Memorial near the football field for 17-year-old Calour Fields, who died because of gun violence. (Bob Adamek)
Memorial near the football field for 17-year-old Calour Fields, who died because of gun violence.

Bob Adamek

Community deals with aftermath of gun violence

June 9, 2023


Students and other individuals holding a sign written “prom not funerals, books not obituaries, essays not eulogies, kids not guns. (Photos courtesy of the Black Student Union)

Seniors and siblings, Jayla Walker and Jayden Walker helped set up a march along with other BSU students. Senior Jayla Walker spoke on the effect of gun violence on her, and her community. 

 “[Gun violence] affected me in having to deal with my friend losing her brother to gun violence and I’ve seen it happen. It’s affected me because we’ve lost friends to gun violence,” Walker said. 

Walker thought the protest would be a great way to bring attention to the issue she supported and cared about. 

“I feel like we needed to come together as a community, a protest was a good way, and I knew it would get publicity so everyone was seeing it even if not everyone was there. If they looked at the news they would see that we were trying to change something,” Walker said. 

Promoting conversations in Harrisonburg about gun violence rather than ignoring or forgetting about it is important to Walker. 

“I don’t want Harrisonburg to throw it under the rug, let’s realize that gun violence is a thing in Harrisonburg. Let’s realize that guns are not used for protection, it’s now used off of impulse, so it’s taking away children from them, and I don’t believe guns are for protection because of all the cases we’ve had here, for really dumb reasons,” Walker said. 

Harrisonburg is commonly known as the ‘friendly city’, highlighting the friendliness of the small college community. Walker advocates for the shifting of this perspective and looking at the small town and all aspects of violence that affect the community. 

“We have to take it seriously, Harrisonburg wasn’t like this before so why are we like that now? I feel like Harrisonburg tries to act like we’re just this safe, quiet town, but it’s turning into something different.

— Senior Jayla Walker

Being black, Walker shares experience of being black and experiencing gun violence. 

“It’s kind of hard to get away from gun violence when it’s everywhere but, I feel like black people worry about getting shot on the street or at a party, or by a police officer even so it’s kind of like you just have to be aware and that’s about it. People are getting  shot for just being black. So there isn’t much you can do,” Walker said. 

Sophomore Ava Nelson is also a student in HHS speaking for speaking on the experiences of the youth to the relation of gun violence”

“[Gun violence] has taken a friend from me and I’ve watched all of my friends who were very close to him grieve that. It’s very hard to go through something like that. It’s not something that would [be] expect[ed] one day they’re there and the next they’re not,” Nelson said. 

Nelson preferred to look for more positivity than negativity when discussing gun violence in the community. 

“It’s made me more positive in general because it’s made me realize that there are things happening in this world that are so out of our control and as a whole we started off more negatively but that situation and everything that went on has brought us more together and especially me it’s made me more concerned about my friends and how they’re doing and their mental health. That plays into the factor of it all,” Nelson said.  

Reflecting on the process of getting guns, Nelson found herself wishing there to be more restrictions on obtaining guns. 

“I feel like the process for being able to handle a firearm should be a lot harder. If I had the ability I would definitely start looking into it because there’s been more mass shootings than days in the year. It’s upsetting and it’s usually in schools and we’re all kids and we don’t get to experience life and everything that comes with it,” Nelson said.

She addressed a pattern of thought that she felt needed to have a shift because of the violence that has occurred because of violence. 

“We’re all just worried about what will happen when we go places and being safe when realistically we should just be worried about having fun and enjoying ourselves because we’re kids.

— Sophomore Ava Nelson


Reinterpreted meaning of safety for students 

HHS had a lock down May 22nd during the lockdown students weren’t notified of the reason. This lockdown occurred during lunch which was not something that had been practiced in lockdown drills. Sophomore Mani Stallworth was in the library when the whole thing happened. Her immediate thoughts were that there was an active shooter. 

“I immediately thought it was a person with a gun, we’ve been on a lot of lockdowns this year. And as soon as the first one happened towards the beginning of the second quarter I’ve been on high alert this whole year, [with] very bad anxiety,” Stallworth said.  “I was in the library and we were in this room and they turned all of the lights off, and then a hour or so passed with everyone talking just really loudly, and then the police yelled from outside ‘everyone get on the ground’ everyone in my classroom dropped to the floor, because we were all terrified.” 

