Americans Against Gun Violence congratulates the winners of our 2023 National High School Essay Contest. To enter this year’s contest, students were asked to submit an essay of 500 words or fewer in response to the following prompt, which was chosen based in part on input from some of our past essay contest winners:

Describe your thoughts about lockdown drills conducted in response to the threat of shootings on American school campuses.”

We received over 1,100 submissions this year from high school students across the country. In the essay contest rules, we stated that we would award at least $15,000, distributed among 12 winners, with the option of giving additional awards if our essay readers felt that they were warranted. It was extremely difficult for us to select even the top 10% of essays from among the innumerable compelling, and in many cases, heart wrenching essays that were submitted. Ultimately, we decided that in addition to the $15,000 distributed among the top 12 winners, we would give $100 awards to 30 additional students.

We asked Dr. Michael North of Scotland to make the final decision concerning the first, second, and third place winners. Dr. North lost his five year-old daughter, Sophie, in the 1996 mass shooting at the elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland. The Dunblane massacre was committed with handguns, and Dr. North subsequently helped lead the successful campaign to completely ban civilian ownership of handguns in Britain. (Britain already had a ban on civilian ownership of automatic and semi-automatic long guns, including so-called “assault rifles.”) There hasn’t been another school shooting in Britain since the handgun ban went into effect, and the rate of gun related deaths in Britain is currently 1/70th the rate in the United States.

Dr. North has recorded a moving video concerning the impact that reading the essays had on him, the basis for his choosing the first, second, and third place winners, and his hope that the United States will eventually follow the example of Britain and take definitive action to stop our epidemic of gun violence, including shootings on school campuses.  We’re pleased to announce that in addition to agreeing to choose the top three winners in this year’s essay contest and record the video, Dr. North has also agreed to come to the United States to be our keynote speaker at our annual dinner this fall.

We are also pleased to announce that we have engaged nine of this year’s essay contest winners to work with us as summer interns in preparing a detailed report summarizing the content of all of the more than 1,100 essays that we received this year. Once the report is completed, we will be posting the full report on this website, and we’ll be sending an executive summary of the report to President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, in addition to disseminating the report widely via other means.

We give winning students the option of withholding any personal identifying information when we post their essays on their website. In past years, approximately half of the winners have chosen not to have their names. We appreciate the fact that this year, most winning students did give us permission to publish their names. At the same time, though, we understand why again this year, given the current toxic atmosphere in our country that makes students not only fear for their lives every day they go to school, but also fear retaliation if they speak out openly about our country’s epidemic of gun violence, some students did not wish to have any personal identifying information published along with their essays. It’s part of our mission at Americans Against Violence to change this toxic atmosphere.

The top 12 winners in this year’s contest and a representative sample of the $100 winners are posted below. We’ll be posting the essays (or excerpts from the essays) of other $100 winners in the near future. Note that some of the essays are longer than 500 words as students were given the option of editing their original essays and expanding them somewhat beyond the 500 word limit prior to them being posted on our website.

Donations to support our annual high school essay contest will help ensure that we are able to continue to offer the contest in future years. Donations are tax deductible to the full extent allowed by state and federal laws, and 100% of donations to the essay contest fund go directly to student awards.

Here are this year’s winners:

First Place Winner ($3,000 Award)

Mackena Weber

Mira Loma High School, Sacramento, California

A Typical Day in America

Sitting on the floor of a dark room, your mind tends to wander. You think about the word “lockdown”. You think about the annoyed grumbles from classmates, from teachers, asking why we have to do this…You think about what this would be like if it weren’t just a drill… You never leave yourself with time to ponder: Why is this our normal? Maybe you can’t bear the answer. [Read the full essay]


Second Place Winner ($2,500 Award)

Julia Burnham

Davidson Academy, Reno, Nevada

What Are We Really Locking Down by Lockdowns?

We cannot continue to pretend that sitting in a classroom with the lights off and locking the doors and covering the windows like lambs awaiting a slaughter will solve the issues of gun violence in our schools. Active shooter drills are a band-aid solution. The only true way to end school shootings is through the enactment of stricter gun-control legislation….[Read the full essay]


Third Place Winner ($2,000 Award)

Aadya Khazanchi

Lynbrook High School, San Jose, California

A Cosmetic Reply to Gun Violence

Parallels are being drawn between school lockdown drills and Civil Defense exercises during the Cold War. Both tactics are of questionable value if the threat materializes; meanwhile, they add to the culture of fear and normalize the status quo…. By the early 1950s, American schools were training students to dive under their desks and cover their heads in the event of thermonuclear war, implying that would protect them…. It was a grossly inadequate response…. The similarity with school lockdowns is alarming….[Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

Ashley Ferland

Campo Verde High School, Gilbert, Arizona

Will I Be Next?

