Snapshot | Perspective on Gun Violence in America as Processed by 8 Student Reporters

Students: Williams, Fluker, Phillip, and Capek smiling
Students: Williams, Fluker, Phillip, and Capek

Everyday People: How Gun Violence Impacts Us All

The assignment was simple: retrieve comments on gun violence in 15 minutes. Then out through the USC campus they went; my eager student reporters from the Annenberg Specialized Journalism graduate to interview someone for 15 minutes; then 15 minutes of writing.

 The stories they shared in class were layered and diverse: a microcosm of America, with perspectives from beyond our borders; a portrait of humanity wrestling with what it values.

 As a culture, we both glorify and abhor guns; some of our biggest movie blockbuster hits are awash in gun violence, and we cheer. Then, we try to console ourselves with the reasons why after someone is murdered by gun violence.

 America has become more synonymous with mass shootings than we ever were with baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Solutions, legislative or otherwise, to ending the massacres in the streets or in the schools, feel futile at best.

 Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) passed some of the strictest gun control legislation in the country, signing more than 10 new firearm restrictions according to the New York Times. These include new limits on gun advertising to minors, increased inspections of dealers, and a 10-year ban on firearms possession for those convicted of child or elder abuse.

 And experts say our state’s low rate of gun deaths is at least in part because of stricter firearms policy. As Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency room doctor and longtime firearm violence researcher, told the Times:

 “For the last 20, maybe even 25 years — except for the two years of the pandemic, which have increased homicides and suicides across the country — our rates of firearm violence have trended downward,” said Dr. Wintemute, who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento. “And this has been at a time when most of the rates in the rest of the country have gone up.”

 But no matter where we are, we’re all affected. And as the proceeding stories reveal, we all have something to say about it.  

 — Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

Capek Phillip Fluker Williams and Tommy Trojan at standing in front of a statue at USC

Capek Phillip Fluker Williams and Tommy Trojan at USC

Surviving High School – By Jasmine Damian

No one has time for my questions. I quickly walked down the stairs and around the Annenberg pit; then down more stairs and around again. I retrace my steps a second time, and I finally come across Ilana, 15, who is visiting USC from San Jose to attend a sports journalism program over the summer.

She has time. And informed opinions on gun violence—which is unsurprising from a high schooler these days.

Twenty-three years since the Columbine shooting in 1999—at the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting on a school campus, killing 15 people including the two student assailants—students at both private and public high schools across the U.S. have been activated in the wake of more than 23 school shooting incidents this year which have claimed the lives of their peers—and their childhoods.

Ilana wants more extensive background checks, believes intent for gun purchases should be regulated, and hopes for increased security around schools.

None of this means that Ilana believes that more armed security is the most effective protection for campuses—as we’re now learning from police missteps in the Uvalde, Texas shooting. Citing several ineffective incidents at her own school which led to the mistreatment of students, San Jose residents were protesting their local police department that weekend, she said.

And she has her question for lawmakers: “Why are you not doing what I need you to be doing?”

Thinking of my daughter, now a year old, I’m overwhelmed with questions of my own for the 43 Republican senators who profit from annual funding by the National Rifle Association (NRA) receiving more than $3 million.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) pockets $176,274 annually from the NRA, and refused to back a bill limiting gun access—even after the Uvalde shooting left 19 elementary students and two teachers dead in his home state. He argued: “Democrats would love nothing more than to shift the blame and stoke anti-gun sentiment and create a national gun registry in the process.”

Later, as I approach the locked, gated door of my daughter’s daycare, I wonder what harm would come from a national gun registry if it would keep my child—and other children like Ilana—safe? Why are guns more protected than people?

Across the country, polling has shown Americans on both sides of the political aisle want gun violence to stop. According to a recent VOX report, a vast majority of Americans “support universal background checks, keeping people with serious mental health issues from buying guns, bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and so-called ‘red flag laws’ that would allow police and family members to seek court orders to temporarily take guns away from those considered a risk to themselves and others.”

