10 Years After Sandy Hook School Massacre, Campaign to End Gun Violence Continues

Interview with Zeenat Yahya, director of policy with the group March For Our Lives, conducted by Scott Harris

Ten years ago on Dec. 14, the people of Newtown, Connecticut suffered unimaginable violence and trauma when a deranged 20-year-old gunman used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill his mother, then went on to slaughter 20 first-graders and 6 educators at the town’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

In the years since, the nation has been plagued by dozens of other mass shootings at schools, shopping malls, grocery stores, movie theaters and houses of worship.  On Feb. 14, 2018, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were attacked by an expelled student who used an AR-15 rifle to murder 17 people and wound 17 others in what became at the time the deadliest shooting at a U.S. high school.   

Surviving students at the school went on to organize a massive protest in support of gun control legislation on March 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C., with over 880 sibling events across the country. The group later worked to successfully mobilize young people to vote in national and local elections. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Zeenat Yahya, director of policy with March For Our Lives, who reflects on the significance of the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting and her group’s ongoing campaign to regulate the sale of firearms and end gun violence.

ZEENAT YAHYA: You know, it’s been 10 years of thoughts and prayers, right? And 10 years of tired excuses from different elected officials, legislators who really seem to care more about political gain than the lives of children and young people. And something I want to point out is every day without any action is more lives lost, right? A hundred people die every day of gun violence and we really can’t wait any longer.

And so one of the things that our organization has been really, really pushing for this fall and winter until Congress is out of session for the year is the assault weapons ban, which has passed the House and is something two-thirds of Americans support, right? Assault weapons in particular when they’re used in a shooting, people are shot as many as six times or more.

And we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to really be able to pass this life-saving legislation for the first time in 30 years. So that’s something really historic and something that, you know, we’re trying to work on to really get these weapons of war off the street.

SCOTT HARRIS: Many of our listeners may not be aware of this, but this horrifying statistic has come out as of last year that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for young people across the United States for the second year in a row. And this, of course, speaks to the urgency of the work that you over at the March for Our Lives are doing now.

What’s the importance of this really sobering statistic that gun violence is the leading cause of death for young people?

ZEENAT YAHYA: So something that I use to put things in perspective for folks, especially for me, when I was really young and growing up seeing a lot of politicians and elected officials on TV. A lot of the things that they supported or you know, voted on or their values or rooted in was like, this is a fight for a better America. This is a fight for the future, right? This concept of like we’re doing things for future generations.

And what I tell people is like, what are you doing for future generations if we don’t even have the opportunity to have a future at this point? It is I believe it was automobile or auto accidents that used to be the leading cause of death until two years ago like you mentioned. And now firearms is the leading cause of death for children. And we also know that this disproportionately impacts black and brown children as well, in particular.

And so I think that there is a huge sense of urgency around this particular issue. And this is really what’s killing our future generation, right? The future of our country.

And the fact that politicians are not taking it seriously, you know, is really frustrating for young people. And what we are really looking for now going into next year, going into 2024 even, is people who are bold on this issue, people who do want to publicly say, “Yeah, let’s ban assault weapons. Let’s raise the age to purchasing a gun to 21. Let’s have universal background checks. Right? We’re looking for that. We’re looking for leaders who are bold on this issue.”

SCOTT HARRIS: Zeenat, I wanted to get your response to the growing ties between people who advocate for guns and more guns and lots of guns and less restrictions to buy a gun. We have that sentiment across the United States, but it seems there’s a growing link between this idea of more guns is better for the country and this right-wing white supremacist ideology that worship’s the Second Amendment.

This is something that’s very real and it really permeates I know, the obstacles that you work against in your day-to-day job at March for Our Lives. What are some of the concerns you have about where this pro-gun sentiment comes from and the opposition, of course, to any kind of gun regulation?

ZEENAT YAHYA: Yeah. Well, where do we begin on that? You know, I think there’s a few things there to unpack. I think the first thing is to your point. Our country has a culture of gun glorification and I’m not sure if this is a well-aware fact, but the history of the Second Amendment actually is very much rooted in racism.

Part of the Second Amendment that people tend to forget is the purpose of owning a gun was just in case there was a slave revolt, right? And so there’s that piece and that culture. And I think the white supremacy, you know, we’ve seen this post-9/11. We saw this in the 1980s, you know, for example, against the AAPI community, against Muslims.

And now in 2020, after the pandemic, again, the AAPI community, right? Folks are folks are feeling scared, right? And the default response is, “If I buy a gun, it might make me safer, which actually is not necessarily the case.” But because of the way white supremacy is rooted in our culture, sometimes that’s what a lot of people end up defaulting to.

And the thing is, research has actually shown that people don’t feel safe with more guns. And so, what we’re seeing when we compare a lot of the things that, you know, the other side, quote unquote, talks about and then look at what’s rooted in research, it’s completely different. And then also this connection to, you know, I really think it’s about being a responsible gun owner and raising the standards of gun ownership.

And so what does that look like? If you need a driver’s license at 16 to drive a car, if you’re going to have a potentially deadly weapon of war, you should probably have some sort of license or at the very least a background check. And the fact, again, that this is not a standard in our country is contributing so much to, you know, the statistic that you just read out earlier, that firearms is now the leading cause of death for young people.

For more information, visit March For Our Lives at marchforourlives.com, Newtown Action Alliance at newtownactionalliance.org and Sandy Hook Promise at sandyhookpromise.org.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Zeenat Yahya (22:50) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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