Student, national activists speak on gun violence solutions


Image courtesy of Kathryn Fleisher

Kathryn Fleisher, a senior politics and philosophy and GSWS double major, is the founder of the national gun violence prevention nonprofit Not My Generation.

By Claudia Huggins, For The Pitt News

Kathryn Fleisher has worked for years to bring together young adults to advocate on issues like gun reform. A community panel Monday night against gun violence was only the latest step in that journey.

“I felt like it wasn’t enough for me to sign petitions and vote when I could, I had to do something more,” Fleisher said. “So, I got involved with how the Jewish community was organizing around March For Our Lives.”

About 20 community members, faculty members and students joined together Monday night to attend the Gun Violence Prevention Panel hosted by the Pitt College Democrats in the O’Hara Student Center dining room. The panel included founder and Executive Director of Guns Down America Igor Volsky, Graduate School of Public Health researcher Steven Albert, and Fleisher — a Pitt student and founder of anti-gun violence organization Not My Generation.

President of the Pitt Dems and senior political science major Grace Dubois said Guns Down America reached out to them regarding Volsky’s interest in visiting Pitt’s campus on his college tour.

“We had the call and kind of decided that instead of having one person stand on the stage and talk for an hour, we’d make this more of a conversation with more perspectives and more voices,” Dubois said.

Fleisher began her involvement in gun violence prevention when she founded Not My Generation in 2018, primarily motivated by her involvement with her Jewish youth group.

“I was so intrigued by the way that there seemed to be such a clear path forward, and what it was going to take was creativity, innovation and the courage to actually take that path,” Fleisher said.

Fleisher said her involvement heightened even more after the 2018 Tree of Life massacre hit her own community and motivated her organization’s heavy movement against gun violence.

Volsky said his organization, Guns Down America, was founded in 2016 after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. They primarily have two methods in which they hope to prevent gun violence in the future — to push corporations in helping them achieve their goals and to change the way communities talk about gun violence.

Volsky said “expanding background checks” and “plugging holes in laws” wasn’t enough, and that bolder changes, such as licensing, registration and cracking down on the gun industry will be more constructive.

Albert said he thought his purpose of the panel was to offer a public health perspective of the gun prevention conversation. He compared violence to an infectious disease because of its “seasonality,” and contagious spirit after it’s inflicted.

But Albert referred to many other categories of gun violence that he said often don’t get the attention that mass shootings do.

“We really have multiple epidemics of gun violence. Of the 40,000 or so people a year who are killed from gun violence, two-thirds of them are suicides,” Albert said.

Albert stressed the idea of “changing the norm” behind these violent acts. From a public health perspective, he said changing the ideas communities have about gun violence could help face the “population problem” at hand.

A question from the moderator concerning each panelist’s involvement with gun violence in minority groups prompted responses from Fleisher. She said her organization pushes to showcase all backgrounds against gun violence, and that while pushing for gun reforms with movements and petitions is important, knowing how to approach victims or families of victims is just as important.

“It’s really hard to be there for someone in a moment of need, during a time of tragedy, if you can’t be there for them on a daily basis,” Fleisher said. “If you don’t know enough people to be able to say ‘hi’ to people on the street who don’t look like you, or love like you, or pray like you or believe like you, how are you supposed to comfort someone during the hardest moments of their lives?”

She highlighted her upcoming summit in Washington, D.C., which both she and Volsky will be attending, in which applicants had to be in coalitions in hopes of achieving as many voices from as many different backgrounds as possible.

When it comes to making big changes in gun violence, Fleisher said storytelling and education are the best two ways to get through to the community.

“Storytelling puts a name, a face, a story, a background, an emotional connection to what is so often just a statistic,” Fleisher said.

From a public health perspective, Albert referred to the fact that their mission is primarily to figure out why these things happen and why certain communities are targeted over others. He cited a recent story from Chicago when a seven-year-old girl was shot and injured while trick-or-treating after a suspected gang-related incident.

Albert also referenced the changed idea of cigarettes. Albert said there were a lot of steps that were taken to combat smoking, including monetary and stereotypical changes. He referred back to the idea that changing norms, in anything, helps tremendously.

After a question concerning changing these norms and how that can be done, Volsky stated that since changing laws and legislation can take a long time, there’s a lot that people can do that they may not realize.

Volsky said that following the shooting in El Paso, Texas, this August, there was a major turning point for Walmart’s brand.

“Walmart, a month after the El Paso shooting, announced major reforms,” Volsky said. “They announced they would ask folks not to bring their guns into their stores, that they would stop the sale of all handguns, and that they would limit the kind of ammunition they sell so that they aren’t selling the ammunition for assault weapons.”

He also said Walmart announced that they would begin lobbying Congress on gun reforms. Volsky said that these major corporations have a lot of power when it comes to who shops at their stores and who they support publicly and financially.

Dubois explained that the initiative to host this event came from the recent one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life massacre last October.

“Especially right after the one year after the Tree of Life, there’s a lot of strong emotions and feelings about gun violence,” Dubois said. “I think this is a good way to talk about what is currently being done and what more can be done to prevent gun violence.”

A previous version of this story said Not My Generation was founded in 2015. It was founded in 2018.