Moreover, a majority of Americans oppose carrying concealed weapons without a permit.

As Ilana hurried off to rejoin her friends, a trail of her fruity perfume wafted in the air behind her while I quietly sent a loving-kindness wish to her for safer days ahead, and for my own child.

Charlotte Phillip smiling

Charlotte Phillip

A Graduate Student Reflects on Campus Gun Violence – By Charlotte Phillipp

Sitting in a quiet corner of the bustling USC Annenberg building’s lobby, Linda sips coffee and works at some code. As an international student in the master of computer science program, she keeps busy with coding projects and her upcoming thesis projects occupy her time; a wanted distraction for the deeply troubling issue of gun violence in schools.

At USC, and across the U.S., violence is on the rise. The emails of robberies, assaults and other crimes that appear in her inbox daily—and sometimes multiple times during a given day—from the university’s Department of Public Safety—have shrouded her in fear, especially as someone new to South Los Angeles.

Born and raised in India, the idea of gun violence existing anywhere–let alone in a place of learning, is terrifying.

“Thankfully, it’s not something I’ve ever come close to. But just getting DPS notifications and watching arrests happen [is scary],” she says recalling one incident several weeks ago in which the block next to hers had been cornered off by police cars from the Los Angeles Police Department for the better part of a day. She was never able to find out what was going on.

“That was a little like, ‘Whoa.’”

Her frustration is widespread. A 2016 study conducted by Midwestern University found that more than 50 percent of college students think that military-grade assault rifles should be banned; another study released by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 70 percent of American voters ages 18-29 wanted to see stricter gun laws.

“Even the Second Amendment is not super specific about what sort of arms people have a right to bear,” she argues. “There could be stricter laws on automatic, semi-automatic or machine guns.”

Linda also says that she is forced to pay better attention to her surroundings.

“It’s made me more cautious.”

Despite these hopes for a better and safer future, all students like Linda right now can do is wait and do their best to stay safe.

A black and white picture of Aadya Chidanand

Aadya Chidanand

One Rifle Per Family: A Story on Gun Violence – By Aadya Chidanand

It was a late August afternoon in 2020 when Kristopher Hill walked into the morgue. There was a strong, pungent smell of disinfectant and formaldehyde; harsh white light glared down at him as he walked towards a shrouded body, dazed. He hoped the person underneath was not his father. The gold ring sticking out from the body’s right index finger suggested otherwise.

“We were a normal family and it was a normal day.” Kristopher explained. “I was in college when my mom called me and I’d never heard her so terrified.”

Walking home from work, Sawyer Hill, 52, was shot in the chest. The bullet went through his right lung and he died in the ambulance, halfway to the hospital.

For the past 25 years, after working his construction job, Hill would walk to the two-bedroom house on Wilshire Blvd., and glance at the tiny, sprawling garden he’d planted himself. He’d cook dinner for his wife, Queta, a hairdresser, and his son, Kristopher. They all ate together before adjourning to the living room for a beer and to watch television. The family went to a Catholic church every Sunday, dined out once a month, and tried to schedule at least one fishing trip every year in Redondo Beach.

There were no witnesses to the senior Sawyer’s murder. A neighbor heard gunshots and screeching tires and rushed from his home to find Sawyer bleeding onto the pavement. No sign of the car. No suspects were ever apprehended. Two years since, Sawyer’s murder is among the 11,244 cold case murders – 46 percent of homicides – that have gone unsolved in Los Angeles County over the past 11 years.

“Gun laws in California protect the rich and the white,” said Sawyer, 30, who was turned down for a gun permit—he suspects it’s because his neighborhood is rampant with drug and gang activity. “And since my family is black and poor, we’re nowhere near getting a gun for protection than we are to living on Mars.”

A Secret Service analysis between 1982 and 2012 revealed 75 percent of the guns used in 62 mass shootings in the United States were obtained legally.

