Photo contributed by Zed Nelson
When the fire alarm went off at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, Paula Reed was teaching class. Her class followed procedure and calmly went outside, like always. In just a few moments, kids were running by screaming, “There’s a gun! There’s a gun!” Reed, on the farthest side of the building from where the shooting was happening, was in total disbelief. After the administrators confirmed the shooting, she began ushering the students over a fence into the neighboring park. They were directed to crouch between cars. The next couple of hours were spent rallying kids in safe spots and reuniting them with their parents.
Some reunions never happened.
When a police force took over, Reed went to the community library to watch the TV footage of the event. That’s when the severity of the situation hit her. She realized that among the victims were most likely past students of hers, and after a student told her that one of the students she was close to, Rachel, had passed away, she went into complete denial. She claimed the student was lying and walked away. She later apologized for her initial reaction and asked the student if he was sure. At that point, other students she knew had gathered around, and they confirmed what had happened.
“They took us right past her body,” the students said, according to Reed. “She was outside, and we went right past her. It was her.”
She attempted to talk to Rachel’s mom but was stopped and told, “You cannot tell her.” Following that moment, she learned of the passing of many more of her students and colleagues.
“I went home, I watched television,” Reed said. “I kept hoping I would see some of the kids that I was told I would never see again. And that’s when I realized I had taught one of the shooters as well.”
The Columbine High School massacre was one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, with a total of 13 people dead. Nineteen years later, on the other side of the country, another fire alarm went off in Parkland, Florida. It was another school shooting, one of approximately 50 since Columbine. This time, the death toll was 17.
“(The death toll) was so close to ours,” Reed said. “I haven’t watched television news since April 20, 1999. But I do read the newspaper… And I just lost it. Completely lost it. I couldn’t even go to school the next day.”
OUR GUN LAWS NOW
Twenty years after the massacre at Columbine, gun laws are still a major debate in America. Not many federal laws have been changed. Because every state has its own set of laws when it comes to guns, they can differ from the federal laws.
Before Columbine, Colorado’s gun laws were not strict, but there have been modifications since then. Colorado has made changes to the sale of guns at gun shows, which is where the four weapons the Columbine shooters used were purchased from. In addition to that change, people in Colorado must have background checks before purchasing a gun at a gun show, according to Giffords Law Center.
In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines for civilian use. The law expired in 2004 when Congress chose not to renew it. As of 2019, people under 18 are not allowed to purchase or be in possession of a handgun, but they are allowed to have a longer barreled guns and semi-automatic guns, like an AR-15. With this, however, there are a number of federal laws on who can purchase or possess a gun. For example, a convicted felon or a person who has abused drugs is not allowed to be in possession of any gun.
In Indiana, a person who buys a gun does not need a license to purchase or own a firearm, and they also do not need to register the gun, according to Giffords Law Center. Differing from federal laws, a convicted felon in Indiana who is considered to be “non-violent” can possess a firearm, but they cannot buy one.
One of the main debates when it comes to guns is concealed carry, or the ability to carry a weapon in a public place. All 50 states allow concealed carry, but under different circumstances and qualifications. Acquiring a license for concealed carry in Indiana is relatively simple, as the application is an online form. According to a study done by Guns To Carry, nearly 800,000 Indiana residents held permits allowing them to carry guns in public.
CHANGE FROM AFAR
In other places following mass shootings, the laws have become more strict. On March 15, two consecutive terrorist attacks occurred at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people were pronounced dead. Less than a month later, New Zealand’s parliament voted to make changes to the 1983 gun laws, prohibiting military-style semi-automatic weapons and parts that can be used to assemble prohibited firearms.
“Tragically, the attack exposed (a fundamental weakness) in our laws,” the Minister of Police of New Zealand, Stuart Nash, wrote in an email to The Journal. “Too many people in this country had access to these dangerous firearms for no legitimate purpose, and at significant risk to the public.”
Nash personally believes that owning a firearm is a privilege, not a right. He says that it is necessary to prevent potential danger by removing the most dangerous weapons from the community.
“I believe one of the primary duties of government is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its citizens and to allow them the ability to go about their lives free from harm and free from the fear of harm,” Nash wrote.
New Zealand’s Parliament has 120 representatives from five political parties. The legislation was passed with 119 votes in favor and one vote against. The one member of Parliament who opposed the legislation was concerned about the speed at which the change was taking place, not the intent of the change, according to Nash.
New Zealand’s actions were partially influenced by changes made in Australia after a mass shooting in 1996, according to The New York Times. After a gunman killed 35 people near a popular tourist site in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur, the prime minister at the time, John Howard, introduced a federal law to officially make guns a privilege, not a right. Other countries have been known to change their gun laws following a mass shooting as well. For example, at the end of 1997, the British government effectively banned handguns following a school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996.
Nash recalls that young people showed great affection and support towards the victims and their families after the attack. He believes that students and teenagers play a big role in the changing of laws. He claims it is important to demonstrate characteristics and actions that will ensure racist actions and thoughts will not be present.
“Safety means being free from the fear of violence,” Nash wrote. “But it also means being free from the fear of those sentiments of racism and hate, that create a place where violence can flourish. And every single one of us has the power to change that.”
