The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sick of hoping politicians will act, Gen Z decides to make guns uncool

I was crunching through the red and orange piles of leaves on my son’s New England campus during parents’ weekend Sunday morning when I saw the news alert: “8 people shot near JMU this morning.”

Oh no.

I immediately texted my friend whose son is a freshman at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where gunfire ripped through an outdoor party crowd early Sunday.

“he got home around eight and went right to his dorm room so no driving around,” she replied. Whew.

But silly me. A similar event had just unfolded less than a mile from us.

“6 shot during after-hours party at warehouse in Worcester, police say,” one headline read.

Mass shootings — they’re everywhere. A third of young Americans — the ones who grew up playacting their own massacres during grammar school active-shooter drills — say they have experienced gun violence personally.

When they were asked about their biggest concern for our country, the 13-to-25-year-olds surveyed said gun violence — not climate change or abortion access. Half of them said they think about mass shootings at least once a week.

These are the findings of Project Unloaded, which is trying to reach Gen Z members while they’re still young and rattled by the amount of gun violence in their lives, but before they take the situation into their own hands and arm themselves.

“The unfortunate reality about gun culture and gun violence is that kids my age grew up knowing that we weren’t safe in school,” said Jordan Phan, a statistics student at the University of Virginia.

So what are they going to do about it? Americana — inflamed by gunmakers and politicians igniting their campaigns with crime fears — is telling them the only way to be safe is to arm yourself.

They’re being sold a big, fat myth. And the numbers show it:

— Access to firearms makes it five times as likely that a woman will die in a domestic violence situation.

— Suicide risk triples when there’s a gun in the home.

— Family members in gun-owning homes are twice as likely to die by homicide.

“We’re looking at the data,” Phan said, of the campaign she has been working on to change the narrative in youth culture about guns. “It’s not really coming at it from a political place or having some kind of agenda. We’re just looking at the facts.”

Guns are now the leading cause of death in America for children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That staggering fact is even more devastating for Black youths, who are killed by gunfire at three times the rate of any other group of people ages 1 to 19, according to a Post analysis.

Gun culture is terrorizing our nation, even when there are no guns

So how do you convey that to the Instagram/TikTok generation?

On Instagram:

“Guns make us all less safe,” as Neko Fuzz plays over a scroll of gun violence statistics that prove the point on one post.

On TikTok:

“Guns are rarely used to protect,” Phan says in a video explaining the #SNUG campaign — Safer Not Using Guns.

Phan is from Alexandria, Va. And though her neighborhood isn’t a notoriously dangerous place, she grew up with constant stories of gun violence among her peers. They heard it, they saw it. One of the kids in her class was killed by gunfire in a dispute, just weeks before graduation.

People do keep guns in their lives for so many reasons — because they grew up with them, because they feel tougher with them, because they think they have no other choice, especially in communities where police have earned mistrust. But the people behind Project Unloaded believe that talking directly to people about gun safety will change minds.

“Most young people believe the myth that having a gun makes them safer, and that myth is driving up rates of gun ownership, and by extension, gun deaths, across the country,” said Nina Vinik, founder and executive director of Project Unloaded.

Indeed, the number of teens who said they carry a handgun between 2015 and 2019 increased by 41 percent compared with the years between 2002 and 2006, according to the American Journal of Pediatrics. That increase was squarely among White, rural and higher-income kids. The rate among teens of color decreased, the study found.

Still, there’s reason to hope,” said Vinik. “When presented with the facts about the risks of using guns, young people in all demographic groups shifted their views against seeing guns as a means of protection. The research shows that it’s possible to shift the culture around guns, and that will save lives.”

The TikToks and Instagrams they’re creating aren’t meant for lobbyists or legislators.

They’re not working to flip Congress. They just want kids to truly understand the danger — not the cool — that comes with guns.

Impossible? Cigarettes became gross in a single generation.