Gen Z is tired of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Pass the Protect Illinois Communities Act

We’ve grown up under the constant threat of gun violence. We should be the last generation to grow up doing active shooter drills.

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Miriam Wauson, 12, holds a sign that says, “Protect kids, not guns” during a March for Our Lives rally where hundreds gathered to demand gun control at Federal Plaza in the Loop, Saturday afternoon, June 11, 2022.

A young person holds a sign that says, “Protect kids, not guns” during a March for Our Lives rally at Federal Plaza in the Loop on June 11, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

I was 7 years old when I completed my first mass shooting drill. I cowered behind a desk in my darkened classroom, willing my teeth to stop chattering. I heard “BANG BANG BANG” as a school police officer pounded on the classroom door and jiggled the door handle, trying to get into our classroom.

My legs shook and my heart beat so loudly I felt the vibrations through my body. I knew it was fake, but the trauma of that shooting drill was real. Over the course of my schooling in Illinois public schools, I completed more active shooter drills than fire drills, while gun violence increased year after year.

My generation — Generation Z — has grown up under the constant threat of gun violence. As we studied our multiplication tables, we also learned how to barricade our classroom doors. As we watched our favorite superhero movies, we analyzed the theaters for the closest exit.

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Every time I visit a public place — whether it be schools, movie theaters, grocery stores, parks, libraries, restaurants, street corners and more — part of me acknowledges the possibility that my world could be shattered by gun violence. This is what happened at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, at a community vigil in Garfield Park and at the end of the school day at Benito Juarez High School.

Each mass shooting lays bare the gaping holes in our country’s basic duty to protect its citizens, especially its youth, from the epidemic of gun violence.

The state Legislature has a historic opportunity to actually address the gun violence epidemic in our state through the Protect Illinois Communities Act. I am an organizer for March For Our Lives, a youth-led gun violence prevention movement, and one of the thousands of young people across the state who have been personally affected by gun violence. Over the past few months, I have spoken to hundreds of young people, across Illinois and the nation, who are ready for change. I talked to Stephanie, who is too young to vote but leads a Students Demand Action Chapter. I befriended Jazmin, a high school student who lost her younger sister in the Uvalde shooting and has traveled to Washington, D.C. half a dozen times to lobby for an assault weapons ban. I worked with Peyton, who spent hours each week working to elect gun safety candidates.

Young people are sick and tired of thoughts and prayers. Our elected officials must act immediately to pass the Protect Illinois Communities Act. The act will address rising levels of gun violence by raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, extending the duration of a firearm restraining order from six months to one year and addressing illegal gun trafficking.

Beyond mass shootings

My generation grew up dubbed the “school shooting generation,” but our youth face dangers from firearms that extend beyond mass shootings. Whether it is suicide, community violence or firearm accidents, the dangers of gun violence for children are pervasive and growing. For the first time, gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children in Illinois and across the country. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Gen Z has come to expect gun violence, but we refuse to accept it. The Protect Illinois Communities Act would address all types of gun violence and be a critical first step to protecting young people.

The gun lobby, politicians, and special interests that care more about protecting guns than children are formidable. But the power of everyday people using our voices to advocate for change, as we did at anti-gun violence rallies this summer, has shown me that we are more powerful than anyone trying to silence us.

For too long, elected officials have gotten away with reciting the empty phrase “thoughts and prayers” after each shooting instead of passing meaningful legislation. The days of inaction are over. The fight to end gun violence takes all of us, especially young people. That is why we will be in Springfield, along with other advocates and survivors of gun violence, on Jan. 5 to advocate for the Protect Illinois Communities Act.

Every single person deserves to live their life free from gun violence. My generation should be the last in Illinois to grow up doing active shooter drills.

Rachel Jacoby is from Highland Park and is an organizer with March For Our Lives and a graduate student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has led numerous rallies in Highland Park and advocated in Washington, D.C. and across Illinois in support for gun safety legislation. 

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