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How youth can refocus gun-violence conversation

Will 2014 be the year when America's youth, rather than adults, present successful gun-policy ideas? Some legislators think so.
Activisits participate in a rally on the National Mall for stricter gun control laws on Jan. 26, 2013.
Activisits participate in a rally on the National Mall for stricter gun control laws on Jan. 26, 2013.

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Clements knows all too well that she could have lost her mother on the day a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, her mom, Abbey Clements, recognized the "popping" noises of gun rounds echoing down the hallway outside of her second-grade classroom in Newtown, Conn. The school teacher peered around the corner to see a janitor sprint to the front of the building. She immediately pulled two students into her classroom and locked the door behind her. Clements kept the children calm by reading stories aloud and singing Christmas carols with them to muffle the sounds of gunfire.

Sarah was a junior at Newtown High School (NHS) at the time, and remembers the paralysis of grief that struck the town after 20 children and six adults were gunned down that Friday morning.

“This issue isn’t just Newtown. It changed my life forever, it changed my family’s life forever,” she told msnbc. “Because of the privilege I had of living in a suburban, vast white-majority town in Connecticut, I just didn’t know about it, and I think that’s what shook me up afterwards, learning about these incidents and the gun-violence epidemic.”

In search of a way to heal following the tragedy, Clements established the youth chapter of the Newtown Action Alliance, making it the first major gun-violence group in the United States to initiate its own student branch.

“I’m not defined by this horrible, horrible event,” said Clements. “But having it as part of your identity means what you did afterward, what you did in response; that’s what defines you.”

More than 11,500 individuals have died from guns in the United States since the tragedy in Newtown. To many people, gun violence isn't typically thought of as a youth issue. But Clements hopes that groups like hers – the Junior Newtown Action Alliance – indicates a shift in the movement’s leaders and gun-reform efforts. Unlike legislators on both sides of the political spectrum who have failed to reach a compromise, young Americans have the ability to present new, unbiased ideas to an ongoing debate.

“Youth groups like the Jr. NAA are really critical to help change our cultural violence. They can establish a tone for the conversation, and they can refocus from the battles of the past to how we go forward together,” Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut told msnbc. “To have their voices at the table is very, very important.” 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, NHS Principal Charles Dumais frequently group-emailed encouraging messages to students, parents, and teachers, Clements said. He emphasized the need to take steps each day toward a brighter, more hopeful future, one they would want to inhabit. A recurring motto ("Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example for the rest of the world.") influenced the teenager to dedicate her efforts to an attempt at changing gun policy in the country.

“I felt it was an indirect sign to me that what I needed to do was to advocate for change,” she said. “I was fed up learning about the magnitude of this issue and we are recognizing that nothing is being done – at least on the federal level. … I told myself they can always use an extra person. I’m done waiting for people.”

About 25 Newtown-area students, ranging from middle-schoolers to collegiates, meet weekly as part of the Jr. NAA to lobby for reform. Members meet with local residents to present them with information about gun policy, draft letters, and correspond with elected officials. They hope to organize a spring summit to teach Connecticut's youth about efforts to decrease violence.

"Beyond the Crossfire"

Sean Fuchs, 15, and his 13-year-old brother were fatally shot by their father during a double-murder-suicide in June 2011. The father of the two teenagers set their California home on fire before killing himself. To honor the older teenager's memory at his former school, his classmates at High Tech High Chula Vista in California painted a mural on a front wall of the building.

In one of the high-school projects Fuchs completed before his death, he wrote: "The only thing that lets me sleep at night is knowing that there are still a few good people out there."

The deaths left the school community with numerous questions, many of them unanswerable. This year, a group of 45 high-school juniors, some former friends of Fuchs and others who have been affected by firearms, will produce a documentary in search of answers, and to keep Fuch's world-vision alive: Why is there an abundance of gun violence in the country? What can students do to change the firearms culture?

“These are kids getting killed, people’s family members. You look at some of the reasons…it’s really senseless. There are so many other ways to solve it, and yet people are dying when they don’t have to," Ciera Ybarra, one of the students involved with the project, told msnbc.

High Tech High is a charter school focused on project-based learning that provides students with the opportunity to investigate challenges in the country and ultimately design projects to address those issues.

In “Beyond the Crossfire,” the students will identify the origins of gun violence and suggest solutions for communities, such as funding a summer-jobs program for youth in high-risk areas and establishing after-school programs in neighborhoods where such activities don't exist. They will not implement a political focus on gun control or expanded ownership of firearms.

“The more that kids talk about it and engage with it when they’re younger, I think it is far less likely where they get themselves into a situation where they think gun violence would be an answer,” California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez told msnbc. Her vote last October to impose tighter regulations on firearms and hunting led gun-rights groups to threaten a recall on her elected position.

The high-school students launched a 45-day campaign last year with the goal of fund-raising $18,000 for their documentary. With the help of others, including Gonzalez, they surpassed the amount by more than $12,000 before their deadline on Dec. 14, 2013—the one-year mark of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Related: Making a senseless tragedy meaningful in Newtown

“They have fresh perspective,” said Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents part of Chula Vista. “I’m excited to see where it leads them and if there are new ideas we can get from that…because clearly now what we’re doing isn’t working on its own.” 

The students remain in the pre-production stages, but they plan to film in areas around their community, in Chicago, Newtown, and other affected neighborhoods.

“I’m letting them come up with the solution,” Gonzalez said. “I think a lot of what is happening is we’re going into the debate with pre-conceived answers rather than looking at other possible solutions.” 

They intend to complete their project by the end of the current academic year in June for release as an hour-long television special.

“Even saving a few lives would make it worth it,” Ybarra said. 

Working together, looking ahead

After the Senate failed last April to pass a bipartisan background checks bill, conversations about gun-control legislation faded from Congress. But gun-related deaths continue to make news headlines.

“There have been disappointments in the past year. It’s shameful that we have been denied the opportunity to cast a single vote in the House,” said Esty, a Democrat who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

Legislatures in 21 different statehouses enacted new laws throughout 2013 to promote safety, including constructive measures in some parts with historically weak gun laws, including Florida, Missouri, and Texas.

Related: On gun reform, states put Washington to shame

And some of America's youth will act similarly in 2014. Members of the Jr. NAA and students at High Tech High recently united to provide advice across coasts on ways to address prevention, including mental-health awareness and inner-city violence. They hope to inspire other young individuals to join their cause.

“I think young people can see clearly to the path of justice without being blinded by repetitive rhetoric and political gains,” Clements said. “For young people to see a brighter future ahead, it comes with growing up in general. … I think that’s an innate part of being a young person in this country, to speak up so you can get to that brighter future.”

Historically, youth have contributed to changing the outcome of certain social movements and have supported non-traditional views. In February 1960, police arrested four African-American students for demanding service at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., a situation that increased national sentiment for the civil rights movement.

And a Pew Research Center poll published last June found younger respondents most tolerant of homosexuality than older individuals.

“We will not give up,” Esty said. “This movement that we’re seeing with families and young people is uniting…with a growing grassroots movement that students have always been an important part of.”

“We say gun violence doesn’t discriminate," Clements said. "Young people feel that our age shouldn’t determine what positive change we can make and our maturity should be measured by our stories and our experiences, our will to do good.”