“There’s a saying: ‘If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,’” Sawyer said, laughing at the bitter irony. “What makes me really angry is that my dad did nothing wrong. And I can’t help thinking that if he’d had a gun, then maybe he could have defended himself.”

After his father’s death, Sawyer dropped out of college to work as an Uber Eats driver to help his mother with bills. But for the most part, nothing’s changed: they still go to church every Sunday, and live in the same home where they share meals and watch TV together. Sawyer now tends his father’s garden, the gold ring glinting on his finger.

She’d Rather Be Teaching – By Eric Lambkins II

A photo of Eric Lambkins II

Eric Lambkins II

Holly Lee, 28, sat alone at the foot of the USC bookstore steps with her backpack cinched close. She looked lost and concerned.

Lee, a petite high school teacher from Olympia, Wash., frequently glanced at her phone through round, black-framed glasses, impatiently waiting for her husband and infant daughter to arrive.

Her husband, Kevin Lee, makes her feel secure. He’s “very well connected with other entities that deal with security,” she says when I ask her about ongoing threats of on-campus gun violence in America.

Kevin Lee, 28, is a security advisor and Army Cavalry Scout officer; broad-shouldered and muscly–; an action figure come to life as he arrives at the university bookstore. His imposing figure casts enough shade to thwart any would-be assailant.

And yet, despite his largess; his years of training and expertise, Holly Lee knows he can’t always be with her in the classroom to protect her from a mad gunman armed with automatic weapons, a nervousness she feels now every time she’s at work with her vulnerable ninth and tenth graders.

She wants to be focused on cultivating and shaping critical thinking in the minds of her students but is instead weighted with thoughts of how she’ll protect frantic teenagers; how to apply the proper pressure to a gunshot wound.

“If we have an active shooter in the school, what do we do to protect ourselves and our students? Where do we go in the event that happens?”

Although Lee’s school provides training which she finds helpful “every couple semesters,” it does little to reassure her. The specter of a school shooting keeps her feeling uneasy.

“I don’t think our training at school really equips teachers to be prepared for that kind of situation—I think it creates more panic than it was intended to do,” she said. “Teachers have to manage what the students are feeling; it just takes a lot of extra effort.”

“I’m very aware of the threats against us.” – By Viktoria Capek

Viktoria Capek smiling

Viktoria Capek

Jen Byers owns a gun. About one-third of Americans do. But Byers doesn’t fit the profile I’d expect of a gun owner. The only thing that would allude to their support of firearms is the sticker on their laptop of a cat holding an assault rifle.

Byers, 31, is gender-nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns. They’re a colleague of mine, a journalist and graduate student at the University of Southern California with a career focus on capturing extreme conflict.

Already they’ve photographed Black Lives Matter marches in the northeast, the infamous Jan. 6th insurrection at Capitol Hill and the violent outbreak on Standing Rock Indian Reservation along Dakota borders. They call the scene at Standing Rock a war zone, another reality check of America’s inherently violent history and an addition to the conversation surrounding weapon brutality.

“The reason people are arming themselves is because they feel like they’re in danger,” Byers said.

On the political right, danger is more hypothetical: “What if the government takes our guns and we can’t protect our families?”

For queer and transgender people, like Byers, danger is tangible. Already 19 transgender and gender-nonconforming people were violently killed in 2022, according to the Human Rights Campaign; violence that escalates from the rhetoric of calling LGBTQ people “pedophiles” and “groomers” to physical assaults.

And for journalists, violent attacks are increasing globally. According to the International Press Institute, 28 journalists have been killed in 2022, so far—a trend likely to continue with government leaders blaming the media for spreading disinformation.

But Byers believes the militarization of police and private gun owners is what’s creating this rising concern over gun violenc in the U.S. Police officers are trained to attack during a conflict, an ideology upheld by the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court case Warren v. District of Columbia in which justices ruled that police have no legal obligation to protect individuals from harm.

“I don’t think that we can meaningfully address gun control in the United States until we address police violence,” Byers says, “until we address the reality that the law operates differently for different people.”

