‘This is our blood on your hands’: Students describe a crushing emotional toll of mass shootings

Teenage advocates call on lawmakers for gun reform, mental health support

By: - March 15, 2023 9:12 am

Mourners leave flowers at the MSU Union on Feb. 19, 2023, one of the locations where several students were shot during a mass shooting on Michigan State University’s campus. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

In the wake of mass shootings at Michigan State University and Oxford High School, as well as the gun violence that has shattered lives across the state, the children now living with the permanent scars of trauma keep hearing the same message: They are the future; their advocacy is the reason this country will change.

But Michigan high school and college students said they are deeply frustrated with that characterization. After all, they said, they wouldn’t have to be the future of a violent present had legislators sufficiently addressed gun reform at any point following the 366 school shootings that have affected hundreds of thousands of children across the United States since 1999, when 12 students and one teacher died in a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Eric Spragins, a 15-year-old sophomore at Southfield High School for the Arts and Technology | Screenshot

“Politicians out there say that we are the future; will there really be a future if we continue to go down this path where our loved ones and young ones have to be shot, have to be killed?” Eric Spragins, a 15-year-old sophomore at Southfield High School for the Arts and Technology, asked during a Tuesday virtual press conference. “See that we are the future because we are the now — because we are the ones being impacted by what you do as a state legislator.”

Spragins, whose 16-year-old friend, Ja’Miyah Lawrence, was shot and killed in Detroit last year, joined fellow students whose lives have been forever changed by gun violence during an online press conference held by No Future Without Today and End Gun Violence Michigan, which champion gun reform in Michigan. No Future Without Today was created and is led by survivors of the November 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School and End Gun Violence Michigan is a coalition of faith leaders, educators, firearm safety groups, community organizers, unions and others from throughout the state.

From a sophomore who attends Oxford High School and, upon entering her school every day, remembers the shooting that killed four students to a Michigan State student who feels deeply unsafe one month after a Feb. 13 mass shooting that killed three students, the individuals who spoke Tuesday wove a narrative of what it means to be young in America today. 

They are angry, traumatized, tired, and, perhaps more than anything, determined to inspire the change that could have saved the lives of those they loved and who are now forever gone.

So, yes, the future will be different because of them — but this shouldn’t be the case, student after student said. They should be worrying about homework, not burying their friends.

“Young people in Michigan bear the brunt of the gun violence epidemic, whether that be in our schools, on our streets or in our homes,” said Jada Knight, digital director of No Future Without Today. “And our generation has been urging Michigan lawmakers to take legislative action for years. The Michigan Legislature has finally taken a historic step forward for gun safety, and young people have been integral to that struggle.”

I spent 10 minutes crouched on a toilet seat with two other girls; I held the hands of them as I tried to block out the screams and gunshots ringing through the halls and shaking the stall door. To this day, I have not been able to block out those sounds.

– Julia Begley, a sophomore at Oxford High School

Days after the shooting at Michigan State, Democratic lawmakers who now have slim majorities in the state House and Senate introduced gun reform legislation that would mandate universal background checks for all gun purchases, require that gun owners safely store firearms that could be accessed by minors, and permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others. 

The legislation, which is now making its way through the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if it hits her desk, follows years of Democratic lawmakers introducing similar bills that languished in committee, never receiving hearings or votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue.

“I wanted to give thanks to legislation in my speech, but I realized that legislation does not deserve thanks and praise,” said Joseph Majeed Kesto, a Michigan State University sophomore who is also the communications and outreach manager for MSU’s chapter of March for Our Lives. “There should have been laws to prevent the occurrence of gun violence.”

Had the laws now being pushed through the Legislature been in place years ago, students said they likely would not be mourning those killed at MSU or Oxford. Alexandria Verner, 20, of Clawson; Brian Fraser, 20, of Grosse Pointe; and Arielle Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods died at Michigan State. Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17, died at Oxford High School.

Joseph Majeed Kesto, a Michigan State University sophomore | Screenshot

“I should be in class, hanging out with my friends, worried about what I’m going to eat tonight, not if I will make it back home safely,” Kesto said. “I should not have been hosting and organizing a vigil for my friends a week after their death.

“Current gun laws are not enough to keep me, my friends, classmates, siblings, and loved ones safe,” added Kesto, who went on to call for a ban on assault weapons, increased mental health resources for those impacted by gun violence, strengthening laws to prohibit those with a history of domestic violence from owning guns, improved data collection and analysis around gun violence, and educational campaigns about guns.

Increasing access to mental health resources for gun violence survivors is crucial, students emphasized — a message they said is expected to be repeatedly issued during a gun reform rally outside the Capitol at 11 a.m. Wednesday. 

During that event, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who founded the gun violence prevention organization Giffords after being partly paralyzed in a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona, will join students, gun violence prevention groups, lawmakers, and others to demand action to curb gun violence.

Many of the students attending Tuesday’s press conference spoke in depth about the mental health challenges they have faced following mass shootings and other gun violence.

“I spent 10 minutes crouched on a toilet seat with two other girls; I held the hands of them as I tried to block out the screams and gunshots ringing through the halls and shaking the stall door,” Oxford High School sophomore Julia Begley said in describing the mass shooting at her school on Nov. 30, 2021. “To this day, I have not been able to block out those sounds.” 

Like the other students, Begley had a message for lawmakers: The weight she now carries in the aftermath of the Oxford shooting belongs to them. 

“Since I was younger, I’d fantasized about high school and being a teenager,” Begley said. “Being a teenager comes with some new responsibilities, such as getting my license, having a boyfriend or making new friends. One responsibility I should have never had to obtain is having to carry the weight of my own trauma and having to sit here and explain to you why our lives matter more than your guns.

Julia Begley, a sophomore at Oxford High School | Screenshot

“This is not our responsibility; it is yours,” Begley continued. “This is our blood on your hands.”

Begley was a freshman when the shooting occurred — which means she has years ahead of her during which she has to live out her days in a school where her peers died, including her good friend, St. Juliana.

“I remember it every day I walk in there,” Begley said of the shooting. “… I envision a future where I can leave here because I hold so much trauma here. And it’s like I’m literally laying in it.”

That trauma will forever be with her, Begley said. 

“I don’t want to be thinking about this for the rest of my life, but I’m stuck with this,” she said. “We’re all stuck with this, and it’s something that just can’t go away.”

For students who have not experienced a mass shooting, gun violence has become such a pervasive part of American life that they imagine it constantly, said Taylor Jackson, a junior at Dearborn High School.

“What if one day I walk out the door and say goodbye to my family, and what if that’s the last time they’ll see me alive?” Jackson asked. “What if my mom had to get a phone call saying, ‘Oh, your daughter’s school was involved in a shooting?’”

Taylor Jackson, a junior at Dearborn High School | Screenshot

While these fears may be somewhat assuaged with gun reform legislation being passed, students said the damage to their lives has already been done. They are already traumatized; they are already living with an ever-growing absence of friends murdered by guns.

They are grateful for the legislation, they said, but it is also a constant reminder: This is happening because their friends died. This is happening because they do not feel safe. 

“It is time that people in our legislatures understand that this isn’t something to help you get re-elected; this isn’t something that you can use in a campaign message; this isn’t something you can take advantage of,” Spragins said.

“There are people’s lives being taken, people who have been hurt, mothers and fathers, grandparents and uncles and aunties who are burying their children, who are burying their loved ones because we have failed to take action as a state.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.

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