Commentary: In America and Beyond – An International Student’s Experience with Gun Violence 

Stop Gun Violence by Bart Everson

By Praniti Gulyani 

I was 9 years old when I came across the mention of a child’s death for the first time.

Even though this incident is almost 11 years old, I still remember pouring over the Afternoon Daily in the library, and asking the children’s librarian about why students in “Candy-Cut” (Connecticut) were killed, especially when they were in school.

In response to my question, the librarian wrenched the newspaper from my hands, and placed it on the topmost shelf — almost as though she was attempting to position it out of my reach. She went on to reprimand the junior librarian for keeping unsuitable content in the “Under 10” section, and told me to forget about what I had just read.

“Don’t pay too much attention to it,” she assured, her voice unusually comforting. “This is not something that is meant for your eyes. Forget about it, and go back to reading Malory Towers like a good girl.”

An essentially obedient child, I did not argue with adult authority, and often listened to instructions without much dispute.  However, the information that I had just read stuck to my mind, making me feel as though I had an unswallowed crumb wedged into my esophagus.

Even though the persisting crumb made my throat red and itchy, I fought it down as I did not want to be reprimanded by the librarian. The thought of children being killed at school continued to bewilder me, particularly because school was supposed to be a safe place where students went to learn. As a young mind who viewed the world with a rainbow-tinted lens that was devoid of reason and rationale, I concluded that if children in “Candy-Cut” (Connecticut) could be killed while in school, the same could happen to children in India.

As this realization dawned upon me, I remember shooting a precautionary gaze over my shoulder just to see if someone was watching. For the first time ever, I realized that I had started to fear for my life. When I went home that evening, an overheard news bulletin introduced me to the Sandy Hooks Elementary School Shooting incident.

A 20-year-old man had stormed into the premises of the elementary school and fired 154 rounds in less than five minutes, leading to the loss of 26 lives. Almost instantly, my thoughts raced to the parents of the children who had lost their lives that day. It must hurt a lot to go into your child’s room and see that the young life that chose the caricatures on the walls and insisted that a combination of blue and yellow wallpaper looks so much better than white and orange is no longer there, and will unfortunately never come back.

A decade and a year later, when I got into UC Berkeley to pursue my BA in English and Creative Writing, my loved ones approached me with doubtful pride. While they were proud of my accomplishment and wanted me to go to Berkeley, they bestowed upon me more warnings than congratulations.

They had done their research, and began each sentence with “It is America, after all” — a country that has the best higher education, but also loses about 120 of its people to gun violence every day, as per a research conducted by Everytown Research & Policy.

“While we do echo your desire to become a writer, and want to see you with the Pulitzer Prize someday, remember that our priority and necessity will always be seeing you first — happy, healthy and most importantly, unharmed,” they said.

 Thus, when I boarded the plane in August 2022, I promised myself that I would stay safe. I would stay focused on my academics and writing, and would not move out at night. I also began to wear running shoes everywhere I went, and increased my ordinary walking speed.

However, what I failed to realize was that, while these precautions might keep me away from the physical harm that gun violence could cause, there was little or nothing I could do to protect myself from the mental impact.

Toward the end of January 2023, as I began my second semester at UC Berkeley, a mass shooting occurred during a Lunar New Year Celebration  in Monterey Park — a location that was only two hours away from where I lived.

Even though I was not a local, I had heard a lot about Monterey Park, as it was the first city in America to have an Asian majority. For me, the place symbolized an undying resolve to establish community on foreign shores, and depicted how pure human connection could surpass geographical distances.

Thus, the news of 11 lives being lost to gun violence, particularly when they were “doing a synchronized dance just before the shooter came in” as described in a recount entitled “My Family and the Monterey Park Shooter” that was written by Sarah Wang, Creative Writing Professor at Barnard College, and published in the New Yorker, made me feel as though I had lost an entire family.

As I watched videos and read news articles, I felt as though I was one of the celebrating dancers in Monterey Park who had possibly paused to pin up a loose lock or adjust a rumpled skirt, and before they could turn back again to resume dancing, their movements were punctuated by a bullet.

A hand that had curved in celebratory dance, and a leg that had raised in tap-dance never got the chance to readjust itself, and was possibly still suspended mid-way when the attack occurred. Fifteen minutes after I absorbed the fateful news and let it settle in my bones, my thoughts shifted to the family. According to a report by CNN, the 11 victims of the gun violence at Monterey Park were between 57 to 76 years old.

As I read these statistics for the first time, I could almost hear conversations between a grandparent and their grandchild, about how the “grandparents were going for a little dance and would be back soon” and then “they could go and watch the Lion Dance on the street together.”

However, “soon” never came, and the joyous thought of looking at each other through the sharply curved eyes of the lion mask crumpled away. On Lunar New Year, a day of new beginnings and fresh starts, several grandchildren bid goodbye to their beloved grandparents.

 As opposed to vibrantly colored lion masks that the festival called for, their grandparents wore masks of cold tombstone. The only difference between the two was that while the lion masks could be removed with ease, and stored away for the next year’s celebration, the masks of cold tombstone are there to stay.   Thereafter, the after effects of gun violence inched towards me with  predatory closeness, making me feel unusually vulnerable.