When that happened she felt a panic attack coming in the middle of the lockdown. 

“I was having a bad panic attack, but I didn’t want to get made fun of or have the attention on me. It was the worst experience I’ve had in my life,” Stallworth said. 

Stallworth felt more anxiety because of the lack of communication between the school and the students during the lockdown. 

“When [I was] in a lockdown it was terrible because they didn’t give us any information about whether someone had a gun or some sort of weapon, they just put us all in a room,” Stallworth said. 

Criticisms were addressed towards the level of information students were allowed during the lockdown.  

“They don’t have to tell us every little detail because that can cause a big panic surge and cause chaos which can badly affect us but make us aware enough that we don’t have to worry about that part of the threat,” Stallworth said. 

Stallworth believed that there needs to be more information given to students than there was but also recognizes that there is a thin line between giving information that would cause chaos and information that would ease students worries about an active shooter. 

“I’m sure people would still be worried even if it wasn’t a gun but then at least they will be a little bit more at ease because they won’t have to worry about an active shooter in the building,” Stallworth said.  

During the lockdown there seemed to be more information given outside of the school and to non-students than to the students. Stallworth even saw individuals on Facebook discussing what was going on in the school during the lockdown. The Facebook group was the City of Harrisonburg’s Facebook page. 

“When we were in lockdown they sent out emails to teachers and parents but they didn’t tell us anything but not only that, I was on Facebook and there were people telling exactly what was happening, and I’m like how [do] people who are not even in the school know what’s going on? But we don’t know what’s going on,” Stallworth said. 

After the lockdown, there was one period left of the day. Students were sent back to their fourth block class. During that block the front office had an ongoing chain of parents coming in to pick up their children. In Stallworth’s class, every couple of minutes students would be called down to the attendance office to be picked up. Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) had announced that the school was no longer in lockdown and that everyone was safe. Stallworth was also picked up right after the event. 

“I still don’t want to be here honestly, because even if it wasn’t a gun threat it could have been and someone could have easily just hurt us like that,” Stallworth said.

After coming back to school the next week, Stallworth felt there to be very little conversation about what had happened. 

“It was rare that anyone even talked about it, as if it was just something that passed by and did not have any substantial effect on anybody in this school, it was ridiculous,” Stallworth said. 

Reflecting back on lockdowns Stallworth questioned the safety that lockdowns provided incase of an active shooter. 

“The same kids who are pulling out these guns are the same kids who are going through the lockdowns procedures, you’re giving them a whole layout plan for what we’re doing. And it’s not helping at all, but I don’t know any other way to confront it,” Stallworth said. 

Having a friend outside of the country, Stallworth spoke to the friend about the lockdown wanting to see if people outside the U.S were facing similar issues relating to gun violence. 

“I have a friend, she lives in England. When I told her about a lockdown that happened she was terrified, it made me understand how people from other countries do not experience the same things we do with lockdowns. Because they don’t have issues with gun violence,” Stallworth said.  

A graphic design by sophomore Addison Mason signifying gun violence and how censorship for books is more regulated than guns. (Addison Mason)


An area of reflection

“Gun violence is basically a concept that I don’t really understand. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Like I know what it is obviously, but it shouldn’t be a thing,” Stallworth said. “I’m really sick of guns in general, they’re so dangerous and damaging and violent. They don’t need to be here. There are so many ways you can protect yourself.” 

Black people are twice more likely to be shot and killed than white people and 14 times more likely than white people to get wounded by guns. Stallworth being a black American had a different relationship to gun violence than white children. 

“Because I’m black, my history of gun violence is a bit more different than maybe everyone else, but when I was a kid my mom had a list of rules that we’re supposed to follow. You couldn’t be out late, you definitely could not play with toy guns, no water guns, no any type of guns,” Stallworth said. 

This rule at first was confusing for Stallworth as a little child, but soon she understood the reason behind it. 

“I never really understood why, whenever we would get a gun for a halloween present or something. I remember one time she threw it off a balcony. I was so mad at her, but then I grew up and then I realized people view black kids in a negative light, and they’re scared of them already,” Stallworth said. 

