Important Messages in Troubled Times from Our 2020 High School Essay Contest Winners
A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence
June 7, 2020
Last December, when we announced the opening of our 2020 Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest, we couldn’t have imagined that by the deadline for students to enter the contest in mid-April, high school campuses across our country would be closed and much of the United States would be in a state of “lockdown” in response to a global pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. Nor could we have anticipated that by this point in June, when we traditionally announce the contest winners, protests would be occurring not only across our country, but in many other democratic countries as well, in response to yet another death of an unarmed African-American man at the hands of police.
Although our country’s attention is presently focused on other weighty issues, I believe that fostering and rewarding critical thinking among high school age youth on the issue of gun violence prevention and providing students with a platform to publicly express their views is now as important - if not more so - than ever.
More than 100,000 U.S. residents have died due in part, at least, to infection with COVID-19, but most of these deaths have occurred in older adults or people with other serious underlying medical conditions. The virus has caused little morbidity and mortality in children and high school age youth, yet in many ways, our children and youth have been the ones most adversely affected by the dramatic measures, including school closures, taken in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, gun violence disproportionately affects our children and our youth. The rate of gun-related deaths in American children under the age of 15 was reported more than two decades ago to be 12 times higher than the rate in other high income democratic countries of the world, and more recently, the rate of gun related homicides in high school age youth was reported to be 82 times higher. Despite these appalling statistics and multiple horrific school mass shootings over the past several decades, we’ve taken no definitive action to protect our children and youth from gun violence. This fact has not been lost on our essay contest winners.
The African American man, George Floyd, who died in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers on May 25, was not killed by a policeman’s bullet, but rather by a policeman’s knee pressed against his neck with enough force to obstruct his airway for almost nine minutes while he lay on the ground in handcuffs. It is sickening to watch the cell phone videos of Floyd’s death, which show a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, continuing to press Floyd’s face and neck into the pavement with his knee even after Floyd shows no signs of life and bystanders are heard yelling at Chauvin and the other three officers to release their hold on Floyd and check his pulse. Chauvin has been appropriately charged with murder, and the other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder. But while we should all be horrified by the murder of George Floyd, and while we should also be deeply concerned about the many other killings of unarmed African American men by white police officers – usually with guns - in recent years, we should not lose sight of the facts that gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death in African American males between the ages of 15 and 34; that the vast majority of these fatal shootings are committed by other civilians, not by law enforcement officers; and that on an average day in the United States, 22 African Americans are murdered with guns.
The murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests have all occurred after the deadline for students to enter our 2020 essay contest, but the extraordinarily high rate of gun related deaths in the African American community was noted in an article published in April of 2000 in which the American Academy of Pediatrics issued the following position statement, which we used as the prompt for our 2020 essay contest:
Firearm regulations, to include bans of handguns and assault weapons, are the most effective way to reduce firearm-related injuries.
George Floyd himself was concerned about the problem of gun violence within the African American community. Two separate heart-wrenching videos that Floyd appears to have recorded on his own cell phone some time prior to his death have been posted online in the past few days. In both videos, Floyd speaks into the cell phone as if he’s talking to the viewer. In one video, he states:
I don’t even know what to say anymore. You youngsters just going around busting guns in crowds, kids getting killed.
In the second video, he acknowledges his own “shortcomings” and “flaws,” and pleads:
But these shootings going on, man, I don’t care what hood you from, man, where you at, man…put them guns down, man.
There is no excuse for the murder of George Floyd, but other information that has come to light following his death concerning the “shortcomings” and “flaws” to which he refers in the second video include the fact that prior to moving to Minnesota, he served a prison term in Texas for an armed robbery that he committed with a handgun. It’s possible that Floyd’s own life may have followed a much different course had the stringent gun control regulations advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics two decades ago been promptly adopted. But whether or not the adoption of such laws would have led to a better life for George Floyd, as the students point out in their essays, bans of handguns and assault weapons would have prevented hundreds of thousands of firearm-related deaths and injuries, including numerous horrific mass shootings, over the past two decades.
The winning essays are posted on the High School Essay Contest page of this website. The essays themselves - in which students describe how they have been personally affected by gun violence and how they are resolved to stop a deadly epidemic that older generations should have stopped decades ago - are heart wrenching. But rather than me describing the essays any more in this message, I suggest that you read the essays yourself. And if you’re as moved by the essays as I am, I hope you’ll join me in resolving to redouble our efforts to stop our country’s shameful epidemic of gun violence.
Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence
 “Rates of Homicide, Suicide, and Firearm-Related Death among Children--26 Industrialized Countries,” MMWR: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46, no. 5 (1997): 101–5.
 Ashish P. Thakrar et al., “Child Mortality In The US And 19 OECD Comparator Nations: A 50-Year Time-Trend Analysis,” Health Affairs 37, no. 1 (January 2018): 140–49, https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2017.0767.
 Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention Executive Committee, “Firearm-Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population,” Pediatrics 130, no. 5 (November 2012): e1416–23, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-2481.
 Combining data on fatal police shootings compiled by the Washington Post and data on all fatal gunshot wounds compiled by the CDC reveals that police shootings account for about 3% of gun homicides in African Americans. “Police Shootings 2017 Database,” Washington Post, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/; “Fatal Injury Data | WISQARS | Injury Center | CDC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/fatal.html.
 Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, “Firearm-Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population,” Pediatrics 105, no. 4 (April 1, 2000): 888–95.
 Yaron Steinbuch, “George Floyd Calls for an End to Gun Violence in Resurfaced Video,” New York Post (blog), May 28, 2020, https://nypost.com/2020/05/28/george-floyd-called-on-younger-generation-to-end-gun-violence/.
 Marlene Lenthang, “Video Emerges of George Floyd Calling for the End of Gun Violence,” Mail Online, June 4, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8389949/Hearbreaking-video-emerges-George-Floyd-calling-end-gun-violence.html.
 “George Floyd Moved to Minneapolis for a New Start,” Daily Mail.com, May 28, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8366533/George-Floyd-moved-Minneapolis-start-new-life-released-prison-Texas.html.