The last day of a school year for children is full of promise. Family vacations, summer camps, cookouts, pool parties, sleepovers, or just driving around your hometown with your friends and a brand new driver’s license. 

That’s what kids look forward to at the end of each school year. Until one day, they reach the rite of passage, transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. A symbol of potential, marked with the toss of a polyester cap.

Every child should have that chance to celebrate. Every parent should have that chance to watch their baby grow up.

Not every child in America makes it that far. 

More than 311,000 students have encountered gun violence at 331 schools since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

In 2021, approximately 3,044 students did not make it to their high school graduations because they were killed by gun violence. The students make up what families call the “Lost Class.”

A grim symbol for loved ones who have lost someone in a shooting, loved ones calling on lawmakers to codify universal background checks for gun sales into law. 

“Let’s demand that we make graduating America’s children more important than gaining uninhibited access to guns,” their mission reads.

Since the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, there have been 33 mass shootings as of June 6.

Young students are sickened that firearm-related injuries have become the leading cause of death for adolescents ages 1-19.

“The increasing firearm-related mortality reflects a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death,” CDC officials wrote in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In the 157 days of 2022, there have been at least 246 shootings.

Editor’s note: At Arizona Luminaria, we talk a lot about valuing the voices of our communities.

March For Our Lives rallies on Saturday, June 11
• Flagstaff: City Hall Lawn, 1-3 p.m.
• Tucson: Armory Park, 222 S 5th Ave., 5-7 p.m.
• Payson: Parking lot fronting Mobile T/The Beverage Place, 111 E State Highway 260, 10 a.m. – noon
• Phoenix: Arizona State Capital, 1700 W Washington St., 5-7 p.m.
• Prescott: Mile High Middle School, 300 S Granite St., 5:30-7 p.m.
• Sedona: Candlelight Vigil, J.J. Memorial Park, 25 Northview Road, 7-8 p.m.

After the mass shooting in Uvalde that killed 19 students and two teachers, we know many Arizona families were left comforting their own babies and mourning the lives lost.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is listen to young people. They are our next generation of leaders. 

Reporter Katya Mendoza spoke with these teenage students about their thoughts on gun violence and what it feels like knowing they are targets at American schools: Ellie Dorland, Jeffrey “J.J.” Williams and Mallika Sunder are high school organizers for the March For Our Lives rally in Tucson, and Camila Estrada will attend Arizona State University in the fall.

These first-person accounts are what they want to share with you.

We’ve been having shooter drills since the third grade

Mallika Sunder, 17, a rising senior at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson

Courtesy photo Mallika Sunder

According to the CDC, gun violence is the leading cause of death for school-age children. That’s honestly terrifying because this is something that I think almost every single student in the nation has dealt with or heard about at some point. 

I think this is so normalized and it’s just not fair. It’s taking away our youth. It’s taking away our safety in schools, which should be a place to learn and have fun and be children. 

I think all of us can agree that we should not be here right now. We should not have to advocate for our rights so much at such a young age. 

I should be hanging out with my friends or like doing something young and fun right now, you know? 

We’ve been having shooter drills since third grade. It’s something you get used to. But I think the more and more we see these school shootings take place, the more and more we realize this is very messed up. 

At least by talking about it with each other and becoming more educated with each other, that’s a form of activism within itself, because knowledge is the most powerful thing you can have.

I think a lot of lawmakers and policymakers who are unwilling to take action on this… it’s because they think we don’t know what we’re talking about. 

If we’re able to show that we know what we’re talking about, we’re willing to show up and make sure we are heard. That is something we’re all trying to do. 

Activism has become much more prevalent because we have this energy, we have this passion and we have the tools to channel that passion into something that can drive change. I think that is the biggest difference between now and what’s happened before. 

I do know a friend who lives in a neighborhood where there is a lot of gun violence. And I remember her telling me that sometimes she can hear gunshots outside. She’s gotten used to it. And just the fact that she got used to it, I think, is very telling about how prevalent these things are everyday in spaces where we should be safe.

I remember when there was a shooting threat at our school. I think especially after that, I felt there was a risk going to school. 

Someone posted a threat on Instagram. At the time, we believed that it was true and there was definitely going to be a viable threat and I remember a lot of kids were leaving. 

I remember one of my friends texting me to leave. 

The next day half of the people were absent. There were a lot of scared parents and scared children and even teachers who had to go to school. 

It’s the panic and confusion that makes it so much more terrifying.

After the shooting threat, we had more police on campus and, for some people, that increased their sense of security, especially the parents. But I think that other students, especially students of color, felt a lot more on edge. 

Guns have so much power. They create this incredible power difference and this danger on campus. I think the solution is to not have guns anywhere near campus, no matter who is carrying the gun. 