As Stallworth got older she continued to see the reasoning behind this strict rule.

“Having any type of thing that can signify a weapon, gives them a [bigger] reason to fear us. And when people are scared they do crazy stuff. She didn’t want us to be in danger, she didn’t want us to be hurt because we lived in a poor income place. It was kind of dangerous with crime. Any sight of any gun even if it did not look real could probably set off someone, and they would attack us,” Stallworth said. 

Advocating against gun rights was something important to Stallworth after life experiences along with learning more about gun violence. 

“When you advocate gun rights you are already promoting violence in itself. That already takes the lives of many children that we have in the world. Which is the base of our community, those children will grow up to be important people in our community and they will have kids who will grow up to be those people, and so on.

— Sophomore Mani Stallworth

An unquantifiable topic is the mental health of those who are exposed to gun violence. While there might be a common belief that only those who have directly witnessed 

gun violence suffer from mental health issues, this is not true. Gun violence has a ripple effect in the community and beyond that, the threat of violence on individuals lives daily in schools and out is enough to cause stress and other disorders.  

The American Psychology Association found in 2018, 75% of individuals aged between 15-21 say mass shootings are a significant source of stress. 

“People already say it’s not a good thing being exposed to all this violence, video games, books, so why is that everyday that they’re already exposed to violence, but they don’t do anything about it,” Stallworth said. 

Social media has also been a driving force in the debate between restricting guns or allowing them to be obtainable despite the harm they cause because of the Second Amendment right. Stallworth herself saw the worst of the debate on social media. 

“I remember seeing this tiktok, and this guy was asking this other guy if you knew you could save a kid’s life if you banned a gun, would you do it? And he said let the kid die. And that really put it in perspective for me, if you don’t understand how people feel about kids now you can clearly tell now,” Stallworth said. 

Despite anything, Stallworth supports the view of looking at guns as a weapon of destruction. She also criticizes government officials for not addressing the problem of gun violence more often.  

“A gun is a weapon regardless of how you use it to protect or harm and weapons are dangerous.When you look at a gun it still should be looked at as a weapon of destruction rather than anything else and they like to stop anything else that doesn’t have any harm in our communities, but when it comes to a physical thing killing people they don’t care,” Stallworth said. 


A community solution to gun violence: Operation Ceasefire

Virginia—-In one average year, 1,019 people die from gun violence and 2,050 are wounded from gun-related violence. This makes Virginia number 29 in gun violence in the nation. Many solutions have been proposed by lawmakers to reduce gun violence. Some include restricting gun violence or increasing law enforcement involvement in places where violence is a high risk. Operation Ceasefire is another proposed solution to address gun violence that prioritizes rehabilitation and prevention. 

Operation Ceasefire was first introduced in 1996 in Boston as, Boston Gun Project and the Boston Miracle. It was used as a “city-wide strategy aimed at deterring juvenile and gang firearm violence,” according to the Office of Justice programs. 

The United States Attorney’s Office stated that when Operation Ceasefire was implemented in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, gun-related homicides decreased 25-60%, showing that this type of program could potentially decrease gun violence. 

Many supported the program, including Republican Delegate Tony Wilt, who represents Harrisonburg and Rockingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. Wilt is also the Chairman of the House of Public Safety Committee. 

Wilt is a sponsor of Operation Ceasefire and advocates for this program to be used in the nation as a way to address gun violence. He is a supporter of the second amendment and seeks to find a balance between targeting gun violence and letting law- abiding citizens obtain guns.The National Gang Center published in 2021 that Operation Ceasefire was responsible for a 63% decrease in youth homicides. Wilt sees this to be proof of the effectiveness of Operation Ceasefire. Wilt continues to explain the way the program works. 

“Operation Ceasefire [is] a proven program that’s been successful in communities across the nation in combating gun violence. In one instance in the city of Boston, it was implemented there and there was a reduction in gun violence,” Wilt said. 

Wilt describes the program to be based on prevention and making sure that those who are likely to commit gun violence, do not. 

