“Hey, all,” I said to a group of high school students at a local Panera Bread not long ago.
There were eight of them. They were organizing for the local March for Our Lives protest in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. “Would you mind taking a minute to explain what you’re up to this weekend?”
Food in hand, they accepted my offer. They seemed eager to talk, eager to educate me.
These students were different from Jack Weinberg, who famously said, “Never trust anyone over 30,” when he was in his early 20s and leading the free-speech movement at Berkeley. These students didn’t distrust me. Instead, they treated me like I had a disability — the disability of generational perspective, one they’d help me with if I gave them a chance.
I sat down at their table and asked what they hoped to accomplish in the days, weeks and months to come. They had strong opinions about the NRA, the Second Amendment, and Republicans. A few seemed to think capitalism itself was the problem. They weren’t strident, like some leading the anti-gun charge on cable television.
They also weren’t rude. They were earnest. The gun issue, they said, was their generational cause. They were tired of seeing mass-shooting stories in the news and that they lived in fear that an incident like the one in Parkland, Florida, could happen in Oxford, they said. They were committed to ending senseless gun violence once and for all.
“We shouldn’t have to live in fear for our lives in school,” said one young lady, on the verge of a sincere cry.
“That’s what this is all about,” another added. Other students nodded.
“Would you mind if I asked a few questions?” I asked after listening for 15 minutes. “How many students have been killed in mass school shootings since Columbine in 1999? Would you say it’s 10,000, 1,000, or less?”
No one answered “less.” A quick search on their phones, and they had the answer: 122. It was 122 too many, for sure — but that number surprised them.
“So that’s 122 deaths in 18 years,” I said. “Let’s divide 122 by 18. What’s that number?”
“It’s 6.77777,” a student said, after punching in the numbers on her smartphone.
“So just shy of seven students in America were killed in mass school shootings each year since 1999,” I said. The students agreed — and they agreed because they were the ones doing the research and the math.
The students were also surprised there’d been only 10 mass school shootings since Columbine. Among the 10, five included shootings at colleges. That’s 10 mass shootings too many, but the students thought that number would be vastly higher than the real number.
“How many students attend public schools, colleges and junior colleges in America?” I asked next.
We googled it: 70 million, according to the Department of Education website.
“Let’s divide the total number of students in America by the number seven. What’s the answer?” I asked.
“One in 10 million,” another student answered.
“So do we all agree that you have a one in 10,000,000 chance of dying in a mass school shooting?” I asked. Heads nodded yes, reluctantly.
“OK,” I said, “let’s look up the most common causes of death in America, and see where mass school shootings rank.”
Heart disease was first; drugs, number 10; falling, number 15; drowning, number 24; choking on food, number 29; bicycling deaths, number 30 — and mass school shootings was, number 33. The list was compiled by the National Safety Council. They knew what was coming next.
“Do you still live in fear of mass school shootings?”
The question was a real buzz killer.
I then asked the students about the leading cause of death among young people. First was accidents, at 41 percent. Over 2,820 young people died in car accidents alone. Over 10 percent of those were related to distracted driving — to texting and phone-related activity.
“Why not march about that?” I told them. “Many more of you die that way, and it’s behavior you can actually control and change.”
Next was suicide, at 18 percent. Homicide was third, at 16 percent; 87 percent of those deaths were gun-related. The overwhelming majority were not from assault-style weapons but handguns, the students learned. Less than 1 percent of those shootings happened in schools.
“Say we eliminate the high-powered assault rifles you talked about before,” I said. “How much change would you see?”
“If we can save even one life, it’s worth it,” one student said. A few others nodded.
“And if those laws are passed, and there are a lot of people who think they should be, what will stop future killers from using handguns to do what they set out to do?” I asked.
There was no answer. So I kept asking questions.
“What was the biggest mass school shooting in American history?” I asked next.
“Virginia Tech,” a student said after doing a quick search.
“How many people were murdered?”
“Thirty-three,” the student said, looking at an old news account on his iPhone.
“What weapon did the killer use?”
“Two handguns,” he added, somewhat disappointed to learn that.
“Did you know the answer to any of these questions before you began your plans to march?” I asked. “And did your teachers ask you any of these questions?”
“Nope,” one young man said.
I wasn’t finished. “And what about all the young people killed by handguns and other non-assault-style weapons. Don’t you care about those deaths, so many of which are young African-Americans in our inner cities?”
“It’s Parkland every week in our inner cities. Columbine every day. Shouldn’t we ban handguns? They’re the weapons killing the most young people.”
More silence, along with some head nods.
“Isn’t that how we really end almost all of this tragic gun violence — just get rid of all guns?” I asked. No one answered that one.
I then switched from talking about the Second Amendment to some other parts of the Bill of Rights.
“The police knew a lot about the Parkland killer,” I said. “Why couldn’t they just arrest him and throw him in jail? Everyone knew he was a time bomb.”
The students knew this was a tough one.
“Do you think it’s a good idea to arrest and imprison people because you think they might commit a crime?” I asked.
“What amendment protects Americans from such a thing?”
