These Students Get It: Announcing the Winners of our 2019 National High School Essay Contest

A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence

Over the past 10 days, we’ve been receiving acknowledgements to the congratulatory notices that we sent to the winners of our 2019 Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest. The last acknowledgement from one of our top 12 winners came in on Thursday. I was looking forward to sending out an announcement of this year’s winners to our supporters this weekend, but then the Virginia Beach Municipal Center mass shooting occurred on Friday afternoon, and I turned my attention to sending out a press release concerning this latest tragic spike in the ongoing U.S. epidemic of gun violence.

I was wondering today if it would be appropriate to send out the announcement of our essay contest winners so soon after the Virginia Beach mass shooting, at a time when our nation was still in mourning. Then I reread some of the students’ essays and compared what the students had written with the statements that have appeared in the media from various elected officials and other purportedly authoritative sources concerning the Virginia Beach mass shooting and the innumerable other mass shootings that have preceded it. I came to the conclusion that there was no better time to publish the students’ essays.

These students get it. Most older members of our society who are quoted in the news or interviewed on TV and radio after these tragedies seem to have no clue as to why the United States is the only high income democratic country in the world in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis; or if they do have a clue, they don’t have the courage to admit that they know why the United States is such an extraordinary outlier or to acknowledge the need for the adoption of stringent gun control laws to stop the shameful epidemic of gun violence that afflicts our country.

The prompt for the 2019 Americans Against Gun Violence National High School Essay Contest was the following excerpt from the majority opinion written by the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1980 case of Lewis v. United States:

The Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”


In their essays, students tended to focus on school shootings, which is understandable and appropriate, given that high school age youth in the United States are murdered by guns at a rate that is 82 times higher than in the other high income democratic countries of the world;[2] and that between 2009 and 2018, there were 288 school shootings in our country as compared with just five school shootings in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom combined.[3]

We initially announced that we would be awarding a total of $15,000 distributed among twelve winners. After reading all of this year’s entries, however, we decided that there were so many compelling essays that we would increase the total amount of awards to $16,200, distributed among 24 winners. We also decided to create a separate High School Essay Contest page on the Americans Against Gun Violence website dedicated to posting the winning essays, including the winning essays from last year’s contest.

Rather than list the winners and links to their essays in this message, I’ll refer you to the new High School Essay Contest page on our website. Here are a few excerpts, though, from some of this year’s winners:

From a student in Ardsley, New York:

Only in the United States of America do students fear for their lives every day because of senseless, preventable gun violence…. Our country must not continue to look away from the truth: the truth that guns are killing innocent people, the truth that gun violence in the United States is much more common than in other developed countries, and the truth that the Second Amendment was never intended to guarantee a right of everyday citizens to own murder machines.

From a student in Concord, New Hampshire:

You hear someone drop a book and you hear a loud noise and somewhere in the back of your mind as a 16-year-old hearing about these things you wonder, where’s the nearest exit? And do I need to be worried for my safety right now? This feeling is the sad reality of American school life.

From a student in San Diego, California:

Where gun advocates see lack of regulations as preservation of their “freedom,” I see chaos as bullets fly through buildings and children lie on the floor. They see themselves as their forefathers fighting against tyranny, but I see people purchasing war-grade ammunition on a whim, inflicting senseless violence…. They see their constitution protecting their right to bear arms, but I see The Declaration of Independence declaring our right to life, liberty, and happiness.…”A well-regulated militia.” I wonder why I cannot see… Where was this militia as bullets took the lives of children at school?

From a student in Scarsdale, New York:

Every morning at 8 am my sister and I go to school. Every morning we sit in the car, chatting about our assignments and tests. And every morning, as my sister and I part ways, an almost subconscious thought crosses my mind: “Will we be OK at the end of the day?” I am sixteen years old, still learning my place in the world, and yet I have the additional daily burden of worrying whether my life, or the life of my sister, will be added to those sacrificed on the altar of the “right to bear arms.” 

From a student in West Liberty, Ohio:

We, as students, are worried. We pause and laugh nervously at the drop of a book, we hold our breath each time the office interrupts class over the speakers….New Zealand’s prompt response to the Christchurch mass shooting is an embarrassment to the United States. It’s appalling that our nation has yet to institute meaningful reform. Federal inaction has allowed for similar events to splinter lives and provoke tragedy upon tragedy. Our representatives in government have yielded to the influence of special interest groups, and their negligence to pursue a solution has left us all vulnerable.

And from a student in New York, New York:

Our nation’s Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as guaranteeing no right to keep and bear arms that were not related to a well regulated militia….That is, until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. A decision made when I was just 7 years old has set a wildly dangerous precedent for the rest of my life….Somehow, it’s up to me as a student to safeguard and fight for my safety, when the leaders of my country should have done this for me.

As I said, these students get it. I wish that the rest of our country – including our elected officials and the current justices on the Supreme Court – also got it as well as these high school students do.

Please make a tax deductible contribution to the Americans Against Gun Violence essay contest fund, if you’re able, to help ensure that we’ll not only be able to continue to offer the essay contest in future years, but that we’ll be able to steadily expand both the total number and the total monetary amount of the awards. Please also become an official paid member of Americans Against Gun Violence if you haven’t already done so, and please encourage friends, family members, and colleagues to join as well. And finally, please contact your elected officials and let them know that you expect them to openly advocate and do everything within their power to enact stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws that have long been in effect in every other high income democratic country of the world – countries in which members of society show by their actions, and not just by their words, that they love their children, their other family members, their friends, their colleagues, and their neighbors more than their guns.





Bill Durston, MD

President, Americans Against Gun Violence


Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician and a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, decorated for courage under fire during the Vietnam War.



[1] Lewis v. United States, No. 55 (U.S. 1980).

[2] 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,

[3] “School Shootings in the US Compared with the Rest of the World – CNN,” CNN, May 21, 2018,