Watching America’s gun control crisis from the outside

I woke up this Valentine’s Day to a thread of concerning texts. They were from a group chat with my high school friends, who had been messaging each other late the night before.

“Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know I’m safe,” was the first one I saw.

Followed by, “I just heard abt it, I’m so sorry that happened on your campus…” 

My stomach dropped. 

I immediately knew what they had to be referring to. I took to Twitter, and sure enough, almost every news account had published the headline confirming my fear: there had been a mass shooting at Michigan State University.

On Thursday, February 13, three students were murdered and five were critically injured after a gunman opened fire in two campus buildings.

This is not a story anybody is unfamiliar with. Mass shootings have become almost routine in American life, and are reported on as frequently as issues like the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike those issues, however, the mass shooting problem is uniquely American.

The Gun Violence Archive classifies a mass shooting as an incident where there are a minimum of four victims shot, not including the shooter. According to the organization, there have already been 95 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023. 

The stories are only ever in the news cycle for about a week, maybe longer depending on the scope of the violence. There’s always grieving, public outrage, calls for change. Rinse. Repeat.

For me, this shooting was different. Even though I live in Halifax now, I’m originally from Michigan. I have a few close friends who attend MSU, and I know that a lot of other students from my high school go there as well. The fact that this event happened so close to them was terrifying, and it’s another reminder that gun violence can happen in any community in the U.S.

In the days following the shooting at MSU, I watched my Michigan friends attend vigils, share on-campus resources for healing, and protest outside the State Capitol. I, on the other hand, suddenly felt useless here, and that I should be there with them — grieving.

I got to thinking about my new life in Canada, and how the weight of this issue has changed since I’ve moved here. The student experience in Halifax is, after all, a stark contrast to the one in America. The threat of a gunman infiltrating campus isn’t something I think about. Living in Canada, I feel like I’ve gotten out, and that I’m blessed with a privilege of being here — which is absurd. It shouldn’t be a privilege to attend class without the fear of getting shot. 

Not too long ago, however, the threat of a mass shooting was very much a reality in my life.

During high school back in Michigan, we used to have numerous active shooter drills every year. Before the drill, we’d watch a video outlining the procedures we should follow. One of those tips involved running in a zig-zag direction in case we came into contact with the shooter, since it would make us a harder target. Then, when the alarm would go off, we’d take desks to barricade the door, grab textbooks to throw, and line up on a wall not visible from the hallway. When the drill was over, we’d put the desks back in place, resume class, and hope that our school wouldn’t be on the news any time soon.

In addition to the drills, there were multiple student-led walkouts advocating for stronger gun control laws, especially in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting where 17 students and staff were murdered. Evidently, none of that changed anything, and the violence has continued beyond my graduation from high school.

As Canadians, it’s easy, and perhaps even tempting, to tune out the noise of foreign violence. But as a dual-citizen with ties to the U.S, that isn’t really an option for me — even if my own experience has changed. Don’t get me wrong, we were all well aware that the precautions we had to take at school were fucked up. But being here, I have a newfound clarity that this epidemic really is an American problem.

I feel more helpless and angry than ever as I realize that a group of Republicans hold the country hostage, citing freedom and the Constitution as a disguise for NRA pandering. They would have you believe the problem should be blamed on a mental health crisis, and not the open-carry laws that, in Michigan, allow an individual to carry a firearm in public as long as it’s with lawful intent. Intent isn’t tangible though, and thus the legality behind carrying a weapon on a school campus, or any public space, is beyond problematic and unacceptable.

According to a poll from analytics firm Gallup, the majority of Americans want stricter gun laws that would make purchasing a firearm more difficult. I believe most Americans are reasonable. I haven’t met a single one who hasn’t had an emotional reaction to a mass shooting like the one at Michigan State — regardless of political affiliation. 

Still, 45 percent of Americans have a gun in the home according to the same poll. There’s a grotesque love affair between Americans and their weapons, and it’s costing students their lives. Calls for gun control aren’t about taking away freedom from the individual, but about protecting the freedom and safety of everybody. I believe most Americans are reasonable. But until they can reckon with that correlation between legislation and violence, and vote out those responsible for the continued deaths, classes will continue to be gunned down. And I’ll be here, anxiously scrolling, pacing, and hoping. Watching with a pit in my stomach.

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