On an April day in 1999, Americans watched in horror as a terrifying scene unfolded at Columbine High School. Frightened children fled with their hands up, frantic parents tried to reunite with their children, and traumatized survivors told reporters about the violence they heard and saw.
Twenty years later, we’ve become accustomed to this all-too-familiar scene. After Columbine, there was Virginia Tech. Then Sandy Hook. Then Parkland. And just in the most recent weeks, we saw two mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH within a span of 24 hours.
In our recent survey of school-age children, the Children’s Defense Fund found that one-third say they’re worried about a shooting happening at their school. Across this country, kindergartners head to school wearing bulletproof backpacks and go through active shooter drills to prepare them for a day when someone might show up in their classroom with an assault weapon.
And mass shootings are just a fraction of the problem. Relentless everyday gun violence kills more children and teens every week than died in Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.
How did we let it get to this point? The fear of being shot and killed has become a normal part of growing up in America. Is this the country we want to be? Are we willing to let our children’s lives be defined by fear?
Sadly, that fear is not misplaced. The latest data show that a child or teen is killed by a gun every 2 hours and 34 minutes in this country. 3,410 children and teens were killed with guns in 2017 — enough to fill 171 classrooms. That’s more than any other year since before Columbine. Gun violence kills more children and teens than cancer, pneumonia, influenza, asthma, HIV/AIDS and opioids combined. It is the second leading cause of death among children and teens, and is the leading cause among Black children and teens.
Gun violence saturates our children’s lives. It romps through their playgrounds, attends their birthday parties, shows up in their classrooms and rides with them on their school buses. It shoots through their bedroom windows, onto their front porches, and down the hallways of their schools. The fear of being shot clouds our children’s minds and darkens their spirits. It leads them to wonder whether their lives matter at all. And in the face of our collective inaction, how can we blame them for wondering?
Today, 1,000 young people and parents are on Capitol Hill delivering copies of the Children’s Defense Fund’s new Protect Children, Not Guns report that shares this new data. Clipped to each report is a personal note that reads: “Does my life matter to you?” These young people are tired of thoughts and prayers. They are going directly to their representatives to demand gun violence prevention measures to protect their young lives.
When we surveyed children about their worries, a 16-year old girl responded, “[I want] to not have to wake up and be scared to do normal things, like go to the movies because [someone] decided to shoot it up one night.” A 12-year-old boy pleaded, “Please keep us safe.”
Our children are crying out for protection. We have failed them by allowing the sounds of gunfire — and the terror of dying in a senseless act of violence — to become a regular part of an American childhood. It’s time for us to do right by our children and take meaningful action to protect them from gun violence. A child’s life is too valuable to waste. Let’s act like it.
Max Lesko is the National Executive Director for the Children’s Defense Fund. For more than 40 years, the Children’s Defense Fund has defended against attacks on children, including gun violence. Learn more at childrensdefense.org/protect-children-not-guns.