The militarized response of police officers disproportionately affects people of color, queer and transgender people, journalists, the disabled, the poor, the undocumented and the mentally impaired, according to Byers. If conflict were to erupt, such people wouldn’t feel confident that the government would protect them. Byers includes themself in that group.

“I’m very aware of the threats against us,” they said, “and I’m not trying to be taken off guard.”

A Student’s Angst – By Jonathan Williams

A picture of Jonathan Williams smiling

Jonathan Williams

Matthew Nichols, 22, was headed to a late lunch outside of the USC Annenberg School for Communication building in the heart of the campus. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the Houston-born, ‘SC graduate said the scene would be different back in his hometown: students holstering guns in their waistbands—not that he sees anything amiss with that.

“I’m from Texas, so I don’t feel there’s a big danger that they’re going to do something,” he said, referring to the new open-carry law passed in his home state in Sept. 2021 allowing anyone to have a holstered gun in public for the first time since Reconstruction. Texas became the 19th state in the union to adopt such laws. And yet, added Nichols, “I don’t feel that it’s necessary,”

Nichols has joined the throngs of students nationwide advocating for tighter gun control laws and would like to see political leaders take a more committed action.

“There needs to be more bi-partisan support,” he said, while in the same breath questioning if that could ever happen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nearly 45,000 Americans died in 2020 from gun-related injuries—the second highest cause of death in the United States, only outpaced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have a strong gun culture in the U.S.—it’s too prevalent,” he said. He advocates for bans on assault weapons. “There are not enough restrictions on access in general. We should have more background checks in every state. It should be universal, across the board.”

According to a poll just released by NPR in June 2022, 92 percent of Democratic voters would prioritize ending gun violence over protecting gun rights, more than half (54 percent) of Independents agree. On that same issue, however, only 20 percent of Republicans would be in favor of losing gun protections as they are.

This poll comes just weeks after the Uvalde elementary school shooting in May. By then, cites Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, there had been 95 incidents of gun violence on school campuses, resulting in 40 deaths and 76 injuries across the country.

As the shootings persist, guns continue to invade our schools. Groups like the NRA, seemingly inconsequentially, hold rallies where thousands of pro-second amendment supporters gather in communion to honor their way of life.

Just 300 miles east of Uvalde, the NRA held a convention in Nichols’ hometown concluded on May 29—five days after the massacre where police officers waited more than an hour outside of the classroom to confront the shooter.

A haunting reminder of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado where 13 students and 24 others were injured in 1999, the NRA held a rally just a few days after, as the late Charlton Heston raised his right arm into the air holding a rifle, proclaiming: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” It later became a long-running slogan for the NRA.

Twenty years since, Nichols believes the grip Americans have on gun ownership is stronger than the outcries for regulating guns.

“Many feel like having the right to carry a gun is important to them–it’s part of their identity.”

We Have a Right to Life: Gun advocates tout the “right to bear arms” as a perineal part of our Constitutional amendments. But before that, is “life.” – By Dominique Fluker

Dominique Fluker standing in front of candles and leaves

Dominique Fluker

It’s a hot Tuesday, and I’m anxious. Our professor wants us to venture outside the classroom to interview someone about gun control. This is going to be a difficult assignment: In Oakland in 2013, my father was killed by a stray bullet while I was away at Spelman.

As my cohort and I dashed out of the classroom, I dreaded having this conversation with a stranger. In the elevator, I cracked my knuckles to relieve the pressure I was feeling in my whole body. The cool air brought me back to reality as the elevator doors opened. It was time to begin the search.

My aim was to find an approachable-looking person who might make the conversation easier. Then, from around the corner, he came: young, dark-skinned, with cornrows and some swagger in his walk. Awkwardly, I stepped alongside him to ask him about gun control.

“I am going to the bookstore,” he said, hoping to brush me off. “I don’t have time.”

“I’ll walk with you,” I insisted.

He smiled and gave in.

“Come on.”

