Julia Macias was 12 when a gunman shot and killed 26 people, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The Los Angeles preteen heard the news of the 2012 attack and worried about her own family.
“It made me wonder, ‘Well I have a sister who’s four years younger than me, she’s in elementary school, what if that were her? And what if that were me?’ ” said Macias, now 18.
Macias got active, joined the L.A. Unified superintendent’s student advisory council in high school and pushed for active shooter drills for students. Last year, a month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., she and other teenagers met with Mayor Eric Garcetti to call for a wider campaign to educate Angelenos about the effects of gun violence and encourage action to prevent it.
The idea she proposed came to fruition last week as Louder Than Guns, a website and ad campaign developed with help from the mayor’s Youth Council to End Gun Violence.
Garcetti formed the council last summer before meeting with survivors from Parkland. Macias, a freshman at UC Riverside, had graduated by then. But a group of current high school students met about once a month with representatives from the mayor’s office and an advertising agency to come up with a campaign patterned on the one Macias envisioned and to advocate for legislation around gun violence prevention.
The ads, which are on bus shelters and social media, appear at first to tout insurance for victims of different kinds of gun violence. “If there’s a shooting, are you covered?” one reads in bold capital lettering. “Mass shooting insurance,” another reads, above a photo of a row of empty stadium seats. The poster for “accidental shooting insurance” has a toppled over teddy bear.
Below the images in each ad, in smaller type, are data about gun violence in the U.S., along with the message, “Although the violence is real, this insurance is not. It’s a wake-up call to take action.” The ad leads readers to a website and includes a phone number people can call to share their own stories of gun violence.
The project cost about $25,000, which comes from the budget of the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development office. The idea is to spur a wider discussion of gun violence beyond the shocked reactions in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“This campaign can inform and engage folks about how to get connected and take action themselves, in a passive way like giving money or in a more active way — getting out there, engaging, volunteering,” said Anne Tremblay, director of the gang reduction program, which is mostly publicly funded with a budget of about $30 million to $35 million.
More private funding — such as through the ad campaign — could help expand efforts, the mayor said.
“Look, if it saves one life it’s worth it, but I think it can save many more than that,” Garcetti said.
When Macias came up with the education campaign, she had then-First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” message and the Los Angeles Police Department’s 1980s anti-drug D.A.R.E. program in mind. Though research since then has suggested that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program was largely ineffective, Macias said she liked the “spirit” of the approach. She envisioned applying it to the issue of gun violence through student voices.
It was important to address not just mass shootings and school shootings but the daily violence many young people experience in L.A., said Tyler Okeke, 17, a senior at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington who is also a member of the mayor’s youth council and serves as the L.A. Unified School District student board member.
The campaign’s website directs people to Gang Reduction and Youth Development and local youth nonprofits that contract with the city, as well as national gun violence prevention groups such as March for Our Lives.
Another member of the mayor’s youth council said he hasn’t directly experienced gun violence but has felt the effects of it — an uncle who grew up in L.A. was deported because of criminal activity that involved guns, he said.
“Every time he calls, he tells us that it’s something he regrets, it’s something that he wishes he didn’t do,” said Kevin, 16, who asked to be identified by only his first name to protect his safety.
His East L.A. school is close to three gang territories. He and other students are cautious and even fear making the wrong hand movements — friends have been threatened when gang members thought they were flashing gang signs, he said.
“It’s something that I don’t want to live in when I grow up and it’s something that I don’t want my little sisters and my little brothers to experience,” he said.
Kevin and others on the youth council hope their campaign — and gaining the ear of the mayor — inspires other young people to get involved.
“People need to know what’s happening, that if they want something changed it takes action,” Kevin said. “It’s … actually going forward with your idea and trying to get people on the same page and encourage others as well.”
Paula Kim, a Cleveland Charter High School senior, said she feels frustrated that there seems to be a sense of “Oh, well” about gun violence among some of her peers. Her Reseda campus was locked down this school year when someone with a gun was in the community nearby. No one in class seemed surprised by the reality they were facing.
She said adults and legislators don’t push hard enough to limit access to guns and keep track of who’s buying them, and she wants to inspire teens to avoid that apathy.
“This is something that I needed to stand up for,” said Paula, 17. “Because if adults can’t do it, then I need to take charge.”