18 y.o. Santa Clarita organizer on March for Our Lives & gun violence ‘dread’
This Sunday, June 11, March for Our Lives will convene its second set of nationwide marches against gun violence – especially in U.S. schools. The first came in 2018 after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead and 17 injured. This year’s marches were spurred by last month’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead and 17 injured. The 2022 edition will include dozens of marches throughout California. For your nearest march, visit here or text MARCH to 954-954.
Nick Nyein is co-leading the march in downtown Los Angeles. Nyein recently graduated from Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita. His team’s march is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. It will depart from Grand Park at 200 N. Grand Ave., make its way to Pershing Square and finish at City Hall Park. The 18-year-old took time out from his busy organizing duties to answer a few questions from SactoPolitico.com.
SACTO POLITICO: How did you decide to get involved with March for Our Lives as an organizer?
NICK NYEIN: My personal story of getting involved happened when I heard there would be marches nationwide on June 11 and a Los Angeles march. I reached out immediately. Thankfully, I kind of knew an area organizer, and I offered my help and support. I didn’t know exactly what I would be helping with, but I knew very, very clearly that I wanted to be part of this organization. And now I stand here as a co-lead after just reaching out right away.
I have, I guess, a little political organizing experience. My previous experience has involved social justice and social awareness. For example, I am very passionate about social justice and social awareness for the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community because I am an Asian American myself.
In terms of March of Our Lives, it is interesting. I didn’t march back in 2018. I was only 14, and I only knew so much about March for Our Lives, gun violence, and social issues around the county back then. But now four years later, I find myself 18 and way more socially aware. I think that it is very reflective of many youth in the country right now. In 2018, they weren’t so socially aware, and they were just starting to get familiar with issues such as gun violence. They had just heard about the Parkland shooting, and now they are 18 and able to vote and able to mobilize and use our voices to demand change.
S/P: What is your main message for the public, and what action do you hope all the national marches help achieve?
NN: In my mind, one of the biggest issues within our country is political polarization. I think gun violence or gun control is a real good example of that. Many of us are under the illusion that we are each other’s enemies, that the left or the right are enemies because so what and so forth. But it is important to understand, as a whole, we are not enemies. Instead, it is rather gun violence that is the enemy that we are all trying to mutually solve.
Thus the main goal for the march is for us to mobilize ourselves to find some sense of similarity. Because I think in many ways we all forget at the end of the day we all want our friends, family and loved ones to come home safe, and gun violence is the common threat to that hope. We can come together, and this doesn’t need to be an issue that divides us. It can be an issue we come together and solve.
S/P: Where were you when you heard about the Uvalde shooting, and what have been your impressions of this sad event?
NN: I remember I was at home, on my phone. I saw my news app notify me of the Uvalde shooting. I remember just feeling a sense of so much dread. I stopped breathing for a second, and my heart felt like it stopped in my chest for a moment. Then as I scrolled down and read more, the dread and grief kept building and building, understanding this was an elementary school with so much lost life.
There was also shock, but then so much frustration to see so much innocent life lost to an issue that has been so prevalent in our society for a while. We could have potentially prevented this. Those were the frustrations and emotions I immediately felt.
I have spent a lot of time in high school working with people younger than me and on service projects to facilitate student leadership. So when I see a shooting like the Uvalde shooting, what comes to mind is not just the perception of the loss of life but more the loss of opportunity. Because when you lose such young lives to gun violence, we are also losing so many future leaders, so many future careers. I think of how much future happiness we have lost through those lives. There is so much collateral damage when you lose that one life, and that is really motivating me.
S/P: How has gun violence personally affected you?
NN: My most personal connection was a school shooting at another Santa Clarita high school in November 2019. This was Saugus High School, which is located 20 minutes away from in the same school district. While it wasn’t my school, it definitely shook the community of Santa Clarita in such a substantial way. There was a communal loss of innocence from that event. Many of us probably just assumed, “Oh, that couldn’t happen to us. What’s the odds it ever happening to us? Santa Clarita is so safe. It could never be us.”
But then it actually happened, and our worst nightmare came true. I think many of us left November 2019 with so much fear in our minds. You always assume it is never going to be us until it is far too late. All of us can’t hear the names Gracie or Dominic without having this great grief of loss in our community.
