Gun safety expert warns how crucial Gen Z’s vote will be in 2024 US presidential election

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Jan 26, 2024 at 12:27 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Gun violence is an incredibly divisive topic, one that often dominates headlines and creates tension within society. There’s rarely a day that goes by where we aren’t shown in some way that this subject matter is an inherently polarising issue. In fact, its relevance is playing out right now, as 45-year-old Jennifer Crumbley stands trial for having failed to stop her son from carrying out a deadly school shooting in Michigan in 2021—the first time anyone has ever been charged on these grounds. The ongoing trial, which could see Crumbley face up to 15 years in prison, blatantly proves how necessary it is for us to start actively listening to the gun safety movement.

A 2023 YouGov poll found that 55 per cent of Gen Z and millennials in the US believe that gun laws should be more restrictive. In schools across the US, children are taught from an early age how to hide from an on-site active shooter. Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the country, having increased by 87.1 per cent over a ten-year period.

Giffords is an organisation dedicated to ending the gun lobby’s stronghold in Washington, raising awareness and spreading legitimate unbiased information about gun safety, and ultimately changing the narrative about firearms in the US.

The organisation is led and spearheaded by Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head during a constituent event in 2011. Following a strenuous journey of attempting to regain her ability to speak and walk, Giffords directed all of her attention to the gun safety movement and has helped in electing a cohort of gun safety champions in local, state, and federal races.

Gun violence and gun safety are incredibly polarising issues and more often than not, the debates surrounding them are unproductive. That’s where things need to change.

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With the 2024 US presidential election heating up, it’s time we start having more conversations about just how important gun safety is, how Gen Zers are helping to push the movement forward, and how crucial it is that we re-focus our attention onto the monumental work that’s already been done as well as what more needs to be achieved.

I recently had a conversation with Gifford’s deputy political director, Kevin O’Keefe, about both his work at the organisation and also his thoughts on the future of gun safety in the US.

O’Keefe has been at Giffords for just over three years now, but he’s been politically engaged his whole life: “Growing up, my parents were very much always interested in politics. And so, we spent a lot of time in my formative years having those conversations. We are from Chicago, so there was a lot going on with the election of Barack Obama, first as our home state senator, and then as president.”

“Then in college, after studying political science, I decided to move to [Washington] DC because I wanted to make a difference. My senior year of college was during the 2016 election when we saw Donald Trump be sent to office and I wanted to make a difference and bring some positive light and uplift the voices of people living in the Midwest, like myself,” O’Keefe continued.

Following this, the Chicago native worked on Capitol Hill for a few years for several different members of Congress, one of which happened to represent the community of Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the devastating Sandy Hook school shooting.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 shook the entire nation. Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children. O’Keefe explained how working within that community drew him to the gun safety movement.

Pushing the gun safety movement forward

When choosing Giffords, O’Keefe noted how it was the organisation’s “holistic approach” that initially attracted him: “We talk to everyone, we activate gun owners. We talk to different communities across the country in all 50 states, and I really like their approach. This is an issue that, unfortunately, we’ve seen really play out in the public space in recent years with so many of these tragic shootings, as well as the everyday violence in cities across the country. So I really was interested in wanting to do more and to help make our community safer.”

Actively engaging with gun owners, while frowned upon by some, is an important aspect of the gun safety movement. A lot of commonsense gun safety laws are supported by a majority of firearms owners and so it’s imperative that organisations actively communicate with these blocs of voters.

Speaking about the changes he’s seen over the years, O’Keefe stated: “We just celebrated our ten-year anniversary this past year. And looking back at where we were when we were founded just after the Sandy Hook shooting, to now, there’s been a huge change. Ten years ago, gun safety was an issue that was very, very polarised, due to many factors, chief among them, the corporate gun lobby, and the NRA really wielding a lot of outsized power over our legislators, something that sustained a lot of inaction on this issue.”

“That said, over the last decade, because of all of the tragedies that we’ve seen, you know, in places like Parkland, Florida and Uvalde, Texas, a lot of hearts and minds have changed on the issue. And I think we’re at a place where we’re finally able to get past a lot of that polarisation that we see on issues and just in our political system at large,” the director continued.

There has been genuine change over the past decade, and while it is still not nearly enough to curb the shootings that still occur to this day, it’s something to be championed. In 2022, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was passed, making it the first federal gun control legislation enacted in almost 30 years. The bill implemented several changes to the mental health system, school safety programmes, and gun control laws.

Speaking on this monumental legislation, O’Keefe noted: “A statistic that we talk about at Giffords is that, at the current rate that we’re going, every single person in the US will know someone who, at least in some way, is touched by gun violence in the next few years. As people kind of have those personal experiences, I do think it changes hearts and minds. And we’re starting to see that—we work in different states across the country, and even in red and purple states in the last few years, we’ve been able to really make some progress. So I think views are changing.”

How is Gen Z making a difference in the gun safety movement?

One of the topics I wanted to touch upon in our discussion was the role Gen Z have played in the gun safety movement, and indeed, how they’re going to keep the ball rolling.

As far as O’Keefe is concerned, Gen Z is the generation to ignite a fire under this fight: “The young people in this country have really borne the brunt of this epidemic of violence in recent years, to the point where we hear shocking stories all the time of kids going to school every day, and being trained in lockdown procedures, which is, frankly, unacceptable. Young people are very activated, they are giving us so much hope in this country because they’re really the ones who are challenging some of these norms that have caused so much inaction for years.”

And this kind of activation will become evident in the upcoming 2024 elections. One observation O’Keefe mentioned was how he felt as though, in previous generations, there’s been a lot of voter apathy. But Gen Zers are registering to vote the second they can, and it’s not just on presidential years—they’re showing up at the polls every single time.

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