WSS looks into gun violence and its impact on students. (Sachiko Goto)
WSS looks into gun violence and its impact on students.

Sachiko Goto

Call for control

WSS investigates the debate over gun control and the effects of gun violence in Iowa.

June 3, 2021

Scared. Sad. Angry. Disgusted. Normal. These are words West High students used in a survey to describe how they feel when shootings happen across the country and around the world. Whether people have gotten used to it or are still grappling with the unfortunate truth, the U.S. has become notorious for its unusually high rates of mass shootings and gun-related deaths for a developed country.

In 2020, over 19,000 Americans died as a direct result of gun violence and an additional 24,000 by gun suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Despite the reduction in school shootings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the highest gun violence death toll in over two decades. Additionally, the Gun Violence Archive found that May 2020 had the most monthly total mass shootings since their first collected data in 2013. GVA defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot; however, this definition varies between sources.

As of May 25, 2021, there have been 194 mass shootings, according to NPR

These alarming rates fuel the ongoing debate over the necessity of gun control and whether strong enforcement of it is an infringement on citizens’ Second Amendment rights. In Iowa, both national occurrences, as well as local changes, contribute to the conversation. 

On April 2, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law concerning gun ownership in Iowa that will be put into effect July 1, allowing Iowans to purchase and carry handguns without a permit. This law does not apply to shotguns or rifles, as Iowans can already purchase and carry those without a permit. The legal permitless carrying of a handgun is known as constitutional carry, and currently, 19 other states allow it.

Student perspectives

The new constitutional carry law has sparked mostly negative responses among West High students, with 85.4% of 92 respondents to a survey disagreeing with the new law and 12.4% agreeing.

“I’m genuinely feeling unsafe just going out in public because of this new law,” said Quincy Tate ’21. “I think that if most people went through and read the content of this bill, they would not agree with it. 

Like Tate, Peter Adams ’22 believes in the danger that might come along with the passing of this new law. 

“It does worry me that it’s becoming easier and easier to get a gun, and especially guns that can inflict a lot of damage in very little time,” Adams said. 

Adams feels other students around him may be worried as well.

“Students can get really anxious about school shootings because they’re becoming more prominent,” Adams said. “[This] can make someone feel unsafe going to a school that potentially could be a target for a mass shooting.” 

One student that has felt feelings of unsafety after hearing of mass shootings on the news is Briar Martin ’24, who is in favor of stricter gun laws. 

“It was so scary to go back to school the day after [a shooting happened],” Martin said. “We have to go to school every single day; there’s no way to avoid [school].”

On the other hand, Miguel Cohen Suarez ’22 finds shootings are no longer a shock to him due to the frequency of gun violence.

It’s happened so many times that I’ve kind of become desensitized to it.

— Miguel Cohen Suarez '22

“The sad truth is, it’s happened so many times that I’ve kind of become desensitized to it,” Cohen Suarez said. “When someone mentions a mass shooting, it’s more like just feeling upset that it happened but not really having much empathy for the true tragedy of what happened.” 

While some might worry about what easier access to guns might bring in the future, others are not experiencing much of an emotional change. 

Sean Hagan ’22 sees widespread gun ownership as an advantage and a means of self-protection from others using guns. 

“That [law] doesn’t really scare me or anything,” Hagan said. “I think people owning guns is a good thing, and disarming the population won’t solve any problems that manifest as gun violence.”

Under current Iowa law, a person must be at least 21 years old to obtain a nonprofessional permit to carry or acquire a handgun. A person must be at least 18 years old to obtain a professional permit for a job. 

There are many reasons that people give when it comes to the source of gun violence. Most agree mass shootings can be preventable but disagree on the exact cause. 

“Bullying is not the cause of mass shootings. If bullying were a cause of mass shootings, we’d see a lot more people of color, LGBTQ folks and women who are mass shooters that’s not what happens,” Tate said.

Contrarily, Cohen Suarez views bullying as something that can lead to safety threats.

“I think it’s easy for someone who’s been bullied to take out their anger in an extremely violent and detrimental way,” Cohen Suarez said. “I think building a positive community is extremely important so that … nobody feels they need to harm each other.”

Taking action

Scott Peterson is the executive director and board chair for Iowans for Gun Safety, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce gun violence by lobbying for stricter laws and policies on gun control. Currently, the organization’s primary goal is to defeat a pro-gun state constitutional amendment that will appear on voters’ ballots in 2021. This amendment states that Iowa recognizes the right to keep and bear arms as “a fundamental individual right” and any restrictions on this right “shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”

Strict scrutiny is the most challenging obstacle that legislation needs to pass. If Iowa voters approve the pro-gun amendment, it will be harder to pass restrictive gun laws in the future. 

The annual gun-related death rate in Iowa is lower than in many other states. Everytown Research reports that 270 people on average die by guns each year in Iowa. However, in recent years, leadership in the Iowa legislature has made efforts to weaken the state’s gun regulations, which for some, may make Iowa feel less safe than it was before.

“I think there is significant room for common-sense measures, regulations and laws to significantly lower the number of injuries and deaths that we see. And that we again are going in the wrong direction,” Peterson said. 

Peterson believes the public perspective on gun control is impactful.

“It’s hard to get to … how we can do better, how we can look at this as a question of public health and public safety, rather than kind of a radical right individual rights movement,” he said. 

Peterson also wants students to know they have the power to help prevent gun violence, and can take actions such as defeating the strict scrutiny amendment. 

“I just wish [Generation Z] … would say, ‘This is not what we want in Iowa … This is extreme, and we’re going to not only vote against it, but help defeat it,” Peterson said.

