In December 2014, one of my high school classmates, Paige Stalker, was killed in a hail of gunfire on the East Side of Detroit. Police reports suggest that this was a case of mistaken identity in a dispute between drug gangs, but the circumstances of the shooting are irrelevant to the outcome of the case. Thirty shots were fired, and three other teenagers riding in the car with Paige were injured. Paige was 16 years old.
More than three years later, her murder remains unsolved. We do not know who killed her, but we know how they killed her: with an assault rifle.
I almost didn’t write this column. What good could another column about gun reform do? It seems like we go through the same process every time there’s a mass shooting in this country. A period of grieving, followed by a lot of sound and fury, resulting in nothing. It’s as if a certain numbness has set in. The White House, for its part, started an entirely misdirected campaign against violence in video games — something with no proven link to gun violence. It’s tempting to wonder if there’s any point in putting pen to paper.
But last week’s walkouts showed that this time is different. We sit at a political juncture, with the voices and actions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and countless other gun control activists in the national political discourse finally rising to a volume that cannot be ignored. We’ve arrived, finally, at a point at which simple offerings of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy are publicly mocked as woefully inadequate. Once, they were an acceptable form of condolence after a national tragedy; now, they’ve become a meme. And this shows a massive paradigm shift in the way our political discourse works.
Words without action from elected officials are no longer enough — we must capitalize on this political moment. There must be a political price to pay for ignoring the voices of the public, and it’s up to us to make sure that we keep up the pressure on those in power and hold them accountable in the midterm elections this November.
It’s clear that there’s a divergence between public opinion and our policymaking. Public opinion polling demonstrates widespread support for gun reform: According to polling by Politico and Morning Consult, public support for stricter gun control has hit an all-time high. Two-thirds of those surveyed agree that we need stricter gun controls, and much of that new support comes from Republicans in the survey sample. About 70 percent of voters support banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons. This polling might make it seem like there’s a broad consensus behind gun control, but partisanship in Congress and in state legislatures across the country prevents action from being taken. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly prevented gun control measures from even coming up for a vote.
There’s legislation in Congress now that could help to keep dangerous firearms out of the public sphere. HR 5087 would reinstate the federal assault weapon ban. S. 1945 in the Senate would limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds. HR 4240 would close the background check loophole for private gun sales — including for handguns, which are used to kill even more people every year than assault rifles. Other legislators are calling for allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to actually study the effect of gun violence on Americans — something that is banned for political reasons and prevents our policymakers from getting the data that they need to make informed decisions. None of these actions will solve the problem of gun violence on its own, but each is a responsible step in the right direction.
On Tuesday, gun violence once again came close to home. A gunman came into the Panera Bread just across the street from Princeton University, sparking a five-hour confrontation with police that ended with the police shooting the man dead. Thankfully, Princeton is on spring break, but I was on campus writing my thesis — and I was terrified. Stricter gun controls, though, might have stopped that man from getting a gun.
So, what can you do to keep our policymakers accountable? Make sure that your voices are as loud as possible. Go and march in rallies like the March for Our Lives on Saturday. Join in phone-banking and letter-writing with your friends to keep the pressure up on state and federal legislators. Register to vote — gun reform needs to be an issue in the midterm elections.
We owe it to Paige and the over 100,000 other Americans killed by gun violence since 2014 — an average of 96 deaths a day — to eliminate the scourge of deadly gun violence across our country. If legislators don’t listen to our calls for common-sense gun reform, then let’s elect different ones in November.
Nicholas Wu is a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Daily Princetonian.