By Anne Blythe
It was only six days into the fall semester at UNC Chapel Hill when a gunman in a chemistry building sent the campus into lockdown mode.
On Tuesday, 15 days after the incident of terror, students from that campus and others were in Raleigh to tell lawmakers they were fed up with the “thoughts and prayers” that flow after these increasingly common occurrences in their lives. They were determined to let the lawmakers know how hollow those words are to them — and what they would rather hear and see.
Zijie Yan, a professor in the department of Applied Physical Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill, was described as “brilliant” and “beloved.” He was killed on Aug. 28 when a gunman came into a chemistry building on campus. Yan was a father, son, husband and an academic whose star was on the rise.
His violent death prompted incensed students to amp up their fight for “common sense” gun laws.
“He was a person, and one person taken by gun violence is one too many,” said Claire Burke, a UNC junior advocating for change.
“Vote them out”
Dozens of college students who grew up with school lockdown drills and active shooters outside and inside their classrooms rallied outside the legislature as lawmakers wrangled over the budget inside.
Democratic lawmakers and elected officials from Durham and Orange counties who joined the rally encouraged the students to let their voices be heard.
“As our communities continue grieving from intense loss, our lawmakers continue to drag their feet,” said Samuel Scarborough, one of the Chapel Hill students at a midday rally outside the Legislative Building. “Until they do what it takes to save lives, they can save those thoughts and prayers. Keep ’em.”
In North Carolina, firearms are now the top cause of death for children. From 2012 to 2021, there has been a 47 percent increase in gun-related deaths in this state.
Democrats in the state House of Representatives and Senate have filed bills this session, and in years past, to add gun safety laws to the books. Those include “red flag laws” — which would allow a judge to order the temporary confiscation of firearms from someone found to be a danger to themselves or others — safe storage bills and purchase permit requirements for long guns.
The proposals have gone nowhere in the Republican-led General Assembly. On the other hand, a bill that did away with pistol permit requirements sailed through both chambers this session and won enough votes to override a veto by the governor.
Yesterday, students attended the session of the House of Representatives, filling half of the gallery overlooking the floor of the chamber. After they were welcomed by House Speaker Tim Moore, Kings Mountain Republican and UNC alumnus, they were forced to leave.
“Vote them out,” they chanted over and over, as legislative sergeants-at-arms cleared the gallery and the House went into recess.
Kema Leonard, a N.C. A&T University junior who joined the UNC students at the rally and in the halls of the General Assembly, said he thought it was important for him to make the trip to Raleigh from Greensboro.
“I think it’s high time for our generation to be consistent in showing up when we see a complacent body,” Leonard said.
As president of the College Democrats of North Carolina, Leonard said he expected to see more of his peers getting engaged politically on the gun safety issue.
“We know the issues that are at stake, we know that issues that are near and dear to our hearts, and so in 2024 and a presidential election, you best believe we’re coming out in droves,” he said.
Persistent voice for change
House Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, spoke briefly at the student rally before the session. She was introduced as a lawmaker unlike the ones with whom the students were frustrated.
Morey is a former district court judge who has talked about seeing from the bench how gun violence can upend lives. Even though both General Assembly chambers have Republican majorities, she has not been deterred from trying year after year to add gun safety measures in North Carolina.
This year, Morey was among the lawmakers to sponsor House Bill 289, the “Gun Violence Prevention Act.” There has been no movement on it since May.
Focusing on future action
After mass shootings,the focus often shifts from the immediate thoughts and prayers to mental health issues. Several of the students pointed out that other countries struggle with the same mental health dilemmas that plague this country, but they don’t have as much gun violence.
Luke Diasio, a UNC senior, recounted huddling in a bathroom near campus on Aug. 28 as he waited for the lockdown to be lifted and the students to be given the “all clear” to return to their normal activities. He was with foreign exchange students who had only been on campus for two weeks.
“I found myself wanting to pretend that this wasn’t representative of my country, but I couldn’t,” Diasio said. “I watched them meet the America we had all grown numb to. We tolerate an absurd level of gun violence in America.”
David Hogg, a national gun control advocate who rose to prominence after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, urged the students on Tuesday not to give up, not to become numb. After a 19-year-old killed 17 people and injured 17 others in his alma mater five years ago, Hogg was told that he never would be able to get any gun safety laws passed in Florida, which some people call “the gunshine state.” But Hogg and other Parkland students prevailed and got a gun and school safety bill passed.
Hogg also pressed the students to try to turn the “run, hide, fight” mantra they’re taught in mass shooting preparedness drills on its head, and instead run for office.
Many of the speakers encouraged students to do more than run for office.
“Don’t wait until this happens to you,” Hogg said. “Start voting when you can.”