The day before he died, Bennie Hargrove told his grandmother he needed advice.
“That’s just not in me,” she recalled Bennie saying.
The next afternoon, Bennie confronted the bully, Juan Saucedo Jr., near the school track, another child would later tell police. Bennie asked Juan, also 13, to quit picking on his friends, insisting that if he wanted to fight someone, he should fight Bennie.
“I’m done with this b----,” the child heard Juan say in Spanish just before he pulled a black handgun out of his backpack and, according to police, fire six rounds into Bennie’s body.
The shooting at Washington Middle School was one of at least 42 acts of gun violence committed on K-12 campuses during regular hours in 2021, the most during any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database.
The nation smashed the previous record of 30, despite most schools remaining closed to in-person classes for the first two months of the year. In total, about 34,000 students were exposed to gun violence in 2021, bringing the tally since the Columbine High massacre to more than 285,000.
It’s impossible to know with certainty what’s driven the surge in incidents, though researchers have speculated that a spike in gun sales, soaring rates of overall violence, the pandemic and the chaos of the past year all played some role.
Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who has worked for years with grieving families, suspects that America’s societal fissures have had a substantial impact on children’s behavior.
“The more connected you feel, the less likely you will be to dehumanize, demonize, devalue and destroy,” said Perry, co-author of “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.” “Stress is alleviated by positive human connection and lack of connection increases stress … but I think lethal violence to others is more related to the marginalization, isolation, social fragmentation than the stress of the pandemic.”
Targeted shootings like the one that killed Bennie, in which one person attacks another, drove much of the year’s increase. Because just two were indiscriminate shootings, 2021’s casualties — nine dead, 36 wounded — did not come near 2018, the worst year on record, when 33 people died.
But the shooting that killed four teens at Michigan’s Oxford High School on Nov. 30 was the worst rampage since 2018, bringing a wave of new attention to an ongoing crisis.
The case has brought unprecedented scrutiny to the responsibility mothers and fathers bear when their children use the adults’ unsecured weapons to open fire at schools.
Disturbing allegations against the Oxford shooter’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, have continued to surface. Less than a week after the attack, the county prosecutor charged the couple with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for “unconscionable” negligence that she said allowed their troubled son to gain access to their firearm.
A more recent court filing offered new insight into what investigators say the Crumbleys overlooked, claiming that the teen had begun torturing animals, “even leaving a baby bird’s head in a jar on his bedroom floor, which he later took and placed in a school bathroom.”
While the Oxford shooting was the year’s most prominent, it wasn’t the last — at least eight more have happened since, though no one died in them. And it wasn’t the only one that devastated a community.
On March 1, a 15-year-old in Arkansas was shot and killed in a packed hallway. On May 5, another 15-year-old shot himself in front of at least three other students outside his South Carolina high school, sending the campus into a lockdown. A day later, a sixth-grader opened fire at a school in Idaho, wounding two students and a custodian.
And three months after that, Bennie Hargrove crumpled to the ground.
“Please help me,” he begged a resource officer who rushed to help. “I can’t feel my legs.”
It was around that time that the accused shooter’s father, Juan Saucedo Sr., realized his gun had disappeared from his home, police say. He called his wife, Luz, but she said she hadn’t taken it. Saucedo drove to the school, where he found police cars all over campus.
It wasn’t the first time Saucedo had encountered such a scene.
In 2018, he and his wife arrived in separate cars at another high school to take their kids home. When Saucedo stepped out of his car, he and another man got into a fight. Saucedo punched the man, who retrieved a bat and attacked him with it, according to a police report. Then Saucedo drew a gun and shot the man twice, striking him in his hand and thigh. Saucedo, who was never charged because investigators determined he’d likely been defending himself, sped away in his car, leaving behind his wife and her car.
Inside it, ducking his head as he cowered from the violence and the gunshots, was 9-year-old Juan Saucedo Jr.
Desperate to do something in the aftermath of the bloodshed at Oxford, 15 senators and 99 House members — all Democrats — sent a letter in mid-December to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging his agency “to raise awareness about secure gun storage” by encouraging school districts to educate parents on how essential it is that they secure their firearms.
“These common-sense solutions cannot wait,” the lawmakers concluded — a plea that reflected their own inability to pass common-sense solutions themselves.
One of the letter’s signers, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), introduced legislation in February meant to address the issue of safe storage. Ethan’s Law, named for a Connecticut teenager who accidentally shot and killed himself with a neighbor’s unsecured gun, would require adults to keep their firearms from falling into the hands of children — and potentially punish people with prison time if their failure led to someone being harmed.
