2023 Surge in mass Shootings Inspires new Wave of Activists to Fight

Photo for The Washington Post by Nic Antaya
A makeshift memorial at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., on Feb. 15, 2023. On Feb. 13, a gunman killed three students and critically wounded five others at the university.

When Helena Spigner’s class heard there had been an attack at Nashville’s Covenant School, everyone went silent. In a room full of aspiring teachers, the news of another school shooting brought instant mourning.

And this time, it was close to home.

“Our worst nightmare was now a reality for teachers who were just 15 minutes away,” Spigner, a Vanderbilt University student, recalled thinking. “It was at that moment when I realized that as a future elementary teacher, I couldn’t stay silent anymore.”

Mass shootings scared Spigner, 19, so much that a month earlier, after a gunman killed three at Michigan State University, she’d considered dropping her elementary education major and abandoning her dream of becoming a teacher. After the Covenant shooting, something else came over her. The only way to stop feeling scared, she thought, was to do something.

She started sending texts to friends: Had anyone heard about any gun-control protests?

With 2023 on pace to break a record for mass killings, new activism is emerging among survivors of recent shootings and those in their communities. Spigner, who is now leading a campus chapter of the gun-control group Students Demand Action, is among a fresh wave of people joining advocacy efforts for federal and state laws aimed at reducing gun violence.

In recent weeks, protesters have flooded the Tennessee Capitol. Michigan State University students have lobbied lawmakers and turned out to events in the hundreds. High school students across Texas, which has had three mass killings this year, have walked out of class. On Saturday, thousands of activists with the group Moms Demand Action participated in rallies across the country, asking Congress to ban assault weapons.

“I always thought I would be sitting in my room, studying for my biology exam the next day. I never thought I would be sitting here planning, ‘Okay, let’s do a walkout to get people’s attention,'” said Joseph Kesto, a Michigan State junior who organized a vigil and other events after the February attack.

Advocates face head winds in Republican-controlled states and in Congress, where years of gun-control efforts have not moved many long-opposed lawmakers. But newcomers expressed optimism about the tide of public opinion. The surge of energy among activists is reminiscent of 2018, when the movement coalesced around the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17, said Kris Brown, president of the gun-control group Brady.

Kesto and other newcomers to the gun-control movement described a sense of momentum this spring arising from large turnouts at rallies, growing membership in advocacy groups and a sense among young people that they are harnessing newfound political power.

“That shooting kind of reshaped my entire life,” said Kesto, a pre-med student who took up a public policy minor, began speaking at rallies and became co-president of his school’s March for Our Lives chapter. He’d volunteered with the youth-led gun violence prevention group before, but after the attack, which left him with trauma, he wanted to make public policy work his “passion in life.”

The first 4 1/2 months of 2023 have included 22 mass killings, more by this point in the year than in any other recent year, according to a database maintained by the Associated Press, Northeastern University and USA Today. (Like The Washington Post, those organizations define a mass killing as an incident in which four or more people, excluding the perpetrator, are killed, meaning that number doesn’t include shootings like the one at MSU.)

The string of major attacks – from a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif., in January to an outlet mall in Allen, Tex., on May 6 – left at least 115 dead, adding to a continuous American death toll and widening the ever-growing pool of people affected by gun violence. They represent a small fraction of daily shootings in the United States, which on Monday had seen more than 6,700 gun deaths in 2023, according to the research group Gun Violence Archive.

Those spurred to action join a morbid American tradition of people becoming mobilized after a shooting touches their lives. The involvement of new people, activists say, is key.

“It makes the difference between actually achieving legislative enforcement and social norm change and not,” said Brown, of the Brady group, which has worked on the issue for decades. “That’s the only way our movement has ever achieved anything.”

The attack this month at the Allen, Tex., mall provoked another wave of reaction after eight people were killed by a gunman who authorities said had white-supremacist beliefs.

“This basic sense of safety of being out in public, going to a dance hall, going to a shopping mall . . . has really been taken away from us,” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, who is among Asian American leaders turning a new focus to gun violence.

“This is why we feel very strongly about getting involved at this time. We have this window to really talk about the devastating effects that guns have on our community.”

In Republican-led states, lawmakers have largely rejected calls for legislation supported by gun-control advocates, though signs are emerging of the increasing pressure they face, The Washington Post has reported.

At the federal level, too, Republicans have declined to pursue new firearm legislation. After Nashville, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said it was “premature” to talk about gun-related legislation; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Congress has “gone about as far as we can go,” The Post reported.

Keeping up the energy for advocacy that forms in the immediate aftermath of a shooting can also be challenging, a problem students said they faced at MSU. And often, working on gun-violence issues comes with trauma, anxiety or fatigue.

Still, signs of momentum are visible across the country: The number of Students Demand Action chapters at high schools and colleges grew from 374 to more than 600 in the past year, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Brady has also seen an increase in people signing up for training and advocacy work, Brown said.

Tennessee mothers, including some Republicans, created a new group, Voices for a Safer Tennessee, that drew enough people in support of firearm legislation in April to form a three-mile human chain. AAPI Victory Alliance, which is part of a coalition of Asian American organizations against gun violence, launched a campaign pressuring Wells Fargo to cut all ties with the National Rifle Association and asking Asians to pull their money from the bank. (Wells Fargo declined to comment.)

Back-to-back shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, Calif., in January were a strong catalyst for new activism in the Asian American community, which historically has not regarded gun issues as a top priority, community leaders said.

The killings, which occurred around Lunar New Year, “really triggered something for a lot of Asian Americans across the country,” said Connie Chung Joe, executive director of civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California.

“It was a big wake-up call that gun control is something that is important and impacts our community, in a way that I think we didn’t think about it before,” she said.

Last year, when some nonprofit leaders convened an Asian American and Pacific Islander conference on gun violence, it was hard to get people to show up, said Varun Nikore, executive director of the liberal AAPI Victory Alliance. This year, registration was rapid.

“A year ago, where we were was that the vast majority of AAPI groups were still trying to figure out why they should get engaged on gun violence,” Nikore said, “and now we don’t have to do any more convincing.”

In Michigan, advocacy was born out of student Maya Manuel’s Snapchat call for classmates to gather for a “sit-down” at the Capitol in Lansing after the shooting. She wasn’t planning to lobby, she said – but ended up talking with legislators who would later pass bills establishing universal background checks for gun purchases and requirements for safe gun storage.

“It just felt like it was my time to just say what I had to say,” said Manuel, 20, of Lansing. “I was very sad and very upset, and it was all very difficult in the moment. But knowing that hopefully there would be change to potentially prevent things like this from happening again – that gave me a little more hope.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed the bills at MSU in April, next to students and advocates. Manuel – who held three “sit-down” events at the Capitol – now has plans to found a community-focused nonprofit organization that would start sit-down chapters at schools nationwide, she said.

“For my generation in itself, I feel very hopeful,” said Manuel. “I think we’re reaching a point where everybody, almost, is fed up.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung
A woman visits a temporary memorial near the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., on Jan. 23, 2023, two days after a gunman killed 11 people there.