It was a very mixed response within the students toward these extra guns on campus and I think if that were to be teachers, that same response would still be there.

When I see someone that has a gun, that is immediately fight-or-flight for me. 

To imagine that next to me, with a student my age, would be such a distraction. I would not be able to focus. I would be too scared to come to class if I knew someone in my classroom had a gun on them. That just increases the sense of anxiety and worry in our learning environments. No student deserves that.

I think what needs to happen is they need to have a program that significantly reduces access to all guns across the nation, which would include increasing the age that someone can purchase a gun to 21, or definitely older than 18.

Requiring universal background checks on all licensed or unlicensed dealers and closing the gun show loophole, as well as banning assault rifles. Doing more training for law enforcement officials who are required to have guns.

I think the issue is that this country has so much trauma from gun usage that we can’t just make laws and call it a day. 

We need to address this more than just giving our thoughts and prayers because thoughts and prayers can only do so much. 

We need to have better mental health programs in all schools, social programs and communities. 

We need to have more training for people who do have guns and require gun locks. 

I think getting rid of this culture that glorifies having a gun, that equates guns with safety, because even if I were to own a gun, I would not feel any safer. 

Even having a gun in your presence, there are so many cases in which a child has taken that gun or another family member has taken that gun and done horrible things with it. We need to have a zero-tolerance policy on these laws because this is a crisis.

The country needs to start treating it like a public health crisis.

President Biden is being very careful in the way he talks about gun violence prevention, but almost too careful. He needs to listen to the thousands of survivors in this country and work for them, rather than trying to maintain this sense of unity between the two parties. 

As president, his primary job is to ensure the safety of his constituents. I wish he would just do more to put this legislation out. I think he has the right thoughts, but he needs to translate that into more aggressive action.

Thoughts and prayers are bullshit

J.J. Williams, 15, rising sophomore at City High School in Tucson

J.J. Williams
Photo by Katya Mendoza

Normally, I try to stay away from social justice stuff, just because I get really stressed out, but at this point I can’t ignore it.

It’s becoming more and more deadly. More and more deadly toward people like me, high-schoolers and people in school in general. 

The excuse of, ‘We need more guns because that will make everything safer, that we should put guns in the classrooms with teachers’ is just a horrible idea.

Republican lawmakers are always deflecting, saying, ‘It’s a mental health crisis, not a gun crisis. It’s people with mental health issues who have access to guns.’

So if there are guns on the campus and someone with mental health issues is having a bad day, they can walk up to the teacher, grab the gun and start killing people. I would not feel comfortable in a classroom that had a gun in it. 

The idea of someone with a gun sitting next to me is just terrifying. I don’t want to be around someone with a gun because who knows if they’re going to shoot me or anyone else in the classroom.

I don’t know why anyone would need a gun. If we are going to allow guns, handguns are like the most necessary gun, if it can be necessary. 

I feel like banning assault rifles, mandating that ammo be kept safe separately from the guns, mandating gun cases, universal background checks are a start.

One thing that I’m hearing Republican lawmakers say, besides guns and police in the classrooms, is all that stuff about thoughts and prayers. 

Thoughts and prayers never get anyone anywhere. It just does more damage to the family of those who have lost people. Thoughts and prayers are just bullshit.

During times of crisis, the president has the ability, like during the pandemic, to administer executive orders to help combat an epidemic. 

Gun violence is an epidemic. There’s no denying it at this point. In this year alone, there have been more mass shootings than there have been days. 

There were three shootings on the day that they were burying the survivors from one a week ago. It’s insane and stupid. 

No one should have to turn on the news crying because they just saw their kid in a box going into the ground and turn on the news and see that someone else’s kid just got shot at a school, and then seeing that five people are dead at a hospital because someone went in with a gun and shot a bunch of people. 

No one should have to see this.

No one should have to turn on the news and see that kids are dying. 

No one should have to fear going to their places of worship, going to school, to work, to buy food, to anywhere. 

We can’t just sit by any longer

Ellie Dorland, 15, a rising junior at City High School in Tucson

Ellie Dorland
Photo by Katya Mendoza

It was called The Lost Class. I think it was over 3,200 children that should have been graduating last year, but instead they lost their lives to gun violence. It really shows how we can’t just sit by any longer. 

I go to City High, which is pretty much in the center of downtown Tucson, and it does not put us at the greatest safety because we have a bunch of people coming in. 

We had an incident, I think it was the beginning of the school year. There was a shooting at the Ronstadt Transit Center. We’re like two blocks away, at most. 

It was very scary to be in that kind of situation, to not really know what was happening.

I don’t think guns have a place in our schools. I think that politicians think that makes it safer, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Students should just be thinking about learning.