[Gracie and Dominic were the two students randomly killed at the high school by a 16-year-old student. Three other students were also hospitalized. A Saugus High School teacher published this OpEd in 2019 in the Washington Post.]
S/P: How important is this issue for your generation, and do you even view it as a “generational” issue?
NN: I think when you are part of my generation there is a different sense of perspective and experience of the epidemic of gun violence. In many ways, our experience of gun violence isn’t just about seeing it on the news or hearing about it in different states and cities. It’s part of this underlining constant fear we as a generation are experiencing. I know time and time again within my own school and among my own classmates and peers, there is this slight feeling of unease. You could ask anybody, and you can confirm they have thought, “Okay, what do I do when that very fateful day comes?”
So many of my own peers will very quickly jump or be startled when they hear any sound that imitates a gun sound. That reflects this constant sense of dread we have, and that fear is part of the divide in generational perspective. You regularly walk into school wondering if today is potentially the day it could happen.
We have lockdown or active shooter drills once or twice a year. As I’ve gone from elementary school to middle school to high school, there has been a constant upping of the security and awareness. This reflects the growing sense of fear. The security measures have kept getting upped and upped and upped. I have seen how exasperated my teachers have been that they had to prepare elementary students for what to do if there were active shooters and not just what to do in the case of a fire or an earthquake. It’s an exasperation that this is the reality in our country.
S/P: Most school shootings involved a current or recent student. Does that color students’ attitudes about who among their peers could be a future threat?
NN: I think in some ways, yes. It is always in the back of everyone’s minds. There have been instances in my school career when there have been false alarms or threats made to the school. Or people have said, “Hey. I don’t think we should go to school tomorrow because someone has posted something very alarming on their social media.”
It’s all part of the underlining fear. You are always watching for the signs of that very alarming post on social media or threat to the school. Some people can get very bold on social media. That can translate into very alarming, threatening messages, whether it was intended or not. That’s why we’ve seen a lot of alerts surrounding social media messages.
S/P: Among your classmates, is gun control a partisan issue or does it cut across traditional left-right divides among your peers?
NN: In some ways, it crosses left-right divides, but creating a metric to measure how much it crosses the divide is somewhat difficult. That’s because not everyone my age is very politically affiliated or involved, but I think regardless of anyone’s political stance, it feels like an issue for all of us for the sake of our lives.
S/P: Gallup has reported its polling shows more than 40% of U.S. households own at least one gun. Do you find that figure mind-boggling or does it sound about right to you?
NN: I find the statistic slightly mindboggling, but then maybe that just reflects my growing up where I grew up. I guess I can reason that statistic just reflects other communities across the United States that I am not familiar with.
So it is both mindboggling and maybe almost reasonable and not super shocking when you consider how many guns are out there and how accessible guns are. It is a very weird dichotomy. I can reason it, but there’s part of me that is surprised the number is that high.
S/P: Given so many households own a gun, does that affect the practicality of lobbying for gun “control” versus abolition of all or some types of guns?
NN: I think it definitely does affect my view of what public policy legislation could be passed. I spoke about this earlier. I think the best way to approach the issue of gun violence as an epidemic in our country isn’t by further polarizing ourselves. Instead, we should try to come to this middle on policy. I think in many ways you can achieve the end of gun violence without having to entirely restrict or abolish all gun ownership.
March for Our Lives as an organization definitely proclaims this. There are many holistic approaches we can adopt to lower the threat of gun violence that doesn’t necessarily involve just getting rid of all guns in the world. Whether that is screening all gun buyers – which is widely agreed upon by both gun owners and those who aren’t gun owners – or even addressing economic equity and poverty disparities and mental health disparities within our society. We just need to be willing to come together with a sense of moderation to come up with legislation that can really benefit all of us.
S/P: Any final thoughts?
NN: I hope these marches can serve as a call to action to all youth out there. Our youth are all capable of making change in our communities, regardless how old we are or how qualified we might feel. I genuinely do feel that when it comes to making a difference in this world, it’s never a question whether you have something to offer this world, it’s whether or not you choose to make a contribution to this world. As someone who is relatively young myself, I do believe regardless of your background and experiences, we all have this capacity to make a difference and use our voice.