Ten days after the Dayton, Ohio shooting, Erin Ward (W ’22), a Dayton–area local, went shopping with her mom.
“She just stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You know there could be a shooter here at any minute.’” Erin says this was a wake–up call for her. The reminder from her mother made it “a little more real,” she says. Erin realized that “it could happen anywhere. It could happen to you.”
The new American reality is that 31 people can die from gun violence in a 16–hour period. Mass shootings, especially with racist motives, have become commonplace. On Aug. 3, 21–year–old Patrick Crusius arrived at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas after a nearly ten–hour drive and killed 22 people. He was aiming for Hispanic people; this was made clear through the racist and xenophobic manifesto he posted online minutes before the attack, claiming there had been a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. Less than 24 hours later, 24–year–old Connor Betts opened fire in Dayton, killing nine people in just over 30 seconds. Everyone who knew Connor said he had an obsession with violence—former classmates said he kept a list of people he planned on raping or murdering.
These events are frightening, but they’re not at all uncommon. Beyond mass shootings, approximately 100 Americans are shot and injured due to gun violence every day. In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun–related injuries in the United States, and the violence is showing no signs of stopping. As with many issues, gun violence disproportionately affects low–income communities.
For the younger generations, gun violence has become the new normal; but for those Penn students whose communities have been devastated, the reality of gun violence is a fact of life, intimately known. The recent attacks bring up many issues for Penn students from El Paso, Dayton, and beyond, ranging from not feeling safe to leave their homes to growing political polarization within their families.
Luke Coleman (C ’22), a native of New Carlisle, Ohio, a small town outside of Dayton, says his first fear was for his family.
“That was definitely my first thought when I woke up and heard about it in the morning, was, ‘Oh my goodness, I know my dad was there last night, I hope that he’s okay,’” Luke says.
Once he realized his dad was safe, he began to worry about his own safety as well.
“It almost makes you scared to do anything,” Luke says. “I didn’t want to even appear in public because two mass shootings had occurred within, like, 16 hours of each other, maybe even less than that.”
These recent shootings have affected people and communities in different ways. When Latinx Coalition VP of External Affairs Cinthia Ibarra (C ’20) first heard of the shooting, she felt “pretty much numb to it.”
“I remember hearing about it and just taking a step back and then once I started reading up on it, it brought me to a very vulnerable spot because I don’t recall a tragedy like this targeting just the Latino community,” Cinthia says. “Because I am Latina, I am a first–generation Mexicana, it was very close to my heart.”
Erin said that even with the recent shooting in Dayton as well as a school shooting in the neighboring town of Liberty, Ohio in 2017, she doesn’t see her community in her conservative rural hometown of Milford Center changing their minds on the issue of gun control. If anything, Erin says she sees the climate growing more polarized. She notes that her perspective may come from spending a year away from her hometown at Penn.
“Something that I hear a lot where I’m from is, ‘Guns don’t kill people; it’s the people who kill people.’ It’s not the gun’s fault, it’s the person’s fault, you know,” Erin says.
The intersection between mental health advocacy and the gun control debate is a hot topic that Sebastian Gonzalez (C ’20), a Mexican–American El Paso native, thinks is not discussed enough. He says online speech platforms can be difficult tools to regulate and can ultimately be used for hate speech. The El Paso shooter’s manifesto was published on a site called 8chan, an online imageboard website often used as an outlet for extremist speech.
“But I also think a large issue that we need to talk about is the kind of radicalization that people go through,” Sebastian says, in light of the targeted nature of the shooting in his hometown. “How do you regulate that? How do you keep people from being radicalized in this country?”
Rafael Flores (C ’19), another El Paso native with Mexican heritage, says the El Paso shooter’s manifesto is a disturbing example of white supremacy that he says was really scary for him to read.
He says given that the neighboring city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico is just a short drive from El Paso, many Hispanic people from both sides of the border were in El Paso that day “simply going to shop and buy things and spend time with their families, not knowing the true danger that they [were] in.”