No one knew the answer.
“What does the Fifth Amendment say,” I asked. We looked it up, and a student read these words from her phone.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
“What do you think the Founding Fathers were up to when they created the Fifth Amendment?” I asked. “And the Fourth Amendment, which requires police to have a warrant before they search our homes?”
There were no takers. I gave a simple summary: “It was designed to protect us from arbitrary abuses of police power. It’s one thing to fear criminals. It’s another to fear the state itself. That was the Founders’ experience with the British, and they didn’t want it repeated.”
I asked another question. “So isn’t it a pretty dangerous idea to allow people whom we know are dangerous to walk around our streets, waiting for them to commit actual crimes, and give them all of these rights and due process?” I asked. “Should we eliminate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, or restrict them, too?”
I then started a new line of inquiry. “That sign says ‘People Over Profits,'” I said. “What does that mean, exactly?”
The young lady who had made the sign I was referring to told me the NRA was putting profits above the people.
“Did you know the NRA is a nonprofit citizens group,” I said, “with 5 million dues-paying members?”
“What is profit?” I asked. “And is it a good or bad thing?”
There was a long pause — the longest yet.
“Profit is what’s left over after a business owner pays the employees, the rent and everything else,” I said. “Do you think anyone would start a business if they couldn’t make a profit?”
Everyone shook their heads no.
“And without businesses, where would people work? Where would all the taxes come from to pay for all of the public services we enjoy, like schools, police and programs to help the needy?”
It was clear the students were never asked these questions in their many years of public schooling.
I switched subjects again. To the students’ considerable credit, they were not rattled or upset. They were curious and enjoyed being asked questions, some of which they could find the answers to very quickly.
“Is there more violence or less in America in the past 30 years?” I asked.
All said “more.”
“Look it up,” I said.
And there it was. Headline after headline said that murder and crime rates are at historic lows in America. New York City, which had 2,245 murders in 1990, was down to 290 last year. That’s still too many, but a remarkable decline. Some cities have struggled, but the facts were overwhelming. We’ve never been safer in recent history.
“Why did you believe crime was higher?” I asked.
“The news,” one young lady answered quickly. “It’s murder every day.”
“So you live in fear because of the media?” I asked.
The students nodded.
“Should we limit the First Amendment because it’s creating all of this fear?” I asked. “Or punish folks in the media for scaring us half to death while knowing crime rates are at historic lows?”
I wasn’t finished. “Do you think these mass shootings would happen if the media didn’t cover them?”
“What do you mean?” one student asked.
“Would it surprise you to learn that many of the mass school shooters were seeking attention and fame, and some said so in postings on Facebook?” I asked.
We looked up the posts from the young man who killed nine people before taking his own life at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015. This was what the soon-to-be-infamous gunman wrote about the person who killed two journalists before taking his own life:
A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.
“Should we restrict the First Amendment, and block the press from covering these shootings, or naming the names of the shooters, because these men might not have committed their crimes but for the fame, attention and glory only the media can provide?” I asked.
That prompted a good short discussion.
The students learned that the Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from our own government. They also learned there were limits to these rights.
“The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact,” Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once said. But the Bill of Rights isn’t a mere list of suggestions, either.
Next came the toughest questions — the existential kind.
“Has anyone really thought about the mind of a young person who woke up one morning with a plan to kill as many students as possible? That all of the mass school shooters did nothing to hide who they were, and did nothing to avoid either being killed or being caught, and spending the rest of their lives in jail?” I asked.
There was no simple answer to that — nothing that could fit on a protest sign.
“Murder, mass murder, is very illegal,” I added, “and punishable by death in many states. Do you believe marginal gun law improvements will stop these disturbed, evil young men from killing people?”
The students, with their “Enough is Enough” and “Never Again” signs, were a bit less confident about their assertions after a mere 15 minutes of questions.
I had one last big one. “Is there one person in your school who, if you were to learn they’d killed your classmates, it wouldn’t surprise you?” I asked.
There was a pause. Then came some names — six, actually.
I hope I turned down the heat on the subject of gun violence in America with a handful of smart, decent young people trying to find their voice — and their purpose.
“Maybe we need to do what we can right here at home to stop this from happening in our town,” I added. “And maybe, even then, enough won’t be enough.”
My meal was cold. I thanked the students for their time and their commitment to speak the truth as they saw it.
“Good luck with the march,” I told them, “and be proud that you live in a country that protects your speech. That protects your right to petition the adults in charge and your elected representatives.”
I left them with this additional thought: “It’s a rare and precious thing, our Constitution, and people from around the world come here because of the values and principles it enshrines. So, please, respect that document, and respect the people out there who disagree with you, too. Because there are people of good will on all sides of our most heated national debates.”
I left the table, went back to the serving counter, and asked to have my meal heated up.
In my own way, I hope I turned down the heat on the subject of gun violence in America with a handful of smart, decent young people trying to find their voice — and their purpose.
Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Media Group. He is also the host of “Our American Stories,” which can be heard nationwide in almost 100 affiliates. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.