Similarly, Adams strongly believes in the ability of  students to become activists and voice their opinions on gun control. 

“I wouldn’t call myself anti-gun. I’m more in favor of just approaching guns with the level of scrutiny and responsibility necessary for, you know, a lethal weapon,” Adams said. 

Adams took part in the Wear Orange campaign of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 8, 2019,  intending to bring awareness to the issue of gun violence and support the gun safety movement intending to bring awareness to the issue of gun violence and support the gun safety movement. Wearing orange on this day shows support for victims of gun violence and the gun safety movement. 

 “I definitely take a role in activism, and calling in to make sure that they hear my opinion because people who [are] pro-gun, pro-constitutional carry are very, very motivated about this,” Adams said. “If a senator hears from their constituents 20-to-one that they are in favor of looser gun restrictions, that’s probably how they’re going to vote.”

Adams also brings awareness to gun violence through conversations in everyday life. 

“I do try to bring up this discussion, whenever it’s appropriate of course, with people because I think an honest discussion needs to be had. It’s a tough conversation, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have it,” Adams said. 

A large reason for Adams’ passion for gun safety is the loss of his grandfather, who died by gun suicide when Adams was in the second grade.

“It’s just my personal goal to make sure that no other second graders are pulled out of their class to be told that,” Adams said.

In the ICCSD, staff members are also acting to keep people within schools safe.

I think an honest discussion … needs to be had

— Peter Adams '22

“Staff completes what’s called ALICE training, which is training that we, as a staff, would do should we have an active shooter in our building or on our grounds,” said Principal Mitch Gross. “[The] training goes through a variety of scenarios that we have to respond to in real-time, so we keep our senses and reflexes quick and agile to be responsive.”

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. According to ICCSD Care Assessment Coordinator Dustin Gehring, district staff goes through this training every year and rotates between elementary and high school staff.

“We try to keep the staff as knowledgeable as possible. We know that it’s something we hope that never happens, but we want to be as prepared as possible,” Gehring said. 

More training will happen this summer for members of the district’s care assessment team. Meetings for care assessment started in 2021. One of the main objectives of this team is monitoring the safety in schools and preventing violence, which the district plans to achieve through the Virginia Threat Assessment Model, a process consisting of a five-step decision tree. Using this model, the care assessment evaluates a reported threat, which later is classified as transient (low-level) or substantive (serious or very serious). Then, the team will respond to the threat accordingly, using methods such as restorative practices, mediation and mental health assessments. If needed, they will put in place a written care plan.

“If there are any times that we feel that somebody is an actual danger, our number one job is to protect that person or persons from danger,” Gehring said. “We will maybe skip a few steps to protect them and then go back to the beginning and start to reassess, but we want to make sure that everybody’s safe within the school system.”

With the focus of the Virginia Threat Assessment Model being on prevention, Gehring pinpointed some key parts of what causes violence, such as shootings. 

“These things don’t happen out of nowhere. There are usually events that lead up to it, and maybe that’s as small as a student feels out of place, or they’ve been bullied and harassed,, or they have food insecurity at home — there’s some mental health stuff, underlying there, so I don’t think that these things happen just randomly,” Gehring said.

Both Gross and Gehring emphasize the importance of being attentive to the behavior of other people to recognize signs of potential violence. In one instance that Gross witnessed, a student who was acting unusual was discovered to be carrying a gun in his backpack. 

“I think it’s really incumbent upon those of us in education to take the time to make sure that we’re well connected with our students so that we are able to notice when a student is not acting like themselves,” he said.

Gross also believes the administration can improve the West High building. 

“We’ve made really solid attempts of limiting access and entry points. That’s been an issue at West,” Gross said. “We’re not quite there as far as having a secure, separate entrance like other schools have, but I think that will be in the works from a construction standpoint and the final phase of our addition, which will hopefully be in the near future.”

Martin is another student who has taken action on this issue. She has attended several protests and rallies against gun violence. Additionally, she believes community members can create change by talking to local politicians, signing petitions and participating in conversations surrounding gun violence.

“They can help make an influence and show how many people really want more laws,” Martin said.

Some community members have already taken the initiative to create more safety measures to prevent future acts of gun violence. Dr. Karim Abdel-Malek is a professor and director at the University of Iowa who co-founded Malum Terminus Technologies Inc., a company that created technologies to detect gun threats. 

“We have this incredible system that not only knows that somebody is there — so that’s the person — then, whether they are posturing to do something, and then thirdly, whether a gun exists in the scene. All of this automated completely,” Abdel-Malek said. 

There are other technologies used to prevent gun shootings, such as gunshot sound detectors. However, Abdel-Malek feels as though these might not be as effective. 

“Probably the most common [technology] right now is a sound detection system. If somebody comes in and fires a gun, that sensor triangulates and knows it’s a gun,” Abdel-Malek said. “It works, but [only] after a shot is fired. Our system is more if somebody is walking with a gun or a rifle to school from afar. As long as that rifle is showing, we’re able to detect it.”

The gun-threat detection technology has already been used around the University of Iowa campus and across the country. However, Abdel-Malek and the company are still working on adding the system to other locations as well, one being schools. 

“I think schools are number one by far. The second to that would be large arenas, where the potential to do bad is huge,” Abdel-Malek said. 

In the ICCSD, Gehring wants students to know they can trust the district’s ability to keep them safe.

We’re trying very, very hard to make every student feel safe.

— Dustin Gehring, ICCSD Care Assessment Coordinator

“In the school system, if a shooting were to happen there, listen to your teachers — they’ve been through the training, listen to your administrators — they’ve been through the training,” Gehring said. “We’re trying very, very hard to make every student feel safe.

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