Last week, the parents of about 4,000 students received a text alert that made their hearts drop to their stomachs: their child’s school was on lockdown; a shooting had occurred. 

Frantic, they texted their kids—”Where are you? Are you OK? Are you safe?” 

North Carolina’s first fully in-person school year since the start of the pandemic had only just begun. Last Monday, a 15-year-old student shot a classmate at New Hanover High School in Wilmington. The teen survived with injuries. Two days later, a student at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, William Chavis Raynard Miller Jr., was shot and killed. The suspect is thought to be another student, though officials have been reluctant to release details, citing an ongoing investigation. And on Thursday, guns were found on a 16-year-old student at Enloe High School in Raleigh; two students were charged.

Students are back in the classroom. Guns are too. 

“There’s no words to describe that sort of fear as a parent,” says Raleigh-based Moms Demand Action volunteer and shooting survivor Tony Cope. “Every parent at the school who got those texts is now trying to process that lingering fear. It leaves lasting scars.”

Cope has experienced that terror twice: most recently, his 18-year-old daughter survived an active shooter at a friend’s home while hiding in an upstairs bathroom, where she quietly texted Cope. Before that, Cope survived a shooting at a Target in Apex, hiding in the aisles with his then six-year-old daughter. 

Since then, he’s advocated for gun control and gun safety with Moms Demand Action, a group formed after 20 young children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. 

Cope says he isn’t surprised that a return to school has brought back school shootings. Gun sales surged during the pandemic. In 2020, people in the U.S. purchased nearly 23 million guns, a 64 percent increase over the previous year. About 40 percent of those purchases were first-time gun owners, according to a survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

“That means there’s a lot of people not necessarily well trained with handling or storing guns and we’ve seen a spike in gun violence in every facet in our communities,” Cope says. 

Many school shooters get their weapons from the home of either a relative or a friend, Jessica Burroughs, campaign director of N.C. Gun Safety at Moms Rising, pointed out. But confronting the issue at home isn’t enough. Gun control laws need to be maintained and in some cases strengthened, and as a society, we must reevaluate a culture that teaches children “that the answer to problems can be found at the end of a gun,” Burroughs said in a statement. 

“[Last week’s] tragedy at Mount Tabor High School—the second school shooting in N.C. this week—is a painful reminder that we have failed in the very basic responsibility to keep our kids safe,” Burroughs said. “We must prioritize the actions we’ve failed to take so far and that starts with keeping all guns off of school campuses. Period, no exceptions.”

The problem can be traced down from the top: for decades, Republicans have been working to peel back gun control laws. Just last week, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would have removed the requirement that handgun owners obtain a permit from local law enforcement.  

“At a time of rising gun violence, we cannot afford to repeal a system that works to save lives,” Cooper said in a statement. “The legislature should focus on combating gun violence instead of making it easier for guns to end up in the wrong hands.”

And last month, state Attorney General Josh Stein joined 21 other attorneys general to call on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to close the “ghost gun” loophole that allows people to buy and assemble untraceable guns at home. 

“Gun violence is on the rise,” Stein said. “We must make our communities safer, so I urge the federal government to make clear that ghost guns are firearms under federal law.”

Pushing for legislation is critical, Cope says, including increasing background checks and cracking down on unlicensed weapons dealers. Educating gun owners on safety can also stop firearms from getting into the wrong hands, Cope adds. That means separating ammunition from the gun, storing weapons in gun safes, and using gun locks.

“If the child doesn’t get the gun,” Cope says, “nothing with gun violence happens.” 

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