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Tennessee and the Gun Violence Prevention Movement: Our Voices Matter

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Our guest blogger is Vanderbilt University student and gun violence prevention advocate Lena Kalandjian. She is a former Sandy Hook Promise National Youth Advisory Board member. Here, she shares why elevating youth and BIPOC voices in the gun violence prevention movement is critical. Plus, resources on how youth — and all who support them — can help.

In April 2023, lawmakers expelled Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D) and Justin Jones (D) from Tennessee’s House of Representatives for “breaking decorum” on the House floor. They were protesting the state’s gun laws after the horrific Covenant school shooting in Nashville. The shooter killed three children and three adults with an AR-15 military-style rifle and other weapons.

Young gun violence prevention advocates like me, continue to try and hope for change. But it is hard.

We see children and adults suffer harm from gun violence every day. At the same time, some people in power abuse our system of democracy. Consequently, our hope for solutions declines. Adults encourage us to be Upstanders and speak up at injustices. Frustratingly, it feels defeating without the listening ears of our elected leaders.

We plead for older generations to hear us and join our movement. Above all, we need their unflinching support to help make this country a safer place to live.

Instead, we watch changemakers like Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones be unfairly silenced. Even with youth organizing action nationwide, our concern as a generation continues to grow.

What does this mean for youth civic engagement? How do we respond?

Feeling unheard is defeating. Tiring. Frustrating. But we cannot let that stop us. We cannot give in, and we cannot lose hope. Moreover, we must continue to advocate on behalf of the changemakers. They’ve made immense sacrifices and endured undeserving mistreatment to sustain this fight.

Valuing All Voices

The “Tennessee Three” were all scrutinized for their participation in protests on the House floor. Markedly, it was only Pearson and Jones the two Black legislators who were expelled for “disorderly behavior.” State Rep. Gloria Johnson who is white was spared expulsion in the final vote. All three representatives said they thought race was a factor.

It underscores what we keep seeing again and again. Specifically, adult decision-makers argue their intention is to “protect” youth. Instead, BIPOC, marginalized communities, and youth voices are ignored in the process. Both representatives expelled were two of the youngest Black members of the House. What really prompted these expulsions?

Do Not Silence Discourse and Conversation

Weaponizing rules of decorum to delay or avoid earnest, essential conversations around gun violence is contrary to the participatory democracy we want for this country and our supporters.

Indeed, rules of decorum matter. However, they are of little value if they trample over the space for decision-makers to have urgent debates that move toward solutions to save lives.

Gun violence prevention conversations are emotionally challenging. It’s also important to realize that it’s impossible to find solutions without them.

What Youth Can Do to Use Their Voice

As we wait for legislative solutions, there are direct actions everyone can take. At this time, you can help gun violence in your local community.

Voices for Change Advocacy Series

Sandy Hook Promise commits to co-creating school safety policies with student input. More over, you can also take action with our advocacy kits. Our teams designed the kits with young people in mind.

Help Youth Support Gun Violence Prevention

Lastly, there are countless ways for adults to take action against gun violence. Join us, demand sensible gun laws and policy that can save young lives. Here are a few: