), MFOL Georgetown’s former political affairs director, said.

GUPD was accused of racially profiling Black students during the 2020 Black Survivors Coalition sit-ins and again fell under scrutiny for their handling of video footage during last winter’s Georgetown Protects Racists (GUPR) sit-in.

MFOL Georgetown has advocated against having a police presence on campus and instead for schools and universities to “invest in creating care and community.” Still, GUPD has not implemented any significant policy changes to work toward this goal. Local activists highlight the need to act proactively on gun violence policy, before tragedy strikes. 

“March for Our Lives had this initiative a few years ago where basically the focus—it was called Peace Without Police—and the idea was that school resource officers and police officers on campuses don’t really actually stop gun violence,” Kane said. “They just increase the school-to-prison pipeline.”

On-campus gun violence prevention groups also promote concrete policy change—both on campus and in Congress. MFOL Georgetown, for example, occasionally takes part in “lobbying days,” when students lobby for stricter gun laws at the Capitol.

“At Georgetown, we’re in a really privileged position to be able to literally walk into the Capitol and meet with our representatives to tell them about our experience during gun violence,” McDonald said. “Every day without inaction on their part is another day that people die.”

Despite the immense action being taken by activist groups in D.C., setbacks to violence prevention continue to arise.

Earlier this year, GUPD removed a pro-gun group, Young Americans for Liberty, from tabling at Red Square, days after a mass shooting in Monterey Park, California.

Recently, the District agreed to pay a sum of $5.1 million in a settlement for a class action lawsuit brought forth by gun owners. The plaintiffs believed their Second Amendment right to bear arms was violated by D.C. legislation that prohibited nonresidents of the District from carrying firearms outside the home. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in their favor in August. 

For organizations looking to minimize gun violence, especially within vulnerable, majority-Black communities like Wards 7 and 8, community gun violence prevention has been greatly emphasized over increased levels of policing and incarceration.

“There have been shootings that have taken place where police are a few feet away or a few blocks away. They responded to the scene within 30 seconds and it didn’t stop it,” Savain said.

Rather than relying on increased policing or incarceration, violence prevention groups view more nuanced approaches—including violence intervention, stricter gun legislation, and education on conflict mediation in schools—as more effective.

“We need to prevent people from being motivated to pick up a gun to solve their problems,” Chappell said, adding that increasing investment in mental healthcare and counselors in schools could help.

The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, an affiliate organization of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, utilizes the “Racial Equity Impact Assessment.” The assessment proposes questions about gun violence policy and ensures that policymakers consider the implications of policy on Black and Latino communities, as well as the abilities of new gun policy to remedy existing racial inequities.

“We have to always remember that, while mass shootings are important, gun violence happens every day in communities of color in D.C.,” McDonald said.

In May 2022, the District’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council released a comprehensive “Gun Violence Reduction Strategic Plan.” The roadmap plan highlights three different pillars of gun violence reduction: gun violence prevention, intervention, and community transformation. The plan aims to reduce homicides in D.C. by 10 percent from the previous year through tracking year-to-date data on all shootings in the area.

Advocates approach gun violence mitigation through the intersectional lens of racial justice because many of the most impacted communities are communities of color due to the legacies of segregation, systemic poverty, and other forms of systemic oppression. 

“When I go to meetings in Ward 8, they’re asking for basic resources and basic supports. There are two grocery stores in all of Ward 8,” Chappell said. “People that live in Georgetown, for instance, just don’t even have to think about this on a daily basis, that people are struggling in that part of the city and that greatly contributes to the rate of gun violence.”

“There just aren’t better options for people and kids [who] get drawn into gun violence at the age of like 12 or 13 because older people can offer them things that they can’t get elsewhere in exchange for doing illegal activities,” she added. “If we just provided more resources to these kids and these families east of the river, it would be life changing.”

Those elected to Congress and local government seats—who decide what gun restrictions get passed and how funds toward schools and mental health support get funded—must also play a major role in reducing gun violence, activists said.

“We need people in those state legislatures, in their city council offices, working to pass change at the local level and that’s what’s going to move this whole country forward,” Kane said. “So get involved, stay in local organizing. Watch your state and local races. Because who we elect is so important for what gun laws we pass.”

According to each activist and gun law expert who spoke with the Voice, action is needed on multiple fronts: lobbying Congress for stricter gun laws, providing basic needs to struggling communities, and offering increased mental health infrastructure are all necessary to reduce gun violence both in the District and on college campuses.

“There’s not one piece of gun violence legislation that’s going to solve the whole crisis,” McDonald said. “We need to take a multifaceted approach to change.”

Margaret Hartigan
Margaret is a senior in the college majoring in government with minors in Spanish and journalism. Her favorite study spot on campus is the Voice office or, in desperate times, the fifth floor of Lau with a large red eye. She is currently the Service Chair

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