‘I need a plan.’ As NRA convention begins, Indianapolis teens share fears about gun violence.

Four high school students stand in a line smiling at the camera.
From left: Purdue Polytechnic High School students Ryan Evans, Seth Harrison, Raina Maiga, and Huma Moghul are planning a walkout in remembrance of the 24th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting on Thursday, April 20. (Chi-Han Cao)

Raina Maiga looked out her school’s windows from the second floor on Thursday, trying to imagine what she would do in a school shooting. 

“I’m hopeless. I can’t jump out the window,” said Maiga, a sophomore at Purdue Polytechnic High School’s Englewood campus on Indianapolis’ east side. “There’s nothing to do. Our school is exposed with windows. If someone walked in here with a gun, I mean, it’s over.” 

These are the conversations that Raina and her classmates have on an almost weekly basis. 

But this week, those conversations are happening with the backdrop of the National Rifle Association’s three-day annual convention, which is expected to bring tens of thousands of attendees to downtown Indianapolis beginning Friday.

The convention for the powerful lobbying organization — and the warm reception from some Indiana lawmakers — feels tone deaf to Indianapolis-area teens who say gun violence in their schools and communities is their reality and fills them with anxiety on a regular basis. 

Ryan Evans, a  Purdue Polytechnic junior,  remembers the day in 2013 that his sister survived the Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado. His classmate Huma Moghul recalls the night she heard gunfire in her neighborhood and woke up to a bullet hole in her living room wall. And they all remember the lockdowns they have experienced this year — anxious moments that they try to ease with dark humor about whether they’d survive if a shooter was outside their door. 

So far this year, eight people age 18 and under in Indianapolis have been killed by a firearm, per the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Sixteen people age 18 and under in the city died by firearms in 2022, up from 14 in 2021. 

Among those who died was a 17-year-old Purdue Polytechnic High School student James Johnson III, who was killed in February.

“Nobody ever thinks that it’s going to happen to them,” said Evans. “And I definitely think that James Johnson didn’t think that as well. Because it’s not a thought that somebody should have.”

Students prepare for school shootings

The NRA annual meeting comes roughly three weeks after a person shot and killed three children and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville. Their deaths sparked outrage during Tennessee’s legislative session, and students rallied for tougher gun laws at the Tennessee State Capitol.

Indiana lawmakers are considering a bill to  provide state funding for firearms training for teachers. Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from Seymour and the bill’s author, said in February his legislation is a response to mass school shootings across the U.S., according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle. 

But to students like Evans and Maiga, that legislation is not the solution. Instead, they say, legislators should stop and think about how the situation is affecting students in schools.

And the onus should not be on schools to arm teachers, or transform buildings into iron fortresses, some students argue. 

“We shouldn’t have to be wanding children into schools to prevent guns from entering schools or teaching them how to evacuate to mobile bomb shelters that can be built in schools,” said Evans.

(The convention also starts on the same day that dozens of Indiana school districts received a bomb threat, prompting the closure of school buildings.) 

Katie Bolduc, a freshman at Westfield High School, said she’s only known a world with gun violence in schools, where active shooter drills are as commonplace as fire and tornado drills. 

“There’s a lot of complacency, it’s something that’s normal and accepted that you have to prepare for,” she said.

But it leaves her feeling unsafe. 

“There are weapons that can cause mass casualties in a few minutes, and all I have is a pencil pouch or a water bottle to throw at the shooter, best-case scenario,” Bolduc said. 

Lucy Rutter, a junior at Burris Laboratory School in Muncie,  said she first started to hear about school shootings in middle school. At that time, it seemed like it wouldn’t happen to her. That’s changed. 

“The more I see it, the more I feel like it is going to happen to me, and I need a plan,” she said. “It’s so hard to hear about it in the news every day and feel like I can’t do anything about it.”

NRA convention in town prompts disappointment from students

Having the NRA convention in their backyard only exacerbates the disconnect between lawmakers and the students who spoke to us.

“I do wonder what the conversations are like when talking about actually caring about the lives of people, but then choosing to be a public face at this convention,” said Maiga, who lamented the scheduled presence of Gov. Eric Holcomb and former Vice President Mike Pence at the convention. 

Students said that having the convention so close to home is a reminder of how tense and politically charged the topic of gun violence prevention is — and of the sway of organizations like the NRA.

Salsabil Qaddoura, a North Central High School sophomore, leads her school’s chapter of Students Demand Action, a national group of high school and college students that aims to end gun violence and is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.

She said the NRA convention has her thinking about gun industry accountability, and how it can profit off of young people. The access to guns is there, she said. 

“It’s disgusting and insensitive,” she said of the NRA coming to Indianapolis.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. 

Students consider how to change views on guns

Being a high schooler means having pressures to fit a certain standard, Qaddoura said. That means students are influenced by what they surround themselves with, and there’s a thought of “if you have guns you have that tough-person persona,” she said.

Students said they want to shift the narrative around guns with their classmates to make having a gun less of a status symbol, and to know that it’s OK to ask for help and to talk about gun-violence prevention. 

In all the years of doing active shooter drills, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher or school officer talk about how we feel, get under the desk and find what you’re going to throw and prepare,” Bolduc said.

She hopes to start a Students Demand Action chapter to change that.

As leaders of their own Students Demand Action chapters, Qaddoura and Rutter have worked to start a discussion about gun violence. They’ve registered voters, signed petitions, and attended protests and other events. 

“A lot of people assume that my only goal is to ban guns, but there are so many other solutions besides banning guns outright,” Rutter said, listing gun safety education, safe storage, background checks, and red flag laws. 

Students at Purdue Polytechnic, meanwhile, are organizing a walkout for April 20, the 24th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Students said they know change can be slow. 

“I always hear that change is gradual,” Qaddoura said. But she added that when it comes to gun violence prevention, “We can’t wait.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

MJ Slaby oversees Chalkbeat Indiana’s coverage as bureau chief and covers higher education. Contact MJ at mslaby@chalkbeat.org.

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