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These young Kansas Citians are arming themselves against the rise of far-right violence

Two people pose side by side under a "Bernie 2020" flag.
Zach Perez
Ryan Whelan, right, and Lydia Kidder, left, stand together in their Overland Park apartment.

Gen Z has the lowest rates of gun ownership in the U.S., but young people like Lydia Kidder and Ryan Whelan are the exception. The Kansas City couple say they've lost faith in elected officials and law enforcement to keep them safe, and are worried about white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys.

Lydia Kidder, 21, is preparing to begin their first firearms safety and training course. They don’t own a gun personally, but says they plan to purchase one in the months after their class, once they’ve saved up enough money.

Growing up, they never saw themselves becoming a gun owner. Their father, a hunter, made a point to get rid of any firearms before Kidder was born. They say family and friends often avoided the topic of guns and gun ownership all together.

Now, however, a lack of trust in government and law enforcement has convinced them that they have no choice but to get used to using a gun.

“You really can't rely on anybody else to keep you safe except for yourself,” says Kidder. “I think that’s been made pretty obvious by recent events.”

Guns have now become the No. 1 cause of death for anyone younger than 25, with a majority of those being listed as homicides and suicides, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This comes as members of that age group have fewer gun owners among them now than six years ago, according to data collected by the Pew Research Center.

It’s difficult to say whether Kidder's choice to obtain a gun sets them apart from other members of Generation Z.

Accurate data on the number of Americans who own guns in any age group is hard to come by. This is largely because private gun sales are difficult to track. Additionally, existing laws and the gun lobby have made it extremely difficult to access commercial sales data.

'This is getting serious'

Like most Americans who are purchasing guns, Kidder says they made the decision to start classes in gun safety and save up for a firearm because they felt an increasing need to defend themselves against a growing attitude of hatred and discrimination toward people like them.

“Not really knowing what the United States is gonna look like even a decade from now has definitely made me more interested in self-defense,” says Kidder. “I just don't really feel confident in (the government’s) ability to protect a regular citizen.”

Kidder identifies as non-binary and as a socialist. They say recent anti-LGBTQ legislation in Kansas and Missouri, and the police response to Black Lives Matter protests, has terrified them.

A person pose in the middle of a garden space at an apartment complex.
Zach Perez
Lydia Kidder, 21, says they plan to buy their first gun after completing a firearms safety course at the gun range near their home.

“We went to Portland for a couple days and protested with them during 2020,” Kidder says. “Witnessing just the sheer level of brutality that the police and other groups were getting away with on their citizens was a really big ‘holy s- - -’ moment for me.”

Kidder worries that hateful rhetoric used by politicians and media pundits is normalizing targeted interpersonal and institutional violence toward marginalized groups in the United States.

Their partner, Ryan Whelan, 23, says that normalization of violence and the mobilization of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys is what originally convinced them to obtain the firearms they now own.

Whelan bought their first firearm, a KelTec 9mm Carbine, when they were 19. Since then they have purchased three more, including an AR-15. They admit that they purchased the AR specifically for defending themselves from those far-right groups, should the need arise.

"It was Trump's standby and stand back kind of comment about Proud Boys that made me think, ‘OK this is getting pretty serious,'” says Whelan.

'They're not going to go away'

Whelan and Kidder only see threats against them growing. But their fears may be unfounded.

The couple live near the border of Overland Park and Kansas City, Kansas. It's an area that’s seen much less crime and gun violence than other areas to the north and east. They also live in Johnson County, which has some of the highest numbers of progressive voters in the state.

While statistically speaking, Kidder and Whelen aren't the most likely people to become victims of violent crime, Whelan says the sheer number of people who now carry guns is reason enough for them to carry as well.

The couple firmly believes in the right to bear arms, and cited the recent shooting of Ralph Yarl and incidents of road rage homicides as causes for their concerns.

A person holds up a black, 9mm pistol, still in it's holster.
Zach Perez
Whelan's primary firearm, a Smith & Wesson 9mm, sits in the holster they use to carry it with them during the day. It is one of four firearms Whelan has bought in the last four years.

“Ideally, I will look and feel extremely silly for carrying a gun my whole life,” Whelan says. “But say I lose my cool for a second and flip somebody who cuts me off in traffic. It's a possibility that this person could be armed and then lose their cool also and then (shoot me).”

But even in the face of such fears, neither believe that legislation will solve the problem.

“I really don't know legislatively what you can do to solve it,” says Whelan. “There are a lot of guns in this country and they're not going to go away.”

'It should never be normal'

Another group of young Kansas Cititans hopes they can persuade their peers not to buy guns by reframing the issue.

“Gun ownership as a whole isn't something that we should be proud of as a society,” says 19-year-old Shravani Khisti. “Ask why we have to reach that level in order to feel safe.”

Khisti is a member of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s chapter of Students Demand Action, a group that works to educate college and high school students on ways they can help reduce gun violence and become better advocates for what they call common sense gun laws.

Another member of the chapter, 20-year-old Samuel Kim, says that while he doesn’t think he’ll ever own a gun himself, he understands that his decision comes from the privilege he’s enjoyed as someone who grew up in a safe neighborhood with little exposure to violence.

“We realized that gun ownership is made up of a lot of multifactorial, complex issues that are included in a lot of demographics that we have the privilege of not being a part of,” says Kim. “I never feel scared when I go home, but there are a lot of people who do.”

Two people in matching red shirts which say "students demand action" pose near a window at a coffeeshop.
Zach Perez
Samuel Kim, 20, and Shravani Khisti, 19, are two leaders among UMKC's chapter of Students Demand Action.

The two UMKC students believe that the fact that so many Americans feel the need to own a firearm for protection indicates bigger societal problems. Kidder and Whelan agree.

While they don’t share SDA’s views on creating new gun control legislation, they believe that addressing the broader issues that cause people like them to take up arms will be the best way to solve the issue.

“More hoops for individuals to jump through in order to get guns isn’t the most effective thing that can be done to prevent violence,” says Kidder. “Yes, we have access to guns that people in European countries don't generally have, but also there are way more social safety nets available there than there are in the United States.”

Kidder cited a lack of affordable housing, the ballooning cost of healthcare, and systemic discrimination as reasons for a feeling of hopelessness, creating a climate of despair that leads some to see crime and violence as their only option.

“It seems like the issue of gun ownership and gun control is kind of used as a scapegoat to not not address any of those things,” Kidder says. “Those are all policy decisions that were made (that can change).”

Data from Pew Research shows 70% of Generation Z believes that the government, rather than individuals, should be taking a bigger role in systemic social change.

On their way to becoming America’s largest voting block, it appears this generation may soon hold the power to make that happen.

“With the totality of gun violence,” says Whelan, “it seems like the best thing to do about that is to have a good society that people want to live in. That doesn't seem like something we really focus on enough in America.”

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

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