“The attorney’s general office, your local law enforcement and community non-partisan groups focus on gang and violence. Harrisonburg law enforcement and everyone involved knows the individuals who are there. It targets those folks and offers them a lot of hand up opportunities to change the direction of their lives, maybe it’s further education or helping them get out of the gang scene, but making it clear if they continue the path that they’re on, there [are] strict consequences,” Wilt said. “We’re very fortunate to live in the area we’re in. Considering other areas, granted we’re not as big, even looking percentage-wise, per capita, we just don’t struggle with those types of crimes as other areas do. Like bigger cities, we just don’t have that here.”

Operation Ceasefire targets rehabilitation as a form of prevention. The program announces a three-step strategy, intervention, suppression, prevention and outreach. 

Intervention in which Wilt spoke of law enforcement involvement. Suppression is the promise of consequence. Prevention and outreach focuses on offering opportunities for high-risk individuals to steer away from crime and violence. Operation Ceasefire is different because of its lack of gun restrictions and support for the Second Amendment. 

“There has to be a balance. [The Second Amendment] guarantees to law-abiding citizens, if they follow the law, to be able to obtain and have gun ownership, and possess guns and so forth, but to address criminal activities in a way that does not infringe on the huge, huge majority of all the other citizens that are law abiding, and that do not abuse their second amendment right, to protect them,” Wilt said. 

Wilt also points out that there are already laws in place to restrict those who use guns in violent ways. 

“Individuals who have been involved in criminal activities involving firearms, there is a plethora of gun laws on the books already that would then if they were caught in whatever form of fashion using those firearms, that right is taken away from them,” Wilt said. 

In Virginia, the funding for the program has been supported by Governor Younkin.

“Last year we put in the budget five million dollars to get the program kicked off, and this year, I know governor Younkin has proposed a 20 million dollar increase into that, that’s huge. That would go into the communities, and into various groups and it will go into the implementation of operation Ceasefire. The governor and I believe all legislators are committed to addressing gun violence,” Wilt said. 

Despite the successes of the program, there is still conversations and debate around the involvement of law enforcement in the program. A program focused on targeting gun violence through law enforcement sparks discussion of the role of police in it. 

“Well we know from the past there can be bad law enforcement officers. But what we’ve discovered is that in some communities, have tried and aired in the wrong direction to try and say that all law enforcement, and that is totally obscured and that’s been proven out,” Wilt said. 

Wilt believes that law enforcement should play a role in Operation Ceasefire, and that support for law enforcement should be strengthened. 

“We need to support [police officers]. We need to give them the tools and give them the training. [We have to] be careful that we don’t second guess them, it’s not me that’s there and [ I don’t]  have to make a split second decision in a life threatening situation. The folks that would say this program is bad because it focuses on law enforcement, it offers every opportunity but it follows it up with a strong enforcement, and that’s the way to go.

— Delegate Tony Wilt

Besides Operation Ceasefire, Wilt supports looking at a bigger picture when it comes to gun violence. 

“I think it’s crucial to look at the big picture. You got to look at the big picture of gun violence. But then you break it down and what are the factors, what are the factors that lead to gun violence. That’s a very important key here,” Wilt said. 

There is a particular aspect that Wilt finds to be a key player in gun violence. 

“Another thing, we’ve seen some increase in gun violence, but why? The thing that can’t escape us, is the issue of mental health, and what we’re seeing in that arena.When you want to fix a problem you have to look at the cause and so forth, so just guns being in the hands of bad people, that can be a cause but also the issue of mental health,” Wilt said. 

Support for mental health resources and policies seems to be something Wilt considers to address the bigger picture of gun violence. 

“We’re trying to work on more and more for the last number of the years, more and more money going into mental health. Trying to make more for our community services, Training for our law enforcement to see individuals, and be able to recognize individuals who are in crisis so that they can de-escalate the situation before it turns and gets bad,” Wilt said.  

Mental health has been a constant key player in conversations surrounding gun violence. However research has shown that there are stronger players. An increased risk of gun violence has been tied to a “history of violence, including domestic violence; use of alcohol or illegal drugs; being young and male; and/or a personal history of physical or sexual abuse or trauma”.. However mental health does play a big part in relation of violence which leads to suicide.

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