Gun Violence in American Schools: Unpacking the Most Frequently Asked Questions, and How to Help

Activist Shannon Watts helps PEOPLE unpack answers to tough questions surrounding gun safety, "hardening" schools and mental illness in connection to gun violence

Uvalde victims memorial
Memorial for the 21 victims of the Uvalde school shooting. Photo: Elaine Aradillas

In the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, Americans are grieving and looking for answers on how to stop gun violence from infiltrating more schools and communities.

The recent tragedy left 19 elementary students and two teachers dead. The disturbing pattern of school shootings has shaken parents across the country. It's been only 10 days since 10 people were killed in a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in what officials described as a racially motivated attack that targeted Black people, and 10 years since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which killed 20 first-graders and six educators.

Parents have expressed fear over sending their kids to school, including a mother of a third-grade student who survived the shooting at Robb Elementary, who told PEOPLE, "I do not want my son to go to school in America anymore. ... This is too dangerous."

A memorial is seen surrounding the Robb Elementary School sign following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School
Robb Elementary School. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The shooter has been identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos. Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary School on May 24 at about 11:30 a.m. after abandoning his vehicle, and was reported to be killed by officers who were at the scene later that day.

PEOPLE Every Day podcast host Janine Rubenstein spoke to Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, to ask what Americans should know and what we can do now to help stop gun violence in our schools and communities.

PEOPLE: Do guns in schools make kids safer?
It's not true. The data does not show us that arming teachers or school resource officers makes anyone any safer. In fact, what you see are people accidentally leaving their loaded guns in bathrooms or on desks. We also know that Black and brown students are disproportionately disciplined, and then you add guns in the mix ... that would be terrifying for parents.

When you look at the recent shootings, there were armed guards. There were armed security officers in Uvalde and in Buffalo. ... It is simply not enough to stop someone who has an AR-15 and body armor and ultimately a death wish. This is what the gun lobby has created: This monstrous gun extremism that is resulting in the slaughter of people in our communities, and people we love. It is senseless, and it is preventable.

Community members embrace and mourn together at a vigil for the 21 victims in the mass shooting at Rob Elementary School
Mourners at a vigil for the victims. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

What is "hardening" schools and is there any evidence that it saves lives?
[The "hardening" of schools pertains to adding visible security measures, like security cameras and metal detectors, to schools in an effort to alleviate fears and to show the community that schools are taking action to keep kids safe, according to a study published in Violence and Gender, a peer-reviewed journal.]

WATTS: When you look at things that lawmakers have blamed, it's everything from too many doors, and now it's not enough doors, violent video games, mental illness, godlessness, single parenting, Ritalin. The list goes on and on, and it's always everything but easy access to guns, right?

Let's put into perspective what we know. We know that [the Uvalde] school district had its own police force. We know that it had a security guard. We know they had invested tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in security systems. It wasn't enough to keep this 18-year-old with a semiautomatic rifle from massacring elementary school students and teachers. It isn't about making our schools like prisons. It's about keeping guns out of our schools in the first place.

Members of the community gather at the City of Uvalde Town Square for a prayer vigil in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. According to reports, 19 students and 2 adults were killed before the gunman was fatally shot by law enforcement.
Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty

Is mental illness connected to gun violence?
WATTS: Mental illness is always a go-to [talking point] because it's such an amorphous idea, that you can't pin a lawmaker down on what they mean. When you look at America compared to peer nations, we rank ninth in mental illness issues. We are not more mentally ill, but we have a 26 times higher gun homicide rate than any peer nation. That would point to the fact that [the focus should be on] easy access to guns. I also want to say that it's so stigmatizing to people who are mentally ill. People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence instead of perpetrators.

Additional answers to frequently asked questions:

What are the deadliest school shootings to have occurred in the U.S.?
The deadliest school shootings since 1970 include 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, 26 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and 13 dead at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, The New York Times reports. Others include:

  • 2021: 4 dead at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan
  • 2014: 4 dead at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington
  • 2006: 5 dead at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania
  • 2005: 8 dead at Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minnesota
  • 1998: 5 dead at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas
  • 1989: 5 dead at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California

What is the age to buy guns in the U.S.?
The short answer to this is that it varies by state.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) states that shotguns and rifles, and ammunition for shotguns or rifles, may be sold only to individuals 18 or older. All firearms other than shotguns and rifles, and all ammunition other than ammunition for shotguns or rifles, may be sold only to individuals 21 or older. However, if state law or local ordinances establish a higher minimum age for the purchase or disposition of firearms, then the licensee must observe the higher age requirement.

Although you must be 21 to buy firearms from a licensed dealer under federal law, Texas law only requires you to be 18 or older to purchase any type of firearm, which is how the Uvalde gunman was able to legally purchase two AR-15s right after his 18th birthday.

Which U.S. Lawmakers receive the most money from the NRA?
U.S. lawmakers have continued to rack up millions of dollars in donations from gun rights groups. OpenSecrets, the non-partisan campaign finance research group, maintains a list of the top recipients of NRA and gun rights groups' funds, with data updated as recently as May 16, 2022.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

It's important to note that the NRA contributions on the OpenSecrets list are career totals, some going back as early as 1989 (so lawmakers who have been in office longer will likely have seen more NRA donations). The funds include both direct support to candidates (i.e. money donated by the NRA or NRA employees to a candidate or their PAC) and indirect support, via money spent against one's opponent.

Below are the lawmakers who received the most funding from the NRA — either directly or indirectly — according to OpenSecrets data.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, has received a total of $13,645,387
  • Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican: $6,987,380
  • Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican: $5,611,796
  • Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican: $4,555,722
  • Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican: $3,688,078
  • Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican: $3,303,355
  • Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican: $3,063,327
  • Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican: $3,063,327
  • Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican: $2,864,547
  • Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican: $1,973,201

For detailed accounts on what each lawmaker has received, their recent take on the shooting and when each of them are up for reelection, read here.

How can I give feedback on proposed gun legislation?
You can start by going to and using the feedback section to search for the elected official you wish to contact through the directory. Remember to prepare what you want to see change in regards to gun laws ahead of time so you can effectively communicate your message. Also, keep in mind that you will most likely not talk to a senator directly, but to a member of their staff. This is why it's important to craft a concise and compelling message ahead of your call, so their staff can relay your message.

Tips for calling members of Congress from the American Psychological Association include:

  • Know the issue you wish to discuss and the action you want the legislator to take.
  • Identify yourself as a constituent and ask to speak with the legislative assistant responsible for the issue.
  • Keep the message simple and concise.
  • Avoid emotional arguments or personal attacks and thank the staffer for taking your call.

The school district in Uvalde has opened an official account with First State Bank of Uvalde to support Robb Elementary families affected by the tragedy. People can send checks through the mail (payable to the "Robb School Memorial Fund") or donate money through Zelle to People can also call the bank for additional donation options (domestic and international wiring options, etc.) at 830-278-6231.

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