"Guns are for the police and the government," a 13-year-old girl confidently assured me.
She was one of the hundreds of thousands of people taking part in the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. She was flanked by two friends—another 13-year-old, and an 11-year-old—who were equally confident that violence in schools was the problem, and banning guns was the answer.
"Our school could be next," said the other 13-year-old. "What if it is?"
It wasn't just these three—from what I saw and heard at the rally, dying in school was a remarkably ubiquitous fear among young people. I spotted a little girl, perched on her father's shoulders, waving a sign bearing the text "Am I Next?"
Marissa, a teenage girl from Michigan, told me she felt unsafe in school, and thought more security would help. Teenager after teenager testified that their fears of death were all-consuming, ever-present, and more justified than ever before.
Missing from these conversations was any awareness of a very basic, indisputable fact: Gun violence has declined precipitously over the past 25 years, and most Americans are much safer today than they were a generation ago.
American children do not "risk their lives" when they show up to school each morning — or at least, not nearly as much as they do whenever they ride in a car, swim in a pool, or put food in their mouths (an American's lifetime odds of dying in a mass shooting committed in any location is 1 in 11,125; of dying in a car accident is 1 and 491; of drowning is 1 in 1,133; and of choking on food is 1 in 3,461). Criminal victimization in American schools has collapsed in tandem with the overall crime rate, leaving U.S. classrooms safer today than at any time in recent memory.
Obviously, it's understandable for the survivors of the horrific events in Parkland to be feeling unsafe, given what happened to them. But mass shootings are not the norm, and kids don't need to be terrified of going to school.
In any case, most young people I talked to on Saturday possessed both an overriding fear of being in school and a willingness to experiment with enhanced security.
"I don't feel safe in school," a teenager from a high school in Maryland told me. "I think there should be more security measures put in place, and the ones that are being put in place are ineffective."
The least popular solution was arming teachers. That was something virtually everybody at the rally seemed to oppose, kids and adults.
When I asked people whether they wanted more school resource officers—a security measure that utterly failed to stop the Parkland shooting, and creates plenty of negative externalities relating to school discipline and zero tolerance—opinions were mixed, though some reluctantly supported it.
"I think there should [be more cops in schools] but I don't think that would be as helpful as just taking guns from those who shouldn't have them," said the Maryland teen. "Certain guns, like AR-15s, shouldn't even be accessible to the public."
Several protesters mentioned that they were more comfortable with the idea of hiring veterans to patrol schools. "They already have the gun training and everything," Marissa, the Michigan teenager, told me. "I don't think there should be an excessive amount [of cops], like, to the point where every hallway you turn down there's one."
One teenager, a female student who attends a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, cornered me after I had finished interviewing her friends. She was carrying a sign that said, "The FBI has blood on their hands," and was eager to explain it.
"I'm not for taking away guns," she told me. "I think that really this isn't possible in the U.S. But multiple sources, and the FBI itself, confirmed that there were signs that were definitely missed, in Parkland and in other cases around the country. I think that's a matter of them doing their jobs and protecting the country like they're supposed to."
Photo Credit: Kyle Grillot/Sipa USA/Newscom