The gun control debate in America has become a culture war issue, but it doesn’t have to be. We are not as divided as our politics may seem. With chapters all across the country, groups like Students on Safety are starting difficult conversations and demanding bipartisan action. We sat down with Bradley Cooper of Students on Safety to find out more.
Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us, Bradley. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about Students on Safety?
Bradley Cooper: Students on Safety is an organization comprised of hundreds of chapters and thousands of students on both sides of the aisle that are saying “enough is enough” in regards to gun violence. We want to make our opinion known because high school students don’t typically have an avenue to organize in this fashion. There are many organizations for politically-minded college-aged students that provide an opportunity to speak out and create community. We wanted to create an organization that allows high school students to participate in the conversation because they are impacted by decisions related to gun violence every single day. It’s sickening to turn on the news and there is this massive loss of life, seemingly every week. Something needs to be done. Personally, I believe that action needs to start with students standing up demanding change in a bipartisan way.
How It All Started
What got you involved in the gun violence movement?
Cooper: I always liked to be behind the scenes in terms of political activism until December 2018, when my school’s active shooter alarm went off. It was seven in the morning and nobody quite knew what to do. They were still offloading buses into the school. Teachers were just telling kids to be quiet. I ended up getting locked outside when, at the time, we thought there was an active shooter outside. It was the day before Christmas break and I had no idea if I was going to spend Christmas with my family.
Eventually we found out that there was a glitch in the school’s alarm system and that there wasn’t an active shooter. But what the incident showed was that schools aren’t as prepared as they think they are. They might be, at best, prepared for an active shooter during class sessions, but not between sessions, not before school, or many other times during the school day. During lunch, for example, we have five hundred students in the cafeteria but keep the back door open for ventilation, which is a risk.
I ended up speaking with my school’s administration and they told me that they didn’t need to take any additional steps beyond what they were already doing to protect against an active shooter. That was my wake up moment. I realized that unless a student stands up against the school, nothing was going to happen.
At the time there wasn’t an organization like Students on Safety. Now that we have this organization, students can find others who have gone through this before. We’ve built this open sense of community that we are here to support one another. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat advocating for a complete ban on assault rifles or a Republican advocating for teachers to concealed carry. We are here for everyone to make sure they have a platform to speak about gun violence.
On your website, Students on Safety shows representation across the entire country, in red states and blue states alike. I am curious about the average Students on Safety member and how they stay involved.
Cooper: Really our members are just your average student. They are someone who sees the tragedies on the news and thinks, “Wow, this can really happen at my school.” They think that community on television is not too different than their own. They want to take a stand and voice their opinion on these issues and we just want to give them a platform to do so and make real positive change in the world.
Your website uses an interesting phrase. It states that Students on Safety wants to remedy issues leading to gun violence which are “often ignored.” What are the specific policy recommendations you are pursuing that you feel are often ignored?
Cooper: If you look at most student gun violence activists currently, many stand up and demand change after a tragedy. Students on Safety is an organization comprised of individuals who want to make a difference before tragedy strikes in our communities. Too many schools fail to adequately prepare for active shooter situations or to sufficiently pay attention to mental health as it relates to gun violence. My school, for example, doesn’t feel the need to prepare for an active shooter because they don’t think one is going to come. But it’s not just my school. It’s thousands of schools across the country that don’t fully comprehend what can happen so quickly. Our organization is simply about bringing people together and starting bipartisan conversations. We don’t pursue any policy initiatives because policy is too often politicized. But we want to start a conversation that will hopefully lead to bipartisan policy eventually.
Finding the Middle Ground
So when you say Students on Safety is politically neutral, what that means is that (1) your membership is bipartisan and (2) the policies you are pursuing, insofar as you are pursuing policy change, are bipartisan. Is that a fair characterization?
Cooper: Absolutely. In the past I have worked for a lot of supposed non-partisan organizations, but the leadership of those organizations are entirely comprised of one party, and those organizations have an entirely partisan agenda. What’s really cool about Students on Safety is that our leadership team, as well as membership, are Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians united behind one mission. These are students who simply go to school every single day, see this issue firsthand, and see that the current partisan way of trying to solve the problem isn’t working. They have decided that they need to do something new. And that is what Students on Safety is focused on.
What I am wondering—with my civil-discourse and political polarization hat on—is if by starting with consensus issues, Students on Safety is then able to delve into some of the more polarizing elements of the gun control debate, especially given the ideologically diverse membership of Students on Safety. Is that something that you have seen?
Cooper: Definitely. We encourage our chapters to provide a platform for our members as they see fit, so long as it aligns with the national goals and values. We just want to make sure that members have the knowledge, tools, and expertise to stand up on these issues, whatever their position. Our members are the next generation of politicians and public servants. If we are able to teach skills—clearly and effectively communicating, engaging with the other side, and respectfully disagreeing—hopefully we will create a new breed of politicians for the future. And hopefully we are able to inspire some change today as well.
What frustrates you about the current gun control debate? In my mind, gun control has become a culture war topic which dooms it to a fate of inaction. We, collectively, have dug in our partisan heels and refuse to budge. What is something that you would like to see change or improve in the gun control debate?
Cooper: I am continuously frustrated by the fact that politicians and the national media use the deaths of children to politicize the gun control debate and make it a key voting issue. The debate is completely politically motivated: How am I going to appear best in front of the media? What is going to make the best ten second sound bite? What is going to get the most votes back home? Rather, what needs to be the focus of conversation is how and why are kids dying every single day, and what can we do to keep them safe so that they get to come home to their families after school. The discussion seems to be about how much attention either side can get rather than the number of lives that we can save. I think that is lost in the political climate today.
The Best Way Forward
My final question: What gives you hope about the gun control debate in our country right now?
Cooper: I personally am very, very conservative. But with Students on Safety, I get to work every day with students who are very liberal. It’s an eye opening experience to work with someone so closely from a different political affiliation. So I hope that Students on Safety is able to leave a bipartisan mark on the conversation that allows others to have a more open mind. One that encourages others to try to learn how the other side feels and then attempt to find bipartisan solutions. Frankly, I don’t think Republicans or Democrats are going to “win.” I think that there are going to be two winners and that is done through a compromise. Right now, nobody is wanting or looking for a compromise. So hopefully Students on Safety is able to bring a different perspective to that conversation.
Any closing thoughts?
Cooper: Check us out at StudentsonSafety.org. Get involved. Whether it is joining our boycott of Netflix over “13 Reasons Why” or starting a chapter in your community. The time is now to stand up and start a conversion on gun violence and what to do about it.
If you enjoyed this conversation, read more “spirited discussions” from Divided We Fall here.