Iowa City students, now living in a state where gun reform is virtually impossible, reflect on psychological toll of mass shootings

Two students huddle together with a “Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough” sign during a walk-out protest at the Pentacrest, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Emotional students talked about the fear of school shootings and urged lawmakers to act. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Despite bitterly cold winds, more than 50 students from Iowa City schools gathered at the Old Capitol on the Pentacrest at noon on Thursday to protest against gun violence and demand new gun safety laws. The protest was organized by students from South East Junior High School and City High School. Both junior high students and high school students spoke about how the threat of gun violence, and the possibility of being trapped in a school shooting, has overshadowed their lives.

For many of the students, this was not their first time at a protest against gun violence, as some noted wearily. Most recently, the same students organized a protest in June following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two adults.

“I never really know how to start these speeches,” a student said, standing the steps of the Old Capitol on Thursday. “But I guess I can start by saying, I’m really fucking fed up I live in a world where I can’t be safe at my own school, at the gas station, at the grocery store. I live in a world where I have to map out my school in case a shooter ever did attack.”

“I’d be stupid to think that it couldn’t happen to me, because that’s what everybody thinks until they hear the shots.”

Iowa City Community School students rally at the Pentacrest to advocate for more gun legislation, following the approval of Iowa Amendment 1, which added the right to bear arms to state constitution, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Other students noted that it is two weeks until the 10th anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That murder of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut is an early memory for many students who skipped their lunch periods Thursday to rally at the Pentacrest. As they’ve gotten older, the ability of gun manufacturers and politicians loyal to them to block meaningful action on gun safety — and in the case of Iowa, even rollback significant gun safety laws — has weighed increasingly heavily on their minds.

“I remember back in 2012, I was 6 years old, and I have a very distinct memory” of the day of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, a City High junior told the crowd.

She described coming downstairs at home, and finding her mother crying. She asked what was wrong.

“Eventually she tried to explain to me in the best way that she could that children had died at a school. Imagine hearing that as a 6-year-old,” she said. “That’s a decade ago, but this has been going on longer than a decade. In November of 1991 there was a shooting here at the University of Iowa. That is 31 years ago. Thirty-one fucking years, people! What are we doing?”

A sketched sign on notebook paper reading, “The scariest thing in school should be my grades,” on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Every year, people march after a new set of mass shooting and there popular momentum to take action, she noted.

“And the people in Congress block it.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, just elected to his eighth term in the Senate last month, has been a consistent opponent of the gun safety bills that have come before Congress. In December 2021, following a school shooting in Michigan that killed four students and wounded seven others, Grassley’s objection to the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which would require background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System databases to be conducted before the transfer of firearms between private parties, stopped the Senate from taking any action on the bill. It had already been passed by the House of Representatives, but Democrats have not been able to overcome a Republican filibuster to have a vote on the bill.

Iowa City Community School students rally at the Pentacrest to advocate for more gun legislation, following the approval of Iowa Amendment 1, which added the right to bear arms to state constitution, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

At the same time Grassley was reelected, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that will make it almost impossible to pass new gun safety laws, or even restore old ones, such as the requirement that gun owners must have a permit for their weapons that Gov. Reynolds and Republicans in the Iowa Legislature eliminated last year.

The City High junior acknowledged that change was unlikely in the immediate future.

“But even despite that, even worrying for so many years, I still have hope, because of this,” she said, looking out at the students gathered on the Pentacrest. “Because it is fucking cold out, and we are here. We are here and we are still trying.”

“I still have hope for our future.”

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague was among the handful of adults at the protest supporting the students. After encouragement from protest organizers, he briefly addressed the students, telling them how impressed he was by their resolve.

Mayor Bruce Teague speaks at rally for gun legislation at the Pentacrest, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Speaking to Little Village, Teague said, “It is my hope that not only local officials, but also state and federal officials, take note and take heed of what’s happening. And when they make policy decisions, they keep events like this in mind.”

A student holds a “Actually guns do kill people” sign at a walk-out protest, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Iowa City. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

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