Editor's Note: This article was written the night of the UNC shooting.
I paced in a basement office the entire afternoon today as UNC became the next footnote in America’s long, extensive tapestry of gun violence — a graduate student who shot his professor, roaming for a few hours before finally being apprehended by police.
On one device we listened to the fire and ambulance dispatch, and on another, we watched ABC’s live coverage of the shooting. We passed around fact and fiction, fear and hysteria like a hot potato: 10 dead, 16 wounded, ambulances, police cars flooding the street. In truth, we had no idea what was true and what wasn’t. We went through the Twitter profile of the shooter, trying to piece together some sort of explanation. We heard chatter of a hostage situation and multiple shooters.
We passed in silence at some moments, and we laughed in delirium and disbelief at others.
I am not asking for some medal of bravery for being one more of the many young Americans who can recount their active shooter experience like it was just that afternoon. But the ordeal hasn’t left me since — and sharing my thoughts will help.
The relationship between mental health and gun violence has been completely corrupted. We are used to talking about mental health as a scapegoat for gun violence, and we do not have the vocabulary to talk about gun violence as responsible for our generation’s horrible mental health. To describe gun violence only by quantifying death is horribly reductive.
“After the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, the conservative response to calls for gun reform was to blame mental illness,” began an NBC News article.
I’ll spare you their actual statements.
We still do not have the vocabulary in our public discourse to talk about gun violence and its impact on mental health, even though we have substantial evidence.
- 75% of young people in America cite mass shootings as “significant sources of stress.”
- Any form of violence in childhood makes mental illness more likely in the future. And the more than 50% of the US who will at some point become afflicted with mental illness are more likely to have suffered from violence rather than causing it.
- If mental illness disappeared tomorrow, gun violence would decrease by just 4%.
The shooting at Chapel Hill has tragically left one person dead. I am further worried about the death of empathy. I and the people around me this afternoon shared that we never really expected an episode of gun violence to knock on our doorstep, our university.
Did it really cost a chunk of my humanity to access the emotional vocabulary to actually talk about the consequences of gun violence? The truth that fireworks sound too much like gunshots, that beatboxing sounds too much like ammunition, that the siren of an active shooter drill sounds too much like the normal fare of the high school experience?
This summer I was lucky to attend a conference in Athens, where a panel discussed the impact of gun violence on mental health. I heard the mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary School victim speak, as well as David Hogg, co-founder of March for Our Lives and a Parkland shooting survivor.
The mom will be defined by grief for the rest of her life. She will always be recognized for her most vulnerable moments of despair. She will always face implicit condemnation for any display of happiness.
Try talking to people for whom this issue is really personal and you’ll notice their voice, as well as yours, becomes hollow — as they hopelessly search for hope, for personhood.
The roughly 5,000 new first-years at UNC, some dear friends included, experienced their welcome-to-college hurrah running for cover in the basement of their nearest building as they decided whether to text home, worried their parents would freak out too much.
The families of the 30,000 students asked themselves if their worst nightmares were about to become reality.
The multiple thousands of international students in the UNC community were welcomed into the country in a uniquely American style.
One of those students was the shooter who received his bachelor’s in Wuhan. The anti-Asian chatter will become inevitable as the political forces-that-be try to delude us into believing that the problem is from as far away as possible.
Make no mistake this is our country. When I travel abroad people ask me about America’s gun problem as soon as they dare. Only in America do guns outnumber people. Only in America is there this disproportionate level of gun violence. Only in America have gun manufacturers turned shootings into profit, as demand for guns (driven by fear of an impending ban) soars every time the country’s tapestry is painted in a new layer of blood.
The more people share the weight of this country’s colorful canvas of sins, the easier it becomes for those whose suffering is used as its decoration. Do not convince yourself that tragedies like these occur far away or are caused by someone from far away, or allow others to define it as such. As this epidemic spreads, 1000 miles away becomes 100 miles away, which becomes 10 miles away, until you’ve found yourself as part of the ugly story.
So I share.
Andrew Sun is a Trinity junior. This column was originally published on his Substack platform and edited according to The Chronicle's style guidelines.
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