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The Many Ways We Have Failed Young People Amid the Gun Violence Crisis

8 minute read

McAbee is a poet, essayist, and theologian, whose work has appeared in TIME, The New York Times, The Hudson Review, The Sun (US), and a variety of other publications. He has spoken widely in university and congregational settings throughout the US and the UK. He works as Professor of Religion and the Arts at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023 Jillian Ludwig’s family returned home to New Jersey from Nashville. They’d traveled to Tennessee two days earlier, after Jillian, a freshman music business major, was found unconscious from a bullet wound, around 3:30pm at the Edgehill Community Garden, less than half a mile from the university and only two blocks from Nashville’s famed Music Row.

In my 12 and a half years as a professor at Belmont, our community, like so many others, has been wounded time and again by our nation’s and our state’s gun violence crisis. The Covenant School shooting in March 2023 impacted us deeply. Some in our community are members of the Covenant Presbyterian congregation, at least one faculty member had a child at the school on the day of the shooting, and many, like myself, are close friends with Covenant School families, whose lives have been irreparably changed.

Gun violence has impacted the Belmont student body before. In 2018, for instance, 21-year-old Belmont student DeEbony Groves was killed in the racially motivated Waffle House Shooting, which claimed four lives. And while our campus has largely been spared direct violence over the years, it is not uncommon for Campus Security to send email messages regarding armed robberies or gunfire that have occurred on the outskirts of campus.

Like so many universities across the country, we’ve also lost students to suicide, part of our country’s mental health crisis and epidemic of loneliness. A number of those have involved guns—both on and off campus.

In Jillian’s case, she was shot in the head by a stray bullet, approximately an hour before she was discovered by a passerby. Once found, she was rushed to nearby Vanderbilt Hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries the following night. Shaquille Taylor, a 29-year-old Nashville resident, has been charged in the incident. Taylor was apparently firing at a car on the same block as the Community Garden, where Jillian was walking.

As my classes met the day after Jillian’s death, I asked students how they were processing this trauma. Many spoke about their fear. Some already worried about going out at night in Nashville, and now, since this tragedy occurred in broad daylight, even the daytime seems scary. One spoke of a deep grief, as their friend group included students who knew Jillian.

A number of students shared feeling dismay at their initial reaction of not having a reaction. They spoke of feeling that gun violence is such a part of our culture that even the death of someone a couple of blocks from their own campus did not feel shocking. This apathy unnerved them.

Read More: How Do We Respond to this Hell. In Nashville After the Shooting

One student spoke poignantly of having a feeling of failure. They said, “I feel like Nashville failed Jillian, failed her family. This family entrusted our city with their child, and we failed her. We failed them.”

For years, my own reaction to the gun violence in our culture was much like the students who came to fear their own apathy. It’s not that my heart wasn’t moved at hearing of the victims of gun violence, it’s that I couldn’t bring myself to find a way to act, a way to move forward.

The children and teachers at Sandy Hook, at Uvalde, the students and professors at Virginia Tech, the day-to-day violence of our culture, domestic abuse victims, robberies gone wrong—the overwhelming number of deaths from gun violence anesthetizes many of us and keeps us from turning our apathy into grief, our grief into action.

I continue to be struck by the words of the student who felt like we’d failed Jillian and her family. I asked that student, “Shouldn’t you feel safe here too? Haven’t we failed you? Haven’t we failed you all?”

As these students’ professor and the middle-aged parent of two small children, I can’t help but ask, how many ways have we failed the young people in our communities?

In the case of Jillian Ludwig and her family, our city, state, and country have failed on so many fronts. Taylor, the accused assailant, has a history of violent crime. In 2021, he shot into a vehicle which held a Mom and her two small children. Having been arrested for this crime, he was determined by three court-appointed doctors to be incompetent to stand trial, due to an intellectual disability and language impairment. By federal law, someone who cannot understand their crime cannot be tried, and based on Tennessee state law, there is an unreasonably high bar for someone to meet the standard of involuntary commitment to an institution. So, Taylor walked free for a crime eerily like the scenario that led to Jillian’s death.

As recently as September 2023, Taylor was arrested for being in possession of a stolen truck, one which had been carjacked at gun point by two assailants wearing ski masks. While there had not been sufficient evidence to link Taylor directly to the carjacking, he was arrested and released for possessing the stolen vehicle and missed his November 3rd court appearance.

Tennessee failed the Ludwig family—and Taylor, himself—by not providing adequate care for Taylor’s disability. Additionally, despite Taylor’s intellectual disability and criminal background, he is still legally allowed to possess a gun in the state of Tennessee, as we have no Extreme Risk Protection Order, or “red flag law” on the books.

In the weeks after the Covenant School shooting earlier this year, thousands upon thousands of Tennesseans marched and held vigils at our Capitol and across our state. A Fox News poll at the time showed that overwhelmingly, over 80% of US voters, across the political spectrum, support common sense gun safety measures aimed at curbing gun violence.

Despite pleas for change, our state legislature failed to take any action on gun safety measures during its regular session. In August 2023, Gov. Bill Lee called a special session of the legislature in order to address the gun safety crisis. This too was a debacle. Many of the mothers from the Covenant School were treated with contempt by Republican legislators. The Senate attempted to adjourn almost immediately. The House attempted to curb the free speech of protestors within the Capitol, and Gov. Lee failed to push through any effectual change.

Despite the claim by many religious people that this is a nation built on Christian values, we operate as a society without a meaningful social ethos. The fabric of our culture is being torn in myriad directions, and the job of mending it must be the responsibility of us all, particularly in areas where we have such broad popular consensus as gun safety reform.

So far, my university’s response has been primarily pastoral and rightly so. Our community is wounded. Our University President Rev. Dr. Greg Jones and his wife, Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones, have publicly attempted to create space for mourning and belonging for Belmont staff and students.

We have been told that Campus Security is liaising with Metro Police regarding the neighborhoods in our vicinity, but certainly this type of coordination was already occurring before Jillian lost her life to a bullet in the shadow of our university.

In the midst of this mourning, there are signs of hope and moral courage from my university’s leadership. One Belmont Board member, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, has been an outspoken advocate for gun safety reform, participating in a vigil with Covenant moms and publicly advocating for gun safety legislation. Another, Rev. Dr. Clay Stauffer, serves as Chair of the Advisory Board of Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a conservative-leaning, nonpartisan gun safety advocacy group, formed in the wake of the Covenant shooting. In addition to these, Belmont’s Board Chair, Milton Johnson has himself become an Advisory Board member at Voices for a Safer Tennessee. His active support of Voices for a Safer Tennessee holds much weight in our community and our region. These members’ leadership on this issue serves a sign of hope that our university will act with moral courage in the best interests of our staff and students in advocating for meaningful gun safety reform.

The needle for gun safety reform is moving slowly in Tennessee and throughout much of the country. But it is moving. With overwhelming electoral support across the political spectrum, I believe that we can see significant gun safety reform in our communities, but it will take active engagement from the overwhelming majority of Americans.

We must continue to pressure our elected officials to make common sense gun safety reform a reality. Continuing to fail has already been too costly for far too many families.

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