If I knew that someone in my class, even as a college student, had a gun, I don’t know if I’d be able to make it to class. 

City High School students Ellie Dorland, 15, and Ani Ver Burg, 15, hang up posters on Fourth Avenue in Tucson, Arizona, Friday, June 3, 2022.
Photo by Katya Mendoza

I think I would probably honestly switch classes because I don’t think I could handle the stress of sitting there every class knowing that someone had a gun and was sitting in the same class as me, having to focus on whatever my professor was teaching me. I don’t think that’s good for my learning and I don’t think it’s good for my mental health.

The people who are trying to get guns in classrooms for teachers show exactly what the issue is. They want teachers to have guns to pretend to protect the students from other people having guns. They’re adding on to the amount of guns that are in these spaces. 

If teachers didn’t need guns to protect their students, or if people didn’t think the teachers needed guns, if we just didn’t have guns, that would make everyone a lot safer. That’s not unreasonable and something that can actually happen today. 

At the very least, get rid of assault weapons. They have no place. There’s no reason.

I also agree that we need to have better mental health programs. Gun violence isn’t just because of guns, it’s also because of mental health issues. I think that targeting both areas at once, making universal background checks and helping with the mental health crisis, are very important.

We need to have the least amount of guns in our society as possible. It’s not something that’s going to be easy and not a lot of people are going to agree with it or want to do it, but it’s something that we need to do to keep our schools safe. 

Until it’s their kid

Camila Estrada, 17, a recent graduate from Nogales High School

Courtesy photo Camila Estrada

How is it that someone is going to do that to innocent kids? 

It took me back to elementary school. I remember there were a few lockdowns.

I’ve never experienced a school shooting. I can’t imagine how these kids who have, have to grow up through this trauma. It opens doors to so many other things that young kids should not be exposed to. 

If I have children, I don’t know if I want to be sending them off to school, worried if they’re going to come back or not.

How are you going to fix an issue, or an epidemic? How are you going to fix that? 

Having more guns is not going to stop this because maybe there’s somebody in that classroom who’s a potential shooter and all they need is access to guns and they have it in the classroom. 

I honestly wouldn’t go to class. You have to be 18 to buy an assault rifle. You’re not even legally allowed to drink at that age, yet you have the responsibility of having this machine that can kill hundreds of people. 

People say it’s ‘freedom’, ‘it’s what America is about.’ It’s not freedom if other people walk around in fear. I don’t agree with it and I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to school knowing that someone could have a weapon in their backpack.

I don’t think things are going to change any time soon. 

How many of these shootings have we seen? Nothing has been done about it. No laws have changed people’s beliefs. People are going to have that same mindset of, ‘It’s my money, I can spend it however I want,’ or, ‘I’m going to use this for hunting,’ or ‘How can you take away my privileges?’ 

Until it’s their kid. Until it’s them in that fearful situation, people might change their mindset. 

For a lot of us, including myself, it’s time to change.

Talk about gun violence at the schools, I don’t think that there’s enough of that. Build your mental health because a lot of young people’s mental health was deteriorating throughout the pandemic. 

Talk about the numbers of people who purchase guns, or about the amount of shootings.

Open people’s eyes to actually start making movements like the March for Our Lives. 

Opportunities to comment on state and federal laws

On Wednesday, June 8, the House passed a package of gun legislation that would ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under 21, restrictions of the sale of large-capacity magazines and federal standards for safer firearm storage. The gun bill is a response to the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York, which included a House committee hearing of emotional testimonies from survivors of both massacres.

Although the bill has been labeled “reactionary” from Republican opponents and is likely to die in the Senate, bipartisan negotiations continue in an effort to incentivize states for gun reform.

The Arizona legislature considered dozens of gun-related bills during the ongoing session.

HB2166 would make firearms, ammunition and firearm safety equipment exempt from state sales tax, making it less expensive to buy a gun and/or a gun lock. The bill has NRA support.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed SB1311, which requires healthcare employers to have workplace violence prevention plans and elevates an assault on a healthcare worker to aggravated assault.

Here are some bills that are still in play. To have your say: Request To Speak and log in or create an account. 

HB2316 would allow people with a concealed carry permit to bring firearms to some public places, not including schools and colleges. The bill has NRA support.
HB2414 would allow firearms in vehicles on school campuses.
• HB2448 would require schools to train students on gun safety. The bill has NRA support.
HB2650 would create a new state team to investigate police shooting incidents.
SB1216 and SB1217 would extend restraining orders, potentially protecting victims of domestic abuse. The governor signed a version that applies to small counties in Arizona.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Katya Mendoza is a Staff Reporter for Tucson Local Media and a freelance journalist interested in social justice issues and column writing. Twitter @katya_nadine