Like me, Reginald has encountered gun violence firsthand. “I’ve lost family members at the hands of people carrying illegal weapons,” said the native of Baltimore, Maryland, a city which has one of the highest gun violence rates—215 homicide victims monthly in the United States, according to the Baltimore Sun, earning its reputation as the “murder capitol” of America.

Last year in the city, Reginald’s 25-year-old cousin was murdered in a gang-related gun incident—and it changed him.

“I’m 28—we still have a lot of life to live,” he said, “but many people aren’t able to. People from communities like ours can’t see past their environment.”

Like in Baltimore, my hometown of Oakland, California, is overrun with illegal guns. According to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2021, Oakland police recovered 727 illegal firearms. That same year, the Chronicle recorded 78 homicides throughout the flatlands of East Oakland, my old neighborhood.

But with the militarization of police, residents feel they have nowhere to turn for protection in their communities. A recent PBS News Hour poll conducted in June of 2020 reported 48 percent of African Americans have little to no confidence in police treating them fairly, in comparison to white people.

Dr. Michael Lindsey, who directs the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University and has studied the effects of racism on mental health in black youth, wrote: “Black communities are often over-policed and over-profiled, which can even lead to fatality, as recent cases have shown us.”

In a PBS News Hour study from August of 2019, Black men and boys were shown to face a much higher risk of being killed by police in their lifetimes — 96 deaths out of 100,000 are committed by law enforcement offices. For white men and boys, it’s 39 out of 100,000.

And yet despite his own feelings around gun violence, Reginald said he can understand why someone would want to carry a gun on campus—it can be a dangerous place to move through.

“If students carried a firearm legally to defend themselves,” he said, “it would be ok. Everyone has the right to live.”

Ditch Your Tech and Talk to Strangers: A Student’s Solution to Gun Violence – By Catherine Orihuela

Catherine Orihuela smiling in front of some trees and leaves.

Catherine Orihuela

Nearly every person I pass on campus is wearing AirPods or staring at their phone; eyes and ears firmly shut off to the world around them. Maya Caselnova believes technology is making it increasingly difficult for people to have casual conversations; interactions, she believes, could save lives.

On a Tuesday afternoon just after 2 p.m., Caselnova, 20, is on her laptop outside USC’s Tutor Campus Center, wearing a light cardigan that bears an amusing resemblance to the one donned by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, and fidgets absentmindedly with her colorful beaded necklace as she works. She offers me a friendly, albeit slightly hesitant, smile when I approach her. Sans headphones, I think she might be open to talking with me. She didn’t reflexively grab for her phone to appear busy.

I ask for her thoughts on gun violence as a college student, and she sits up taller in her chair.

“I feel generally safe on USC’s campus,” she says, then trails off; fingering the necklace. After a moment she continues. “The yellow jackets make me feel safer.” It’s the garb of USC’s security officers; that and the campus fencing. But making the campus physically more secure isn’t enough, Caselnova says, noting mental health is an integral part of the solution to gun violence and more resources should be devoted to students in need.

While politicians argue about gun reform, our social media feeds are bloated with posts that, though well intended, are passive and fleeting outcries for change. Rather than sweeping reform bills, Caselnova believes people, especially young college students, can begin affecting change by choosing to connect.

According to a 2020 Cigna study, 73 percent of young adults aged 18 to 22 sometimes or always feel alone. The study suggests that Gen Z may feel more isolated because of their greater use of social media, and that by pursuing more meaningful, in-person connections they can achieve longer-term happiness.

Having a sense of belonging has decreased on college campuses. According to a survey published in June by the Journal of Affective Disorders, more than 60 percent of students surveyed during the 2020-21 academic year suffered from depression, anxiety and loneliness, regardless of their racial/ethnic background or socio-economic status.

Caselnova believes putting away our phones to have a conversation, or even offer a smile or kind greeting, will help bridge a few gaps between us and – just maybe – build a wall of community, not more guns.  “We all can learn to be a little kinder.”