US teens can stop school shootings by befriending loners, says #WalkUpNotOut

Now is the time.
Now is the time.
Image: Reuters/Angel Valentin
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US students from coast-to-coast are planning to walk out of their high schools on March 14 to protest lax gun laws and demand protection from school shooters by the federal government. But a counter-movement is brewing on social media, which suggests students use the power of friendship, not agitating for gun control, to protect themselves.

#WalkUpNotOut claims that American teenagers can prevent school shootings by befriending would-be shooters. The movement also encourages America’s teens to skip the student protest on the 14th, despite statistics that show high gun ownership plays a role in the US’s high frequency of gun deaths.

The movement appears to be inspired in part by a February 19 Facebook post by a retired Texas junior and high school teacher, David Blair. In it, he encourages students concerned about school shootings to put down their “stupid phone.” The solution, he argues, is to preempt attacks by reaching out to classmates who seem lonely.

Look around you at your classmates. Do you see the kid over in the corner, alone? He could likely be our next shooter. He needs a friend. He needs you. Go and talk to him, befriend him. Chances are, he won’t be easy to like, but it’s mainly because no one has tried to like him. Ask him about him. Get to know him. He’s just like you in that respect; he wants someone to recognize him as a fellow human being but few people have ever given him the chance. You can…Lastly, are you completely frustrated by that kid who always disrupts your class and is consistently sent to the principal’s office? He could likely be our next shooter. Do you know why he causes so much trouble? He initiates disruption because that’s the only thing he does that gets him attention, and even bad attention is better than the no attention he receives from you and your classmates.

“Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer. You are the answer,” Blair writes to America’s school children. “I know you. I trust you.”

Blair taught for 24 years, 14 of them at an “outreach” high school in Texas, which takes kids who don’t fit in at their local schools, and who are considered at a high risk of dropping out, he told Quartz. There he saw personally how students could blossom when they were in a new situation, with attention from teachers and classmates. “I put that out there hoping that maybe at some point if it stops one kid [from violent behavior], it would be worth it,” he said.

Blair said his attitude about the student protest has changed since he wrote the post in late February. “I thought the walkout was going to be a novelty, but I see the sincerity and I support the students,” he said, adding that he hopes they have a peaceful and civil protest.

“The real issue is that the horse is out of the barn,” Blair said. “The guns are out there and the real key is to keep them locked away and in a safe,” he added. “If you prevent someone from buying a semiautomatic, that’s great,” he added, but not that effective if “he can go out and get one anyway” from a private owner.

Snippets of Blair’s original letter and posts that appear to be inspired by it are now circulating on social media under #WalkUpNotOut. They are particularly being shared by parents with teenage kids, some of whom are encouraging kids not to demonstrate on Wednesday. “Better to unite and connect with each other than divide and resist,” one parent wrote on Facebook below a copy of the letter.

The message is also being spread by adult groups with links to gun manufacturers. A post has been featured on the Facebook page of “One Million Moms Against Gun Control,” which has about 75,000 members, has an NRATV set as its main photo, and is affiliated with “Red Legion Tactical,” which sells military-grade weapons and gear, according to the group’s webpage.

The idea is also being tweeted about by officials from NRA-supporting right wing think tanks, like Wisconsin’s American Majority, which has co-hosted events with the gun lobby:

Blair said he has no affiliation with the NRA. “I’m just a simple man living in Texas, who is just as heartbroken as the rest of the nation,” he said.

But being kinder to your classmates is no panacea for America’s mass shooting epidemic, critics say. It “isn’t always about being bullied,” New Jersey radio host Jeff Deminski writes, noting that the Sandy Hook shooter was 20 years old and had little reason to resent the elementary-school children he killed. “How about do your walkout on March 14, since things absolutely need to be addressed in this country regarding gun violence,” writes Deminski. “And save the feel-good walking up to the shy lonely kids for every other day of the year, not just one day.”

While every country in the world has depressed or mentally ill teens, according to the World Health Organization, the United States is unique among developed nations for both access to guns and number of deaths.