by Renuka Soll
Today, our community is mourning the loss of a beloved community member, Zijie Yan. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and loved ones. There are no words to express the sadness we feel.
Dr. Yan was the victim of gun violence during an incidence that terrified our community. We collectively watched and waited in fear as local authorities warned us of an active shooter and asked us to take cover. School children spent their first day of school in lockdown. UNC students were seen jumping out of windows. UNC staff took shelter in their offices. Neighbors, friends, and family members anxiously texted one another hoping to verify their loved ones were safe.
It was a horrible day. It will tragically affect many in our community forever. But sadly, a gun violence tragedy is not unique, not even to Chapel Hill.
Many years ago, when my kids were in Seawell Elementary, I volunteered as an art helper. One day, the school went on a hard lockdown. The classroom teacher locked the door, pulled down the shades, shut the lights, and moved all of us to a corner of the room. There was a man with a gun in the woods not far from the school. My heart pounded hard as I put my finger up to my lips reminding the 7-year-olds that we needed to stay quiet.
A few years later in November of 2018, I had just parked at Harris Teeter, and I heard that Carrboro Elementary had an active shooter at the school. I sat in my car crying for our community. Thankfully, the report was false, but it sent shivers through many of us. I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident. I had to act.
I started by researching. I learned that we have empirical evidence that states (and countries) with stricter gun laws have lower rates of gun violence. I learned from the Uvalde tragedy that the “good guy with a gun” is a myth when 376 law enforcement “good guy” officers came to the school but were too late. I learned what can curb gun violence: universal background checks, mandatory training for gun owners, banning assault weapons, penalizing unsafe gun storage, and removing guns from people who are at extreme risk of committing violence.
We need to vote the right people into office to make these changes. I alone could not make these changes; but I still wanted to act. Even if I only removed one unwanted gun, it would make our community safer. We never know which gun could be used in a suicide, accidental shooting, or homicide. “Baby steps” are needed as we wait for the “big steps” to happen legislatively.
As my first baby step, I contacted Town Council about having the town do a Gun Buy Back event. I found out that Chapel Hill could not do this easily. In 2013, the North Carolina legislature voted to make it illegal for the police to destroy guns. Instead, they had to store them indefinitely or sell them. The only way to get around this would be for a private citizen to organize an event.
I got started and organized. I have now completed three Gun Give Back events in Chapel Hill.
As I took the unwanted guns, I heard stories about why people were giving their guns away. Some had inherited unwanted firearms. One woman told me about how she wanted to get rid of her family guns because she felt nervous about having them around when her grandchildren visited. I was grateful to these people for wanting to help stop gun violence in any way they could.
My second “baby step” was to join the Board of North Carolinians against Gun Violence (NCGV), a position I have now held for five years. We have two missions — Education and Action. To educate, we let people know how to safely lock and store their guns, and we partner with communities to counteract gun violence.
I will continue taking baby steps to make life safer for all of us until I have an opportunity to make giant steps. I know, with time, we can make common sense changes to gun laws that will keep everyone safer.
Let’s do everything we can to avoid another gun tragedy.