Blumenthal said he’s engaged in “very active conversations” with his Republican colleagues but has yet to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.
Though the legislation would make people safer without infringing on a person’s right to buy a gun, Blumenthal said, he knows why some of his colleagues refuse to support him.
“The reluctance on the part of some political leaders simply springs from the mindless, implacable opposition of the gun lobby, like the NRA, which seems to have adopted an absolute unthinking opposition to anything and everything relating to gun safety,” he said.
NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter told The Washington Post that the organization “supports safe storage for every firearm owned in America,” but said it would oppose a law mandating that people secure their weapons.
“We believe it should be a personal decision based upon the specific needs of the firearm owner or household versus mandating one specific method for every gun owner in the state,” Hunter wrote in an email.
Sen. Chris Murphy, also a Democrat from Connecticut, has faced similar resistance to his longtime push for universal background checks, which is partly what motivated him to co-author the letter to Cardona.
“We have legislation in Congress that I think will draw more interested focus in 2022, but we don’t need to wait for that legislation to pass,” he said. “Education alone could save lives.”
Murphy said he intends to bring the proposal to the Senate floor and “dare Republicans to vote against” a policy that polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support. But even if it fails, Murphy will continue to reject the oft-repeated notion that “nothing changed” after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
That shooting didn’t lead to sweeping federal legislation, but it did launch a number of grass roots organizations that have lobbied dozens of states to pass meaningful reforms and created programs that have saved hundreds of lives.
More than 5,500 schools, for example, now use the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, which allows users to privately submit safety concerns through a computer, phone or app. The program was created by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by parents who lost children in that shooting. Over the past three years, the organization says that its system has prevented 68 acts of imminent violence, including at least seven planned school shootings.
Meanwhile, Everytown for Gun Safety has aggressively promoted a program that encourages school districts to educate parents on the importance of securely storing their firearms.
Last month, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools — one of the largest districts in the country — announced that it would also send information to parents from Everytown’s Be SMART program. Fairfax’s 178,000 students join a nationwide group of more than 2 million who live in districts that have adopted policies promoting safe storage — an effort that many teenagers within those districts have worked hard to promote.
“Students are the ones who have been going to school … when there are more unsecured firearms than ever. Students understand the fear,” said Maddie Ahmadi, 17, a volunteer leader with Students Demand Action in Vermont who helped persuade her district to distribute the educational material.
“This is about safety,” she said. “This is not political.”
It’s that sort of progress at the local level giving Murphy confidence that progress at the national level will come — eventually.
Emmett Till, he noted, was lynched nine years before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and James Brady was shot 12 years before passage of the Brady Act, which created the country’s national background check system for gun store purchases.
“These social change movements take time,” he said. “This is about political movement building, not about legislative epiphanies.”
What Bennie inspired
Bennie Hargrove was a bully once, too.
He’d been picked on when he was younger and smaller, so he learned to do the same, his family said. He had a bad temper and knew how to find trouble, so much so that he’d had to switch schools.
But at Washington Middle, his family said, something in him changed. His boxing coach played a role, teaching him that people who are strong should protect those who aren’t. His grandmother suspected he also decided that he didn’t want to make other kids feel the way he once did.
For the first time in a long time, his family was hopeful for what his future held. Then he was gone.
The family’s attorneys have argued in a lawsuit that the shooting should never have happened, and they blame many more people than the boy who pulled the trigger.
Juan had showed off the gun to “multiple children” hours before Bennie was killed, a witness told police, but the lawsuit alleges that Juan might also have brought it to school in the days prior. The attorneys contend that school officials, who did not respond to a request for comment, should have known and intervened.
The accused shooter’s parents, who declined an interview request, are also to blame, the attorneys argue. If Juan didn’t have access to his father’s gun, Bennie would still be alive.
New Mexico state Rep. Pamelya Herndon agrees. Her office is just down the street from the middle school. She heard the police helicopters buzzing overhead and saw the rumors of what had happened spread on social media.
She also soon realized that state law provided no clear way to hold an adult criminally responsible after their negligence with a gun led to bloodshed.
New Mexico is one of 20 states that has no child access prevention law, according to the Giffords Law Center. That’s despite the fact that if children as young as 6 did not have access to guns, according to a Post analysis, well more than half of the country’s school shootings since 1999 would never have happened.
Herndon quickly began composing new legislation. She discussed it with people in her community and said she heard no objections. She knew she’d need time to sell it, but Herndon hoped it would garner the governor’s support and become law in 2022.
Before that could happen, though, Herndon knew the bill needed the right name, and she found it: the Bennie Hargrove Gun Safety Act.