THE ACTIVE MOVEMENT
In the U.S., certain young people have taken their safety into their own hands and campaigned for stronger gun control. March for Our Lives is a student-led organization in support for more gun violence prevention measures. This movement was founded by the survivors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. One of the cofounders, Ryan Deitsch, uses his skills as a journalist and a filmmaker to further the mission. He is using his personal experiences to be an advocate for others and help voice his opinion over the current gun laws.
“We’ve seen a lot of gun-sense advocates enter different fields and speak out for all different sorts of issues that all combine to generally, what gun violence is,” Deitsch said. “Really, what I feel that March for Our Lives has brought to the table is making sure that we aren’t so much just talking about one part of this issue, like so many groups have done for so long. But we’re talking about all parts of this issue. ”
Deitsch sees the lack of change in legislation since Columbine as a very concerning issue. He believes that students should not feel unsafe in their cities or schools. He says this generation is tired of the fear.
“We are an entire age demographic of people that have faced the issue of never feeling safe in a building,” Deitsch said. “Never feeling safe in a hall of learning. Never feeling safe in a movie theater. Never really feeling safe. And, although, of course, that doesn’t apply to every single person in our generation, that is significantly higher than others. Because just as our grandparents may have faced duck and cover, we face code reds.”
The main focus of this organization is gaining the support from young people who share opinions about this topic. There are multiple March for Our Lives chapters in every state, and anyone is able to join by entering their zip code on the March for Our Lives website. Deitsch’s advice to invoke real change is for people to do anything in their power to get their point across, just to make their voice heard.
“What you can do as individuals though is truly just make sure (you) stay alert when it comes to laws and proceedings, if there is something that is going to hit the floor in your state legislature, if there is something that is going to hit the floor on the federal level,” Deitsch said. “Be sure that you’re paying attention to that because when it comes to phone calls and emails and letters, they do listen.”
In the future, March for Our Lives will focus on continuing the conversation about gun violence. Deitsch intends to keep on with the fight until it is won.
Other groups see no need for the fight for stronger gun laws. The National Rifle Association, for example, is staunchly opposed to any restrictions on the Second Amendment.
Formed in 1871, the NRA was created in order to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” according to the NRA website. The NRA created shooting ranges and youth programs, which were focused on educating students on firearms and training them for competitions. Not only do they train young people, but they also train gun owners nationwide. According to the NRA, as of today 125,000 certified instructors train over a million gun owners every year. The NRA also created a foundation that collects money to fund grants that are presented to different programs and organizations.
Therefore, members of the NRA are not eager to enact legislation that they see as an infringement of their constitutional right.
“It’s an association of like-minded folks that want to make sure that (their Second Amendment) right is protected…,” Indiana State Senator Justin Busch said. “People pay their dues, like a lot of people do, to associations for things they are passionate about.”
Busch, a Republican senator for Indiana State Senate District 16, is a lifetime member of the NRA himself. He states that the NRA has never had a say in his voting record or tried to push him to lean any certain way when bills are in front of him.
Similar to people involved in the NRA, there is a large amount of people in the U.S. who want to keep all of their rights when it comes to guns. This could be for reasons such as protecting themselves, for an activity like hunting or for their job. Brian Ludlow, owner of gun store Indy Trading Post, believes there should be an option to have more lenient gun laws.
“I think there should be less really…” Ludlow said. “Here, people have to jump through hoops to buy a gun. The guys out there that are robbing or shooting people are stealing guns or getting them in other ways. There is nothing that is going to stop that from happening.”
The opposition, however, is of the opinion that having stricter gun laws would be beneficial for the United States and its citizens. Deitsch shares this belief.
“The gun laws are too weak, the gun lobby is too strong, but hopefully if we get in that mix, the gun lobby will be weaker, our laws will be stronger, and our country will be better because of it,” Deitsch said.
PRESENT AND FUTURE GUN LAWS
As there has been very little advances in gun laws across the nation in the last 20 years, there have been some new laws recently introduced. On Feb. 27, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 bill was passed in the House of Representatives. The bill makes it a requirement for there to be background checks on every person who purchases a gun. According to NPR, this bill gives the FBI more time to do background checks and slows down the pace when someone is attempting to purchase a gun. This includes people who buy guns in stores, at gun shows and on the internet.
Individual states have been making changes in 2019 as well. California has raised the minimum age requirement to purchase a gun, and Illinois has put an act into effect that allows guns to be taken away from people considered dangerous to themselves or others. According to Busch, there have been multiple bills presented regarding gun control in Indiana, but they almost always die in the committee.
WHY HAVEN’T GUN LAWS CHANGED?
Although some believe that changes are needed, others believe that having more gun laws would not make a difference, but rather that making sure the right people own and use guns for the right reasons is the most important. For some, making sure more people are trained and educated when it comes to firearms is the real change that would be effective.
“I don’t think stricter gun laws are going to change anything,” Ludlow said. “It’s not guns. It is the people who are misusing them.”
With change only on the local level and state level, Deitsch believes it is up to the people to demand more impactful change from the government in the future. He claims that legislators do listen, but people need to stand up for their opinions in order to see a difference.
“We’re not just talking about what happens when a gun enters a school, we’re talking about what happens when a gun enters a synagogue, what happens when a gun enters a mosque, what happens when a gun enters a movie theater, what happens when you’re just walking down the street and you just turn down that wrong alley,” Deitsch said. “Why is there a wrong alley? Why are you in the wrong place? Why is there a wrong place? And, it’s just really identifying that and making sure that we’re all standing together on these issues because change won’t come unless we demand it.”