If it could happen two hours away from me, there was no reason as to why it could not take place two minutes away from me. My running shoes, indoor weekends, and brisk walking could no longer protect me, and I felt as exposed, at risk and threatened as I did when I was nine years old, grappling with the news of children in “Candy-Cut” being killed in their school.

As I folded the newspaper with the headline “11 victims of Monterey Park mass shooting ranged in age from 57 to 76 years old, coroner says,” and got up with tremulous knees, I paused, took a deep breath, and looked over my shoulder. I was safe.

“For now” whispered a persisting voice in my head.

A year and a few weeks later, on Feb. 9, 2024, gun violence showed up at my doorstep. Like the common cold, it seemed to be everywhere, and, living in the USA, I knew that I had to eventually encounter it. As I recount the incident, I can see it all again projected vividly before my eyes: my anxious sidling away from the window and pushing myself between the walls, to the frantic texts that I received and sent, and the nauseating taste of uncertainty in my mouth.

Fifteen minutes later, my Instagram feed had jerked under a hefty surge of soul-stopping videos, as I saw students screaming, panicking, and running for their lives into the MLK building, with the blue and gold decorations draped across the banisters trembling violently.

It was almost as though the blue and gold triangles were trying to protect the students by urging them into the safe interiors of the building, and would, at any moment, tear themselves apart from the strings that held them to the ceiling to protectively cluster around their Golden Bears like little soldiers with their triangular backs erect.

The reason for this sudden tumult was something, or rather someone, who one would not expect to see on a college campus: an ordinary man with a gun who had gotten into a ridiculous altercation with students on campus after they failed to meet his absurdly sudden demand for a USB charger.

Caught between their dance practice and a concert that was taking place in Zellerbach Hall that was adjacent to the location, the calm students tried to negotiate with the man — who answered with unreasonable arguments, lost his temper, and thereafter wrenched out the fatal weapon. Brandishing it in the air with a sense of superiority, almost as though he wanted to show the students who was in charge, the man shot successive rounds into the air.

The students began to backpedal, and raced inside to protect themselves. Within minutes, the once jovial campus atmosphere had come to a deathly pause. A shelter-in-place order was issued, and icy hands of anxiety gripped young throats, with its cold fingers extending across the seven seas as international students reached out to their loved ones on the other side of the globe, seeking moral support and assurance.

I was one of these students who sent “Active Shooter On Campus I’m scared” texts to the few people in India whom I call family. All of these events transpired in a couple of minutes, after which the shooter was arrested by the police and taken into custody.

In those specks of time, I realized how overwhelmingly and thoroughly I loved my three-people family back in India. My literary aspirations and subsequent presence in UC Berkeley was not only because of them, but also for them  because I knew that watching me learn, explore my abilities and network within the #1 Public University in the USA gave them so much joy.

Even though the semester had just begun, I had already made some effective connections and gotten accepted into a few publications, and could not wait to share my accomplishments with them when I went back to India over the summer. I wanted to show them, in person, the copies that I’ve been working on, the articles that I’ve been writing, and the research with which I’ve been engaging.

But in those few minutes, I did not know if I would be able to do so. I did not know if I would be able to experience the summer of my sophomore year, or even how the next hour of my night looked like. After all, no matter how brave and strong willed you are, you cannot expect to know a lot of things, especially when there is an active shooter exactly 0.4 miles away from you.

Your mind numbs and your breath falters, and apart from your immediate surroundings and the sensation of your phone between your fingers, there isn’t anything else that you can know. You lose human agency and independence of thought, and are pushed into a state of fearful dependence — on the actions, emotions, and most importantly, on the mind of the other person.

In this case, the “other person” is almost always a person with a gun.

A few moments later, like a drop of rain on a barren field, an “all clear” notification popped up on my phone screen. There were no casualties, and the shooter was apprehended by the police and taken away. The shelter in place order was lifted, and campus life was restored.

My friends began messaging me, with apologies about how they could not respond because their phone battery had died, and I did not have to worry anymore as they were safe. As I conveyed this positive piece of information  to my family in India, I simultaneously typed an email of apology to my on campus job supervisors, because I knew that I would not be able to make it to work the following weekend.

I needed time to process what had happened. I was overwhelmed by the need for an answer, to gain reasoning and rationale. According to a report by Pew Research Center, more Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2021 than in any other year on record.

Even though I have often been told that I do not need to be responsible for anyone other than myself,  I thought of each life that had been lost — of each mother, father, uncle and brother who had left their houses with plans for the next day, without knowing that their next hour would not occur, as they would never come back.

Gathering myself together, I moved over to the end of my room, and opened the window. The night before, I had read an article on ABC News about how 5000 people had lost their lives to gun violence so far. I was walking to class when the article popped up on my phone screen, so I did not pay much attention to it.

However, at that moment, the firmness of the “three zeros” after the “five” hit me with increased intensity, along with the realization that a few miscalculated minutes here and there could have led to us adding to it.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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