“People are coming here for opportunity because this is the ‘land of opportunity,’” Rafael emphasizes. “But clearly there’s only so much opportunity when you could just be shot on a Saturday morning when you’re shopping for school supplies.”
For one of Rafael’s closest friends, the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 marked the loss of multiple family members. Rafael says that this friend spoke on national news about the tragedy. Since then, Rafael’s friend has been forced to delete and/or change his name on all forms of social media.
Rafael’s friend was receiving comments on social media posts, accusing the friend of being a “crisis actor,” a term often used by conspiracy theorists to refer to people paid by special interest groups to dramatize their stories to the media.
“It’s very dangerous to receive that kind of attention in a country with the current political climate,” Rafael says. ”It’s really, really scary that people will go so far to conspire over deaths that truly have happened. It’s really, really sad.”
For Rafael, he feels the political polarization surrounding gun control and other issues. It’s even evident within his own family, after his hometown went through this attack. Rafael explains that he, his mother, and his sister all share very liberal views, while his father, who is divorced from his mother, voted for Trump and shares many of Trump’s anti–immigrant beliefs. Rafael says his father also believes that owning a gun is a fundamental right that should not be taken away.
“My dad … is a conservative, [and] voted for Trump, which is very surprising for someone of Mexican descent. But he is a Trump supporter and he basically is very much against gun control and does not think that should ever happen because that is what makes this country so free,” Rafael explains. “Definitely it is a conflict whenever we are together, and, you know, politics come[s] up. … I just don’t think my dad sees the world the same way I do or my sister does.”
Luke echoes that he experiences differences in opinion on gun control within his own family. “My dad is white and my mom is black … they almost always divide [on] a racial line,” Luke says. “I think you can see a lot of people on my mom’s side of the family push for gun control just because they experience gun violence in a different way than my dad’s side of the family would experience it.”
Although narratives sometimes seem to follow major mass shootings, gun violence exists beyond that. For many people in this country, especially in lower–income communities, gun violence is something to be feared constantly. Abby* (N ‘20) talks about the devastating effects gun violence has had on her neighborhood and on her family. She has asked to have her real name omitted for personal safety reasons.
Two of Abby’s uncles were shot when she was a child because of issues related to gang retaliation. One was shot and killed in her grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve.
“When you’re in a gang, your whole family is basically associated with the gang. So there was some sort of gang retaliation on the part of a gang that was also in our town,” Abby explains. “On one Christmas Eve, it was maybe, like, two years ago they shot my other tío, the one who wasn’t in the gang, which was really hard on the family because not only was it the death of a family member, but now it’s like every Christmas Eve that’s what we think about.”
As a Mexican–American, Abby says she also personally connects to the recent mass shootings, especially in El Paso. “If you look at the statistics, the people who are immigrants are less likely to be criminals than people who are from here … Mexicans kind of get this [reputation] for being gang–related, doing a lot of drugs and stuff, but my experience has really been the opposite of that,” Abby says.
For Abby’s family, she says immediate threats related to gun violence have since dissipated because no other family member is associated with a gang. But she says the effects of their deaths still live on, especially for her father.
“My dad has big issues with guns because both of his brothers died from gun violence,” Abby says. “Most kids when they’re younger are allowed to have little water guns and have water fights with their friends and stuff, but we weren’t allowed to do that.”
For Abby, and so many others, the effects of these mass shootings don't go away overnight. And for many, too, the prospect of another shooting around the corner has become terrifyingly real.
When thinking about her uncles’ deaths, Abby says, “Now that I’m older, I need to step back and realize this isn’t a normal experience. Most people don’t need to go through that.”
For Sebastian, too, the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting reframed things—places that once seemed safe took on an undertone of anxiety.
“At first I was in shock. It didn’t really hit me what was happening in my hometown,” Sebastian says. “It just didn’t seem like something that could happen because you always have that mentality: ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me.’”
*Indicates name has been changed.