By Dave Pine and Nancy Magee
On January 23, a Monday, students at a San Mateo County high school were preparing for a mock trial competition when a student competitor felt a buzz on her wrist.
“There was a notification there was a mass shooting in San Mateo County. I think at that moment I felt my heart stop for a second because it just said San Mateo County,” she recounted. “It didn’t say a city. It didn’t say how many people were injured or possibly killed. In that moment all I felt was shock and fear.”
The alert pings echoed around the classroom.
“I think for like two minutes people stopped to check their phones and notifications. But two minutes later it felt like we were back to normal…. Everyone just acted as if this was another day, and that’s probably what is most worrisome. That we’ve gotten to the point to where it’s kind of a daily occurrence. … We just kind of moved on.”
That mass shooting on January 23 left seven people dead and one in critical condition in Half Moon Bay, a small community known more for its pumpkin festival and surf break than violence.
A red thread ties Half Moon Bay to Oakland and Chicago, which both saw mass shootings the same day. And to Red Springs, N.C., which faced a mass shooting the next day, and to Lancaster, Penn., the scene of the nation’s next mass shooting (followed in quick succession by mass shootings in Newark, N.J., San Diego, Philadelphia).
As of this writing, the Gun Violence Archive has tallied 241 mass shootings across the United States in 2023 (that’s more than a mass shooting a day).
What sense can our young people make of this tragic reality? What is it like to grow up knowing that firearms-related injuries are the leading cause of death for children and teens? What can be done, if anything, to curb the violence?
As part of our work, we spend time speaking with youth. At meetings this spring, we heard directly from them about their thoughts on this complex subject. Many shared worries about the threat of gun violence, the difficulty in finding solutions to gun violence, and steps school and community leaders could take to reduce safety threats.
The following quotes highlight just a little of what we heard.
“One of the things I always wanted to be when I grew up was a teacher. I have actually had my mother tell me, ‘No, I think you should really double think that.’
She doesn’t want me going into a workplace where there’s a high chance I could get shot for being a teacher in a school. For her, that’s a high-risk job.”
“You need a gun to protect yourself from somebody with a gun. What if you just took away both guns?”
“I believe it was a week ago we all heard a ding on our loudspeaker system and the announcement didn’t come on for a second. The first joke to be made, or maybe it was a flippant comment, was there’s a shooting. And that’s just so frightening that that’s the first thing the mind goes to.”
“I feel like with school shootings…. It’s such a complex situation because I feel like so much of it is learned behavior, especially with the media. The shooters’ stories are spread as much as the victims.”
“You don’t really see stories about kids who were struggling with those thoughts and went to counseling and are now living a successful life.”
“I know someone whose life was truly saved because of a wellness counselor. It’s obviously a very personal situation but I truly think that our wellness team did save someone’s life.”
San Mateo County is taking action to make our schools and communities safer. The Coalition for Safe Schools and Communities, which includes school and county leaders, first responders, mental health professionals, and others, has developed a series of protocols to help keep schools safe.
These include widespread adoption and implementation of The Big Five Emergency Response protocols for schools, an active and effective student threat assessment process, suicide prevention tools, cross-agency collaboration and coordinated supports for student mental health.
In addition, the Board of Supervisors has taken action to reduce gun violence by enacting legislation to require safe storage of firearms in the home, supporting gun buyback events and implementing firearm relinquishment orders., among other actions.
And, earlier this month, the San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools adopted a resolution reinforcing the State requirement that schools inform parents of their responsibility to secure firearms and keep them out of the hands of children and youth.
While these actions are laudable, they are not enough. We need gun policies that reduce the number of guns in our communities and country, that make it more difficult to access guns and then fire them, and state and national leadership as we can only do so much at the county level. We need to listen to our youth and strive to give them a world free of the threat of gun violence.
What are we waiting for?
Dave Pine is president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
Nancy Magee is San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools. Magee taught English at Santana High School in San Diego County in 2001 when a student shot to death two fellow students and wounded 13 others.
Like our nation’s gun violence crisis, orange is a color that can’t be ignored.
On June 2, 2023, join the movement and #WearOrange to shine a light on gun violence that takes the lives of 43,000 people and devastates countless others in the US every single year.
Information about how to participate in Wear Orange can be found How to Participate in Wear Orange | Everytown Support Fund and Ways to Participate | Wear Orange.