McManus, FBI, Moms Demand Action, and Columbine survivor speak to students on Gun Violence Awareness Day

McManus, FBI, Moms Demand Action, and Columbine survivor speak to students on Gun Violence Awareness Day

Columbine survivor Crystal Miller speaks to students at Anne Frank Inspire Academy.

Today is National Gun Violence Awareness Day. While San Antonio’s city government does not appear to have followed the lead of other cities in marking the day, local high school students did. They hosted a symposium on school safety, because it’s something that matters to them.

The Students on Safety (S.O.S) symposium brought together 40 students with delegations from BRAINATION’s Anne Frank Inspire Academy, Bandera High School, and several other area high schools to hear from law enforcement officials, activists, and Crystal Miller, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The afternoon was spent in student-led break out groups to help participants process what they heard on the various components of prevention and awareness.

It’s fitting that the day ended with student-led activities, because students are finding their own way to talk about a reality that is far more universal than it was before 1999: being afraid at school.

Bruce Rockstroh, CEO of BRAINATION, opened the event by affirming the need for more student voice in any conversation on school safety. He encouraged the students to treat the symposium as an opportunity for research, to hear different points of view, and consider the complexity of the topic.

“We can never say ‘lets give every teacher a gun and schools will be safe,’ there’s no one answer,” Rockstroh said. (For the record, McManus would not weigh in on arming teachers. He did however say that if teachers were armed, then they needed to wear their gun on their person, not stash it somewhere. Like police officers.)

As students take this advice to heart and become experts on gun safety and violence prevention, they will probably have to have some uncomfortable conversations, because “gun” has become a political word. Trying to recommend any safe behavior feels like an assault on Constitutional rights. Moms Demand Action advocate Becca Defelice’s mission is to help students de-politicize the word so that they can promote safety.

Sometimes that means telling adults what to do. Like, lock up your damn guns.

Defelice spoke to students about making sure that guns in the home are secure, including homes where they babysit. It could be an tough conversation, but it could be a lifesaving one. “Keeping your gun in a safe is the optimal, best situation for every gun owner,” she said.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus also emphasized that point with zero equivocation, nuance, or exception.

“If you have guns in your home and they are not locked down, that’s a bad thing,” McManus said.

Students should push their parents to get gun safes, trigger locks, and promote responsible gun behavior in the home, he said, “Little kids grab guns, they play with them, and they get shot.” 

General gun safety was part of the agenda, but student organizers had a similarly moderate goal for conversations on how gun violence affects their schools.

“We want to make people more aware of what’s going on in our schools,” 15-year-old Anne Frank Inspire student Alyssa Gonzales said. She hopes that all sides can find common ground in measures that will allow students to feel safe. While this, in her mind, includes both campus security and reasonable gun regulation, “nobody wants (guns) to be banned,” she said. 

That includes McManus, who told students that, “Because Texas is so well-armed, I think that you see less shootings here than you see around the country.”

That seems like an odd thing to say in light of the statistics. USA Today reported on a 24/7 Wall Street study that ranked Texas 28th in the nation on gun deaths per capita, with Alaska as #1. Texas is also 17th for violent crime per capita, per that study. Texas is also home to four of the 25 deadliest mass shootings in the last 70 years, as counted by CNN.

McManus had some other thoughts in support of an armed citizenry, including the fact that, unless they were suicidal, would-be mass shooters would think twice about going into churches and movie theaters when people could be armed.

In fact, the threat of death by good-guy-with-gun doesn’t appear to be a big deterrent, given how most mass shootings end. Later, FBI officer Greg Pratt listed “past attempts at suicide” as a common element in the mass shooter profile.

McManus gave other advice for getting out of violent dating relationships, and being aware of ones surroundings. He was followed by Pratt, who included among his practical advice: know how to apply a tourniquet.

He also gave a psychological profile of a mass shooter and practical ways to be aware of one’s environment in the event of a mass shooting or any violent crime.

How to identify and respond to mass shooting threats is weird advice to be giving high school kids, as though they will need it. Statistically they won’t, but, as Defelice later pointed out, psychologically, they do. They all feel like they could be next. In the wake of the Santa Fe High School shootings, one of the most chilling elements was how the students expressed no surprise. They figured it would happen there eventually.

This was not the climate that Crystal Miller grew up in. School safety was not on her mind on April 20, 1999 when two of her schoolmates went on a shooting rampage. She told her story of being trapped in the library, the epicenter of the massacre, and escaping by

what she considers to be an act of divine intervention. She was hiding under the only table the shooters did not target before they ran out of ammunition. She has turned her story into a story of hope, of a renewed purpose as a survivor.

When it looked like Columbine was a singular tragedy, the kind of freak occurrence that “doesn’t happen here,” Miller and her traumatized peers moved forward in the only way open to them: become inspirational survivors.

It wasn’t until the shooting in Parkland that student survivors saw much progress in a new direction: activism.

The S.O.S event was organized as part of the wave of student activism following Parkland. Testimony like Miller’s sounds razor sharp in that context. It sounds immediate and urgent instead of like something one might only hear on 60 Minutes.

On both sides of the debate there’s an awkwardness with the survivors and student activists across the country. Are they too polished? Too immature? Too uninformed? Too informed?

Whatever you think of them, they are standing in front of you, asking for answers, and people like Pratt, McManus, and lawmakers will have to get used to talking to them. Adults will have to come to grips with teenagers who sounds like activists, who are armed with research as though their lives depended on it.

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