We beg, pray, and hope for effective legislation while the American government hands out its “Deepest condolences.” Meanwhile, children plan their escape routes, we freeze at any noise that resembles a gun, we fear walking to the bathroom thinking someone will shoot us on the way there, we cry as we see yet another school shooting, and we mourn the loss of our fellow Americans…. seriously America, how many more children and youth must die – and will I be next – before you adopt laws that show that you love your children more than your guns? [Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

Clare Hann

Scranton Preparatory School, Scranton, Pennsylvania

Something Is Wrong Here

I have never known a world without gun violence. I am in my last year of high school, graduating class of 2023, and I was born in 2004. Five years after Columbine, three years before Virginia Tech, and eight years before Sandy Hook…. People with guns are not going to be stopped by darkened rooms and drawn blinds. Lockdown drills do nothing but frighten children and give a paper-thin illusion of safety. They have never stopped a killer, and they have only been a distraction from the real solution to school shootings the whole time, gun control. [Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

McKenna Shelly

Upper Perkiomen High School, Pennsburg, Pennsylvania


Earlier this week, I found myself scrolling on TikTok when I came across a video that did not surprise me, but also made me feel ill. It was a video of a woman describing how to use a fire extinguisher in case of an active shooter in the classroom…. Lockdown drills are security theatre. Lacking any proved effectiveness, these drills are merely there for the illusion of safety…. The best way to protect innocent children from being shot in their schools? Do what every other wealthy country has done in response to this issue; enforce better gun control….[Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

Chai Turner

Abington High School, Abington, Massachusetts

Locked on Emotion

As much as lockdown drills maintain awareness of the threat of school shootings, they tend to obscure the fact that the United States of America is doing a horrendous job of protecting its children and its youth…. If this essay sounds too angry- good. I refuse to apologize. “Fury” is too tame a word for what I feel. For what my generation feels. For what parents should feel as they buy bulletproof backpacks for their children who are too young to spell “lockdown drill.” [Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

Katherine Wilbur

University High School, Tucson, Arizona

I Don’t Want To Die

…Seventh Grade: As my teacher turned off the lights and locked the doors, the only sound in the room was steady breaths. Then, suddenly, the silence was broken. The door handle began shaking, and hands banged against its frame. We would later learn that the person on the other side of that door was our fellow student. She had gone to the bathroom and, when the announcement sounded, was locked out of the classroom. She didn’t know it was a drill. None of us did. So, as panicked tears fell down her face, she continued to frantically hit the door, begging us to let her in. Tears fell down our faces too….[Read the full essay]


$1000 Award Winner

A Student Attending High School in Texas

(Other Identifying Information Withheld at Student’s Request)

Firearms Are Not Freedom

“Lockdown, lockdown. Lock all doors and close all blinds.” These were the words we heard from the intercom. It was our monthly drill. As a senior, our grade had gotten accustomed to these drills since kindergarten. It also meant that we understood why such lockdown drills had become normalized in our schooling system. For us, it was a drill, but for many kids everyday it was a fight for their survival….[Read the full essay]


$1,000 Award Winner

A Student Attending High School in Wisconsin

(Other Identifying Information Withheld at Student’s Request)

It’s Not Funny

…On Tuesday, we practice watching our brand new high tech digital clocks from our classroom, where messages from administration can be displayed. We read messages such as, “INTRUDER IS IN THE MATH WING”, and we have to decide if we will stay in class and hide or evacuate. Around me I hear giggling and chatting. Nothing about the messages telling us where an intruder is in our building is funny to me….[Read the full essay]


$250 Award Winner

Kalia Bond

Okemos High School, Okemos, Michigan

February 7, 2023

“It’s just a drill,” my gym teacher says as he checks his phone for the third time…. I count – 6, 7, 8 – eight times our principal’s voice repeats on the overhead speakers to remain in lockdown position and follow lockdown procedure. Seems a bit long…. My eyes are locked on my teacher and his every anxious move…. Strange. His eyes widen and his hands shake uncontrollably as he slowly places his keys into his pockets with a tight grasp. He turns his head and silently mouths to the class, “This is not a drill.” [Read the full essay]


$250 Award Winner

A Student Attending High School in Maryland

(Other Identifying Information Withheld at Student’s Request)

A Lifetime of School Shootings

…I was born in 2004….I have to admit that I have known school shootings all of my life. I say that and sometimes I can’t believe it….Our country MUST pass stronger gun control laws and take a stand against gun violence.  Children must feel safe going to school so they can learn, make friends and not worry about getting killed by a gun….[Read the full essay]


$250 Award Winner Meghan Peot

Hackett Catholic Prep High School, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Every Day Fear in Schools

…I wish that I could recall a time in which my fellow classmates and I did not have to practice these procedures. Truthfully, lockdown drills fill be with emotion….I am filled with fear, with sadness, and with anger….[Read the full essay]


$100 Award Winner

Petra Kresic Kuna

Pompano Beach High School, Pompano Beach, Florida

Sniffles Turn to Snickers

… In my district – Broward County Public Schools [which includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] – lockdown drills are conducted monthly. And this was initially frightening, but I’ve seen the way the mood is changing…. Half the students are on their cell phones…. Many make faces at each other, giggling and snickering…. [W]hat does it say about our nation that rather than normalizing heavier restrictions on guns, we’re normalizing heavier rules on teenagers hiding in classroom corners?…But most frighteningly, what does it say about us that we’ve developed the ability to laugh it all away? [Read the full essay]


$100 Award Winner

Noah Gilligan

Weston High School, Weston, Massachusetts


…Lockdown drills are traumatic, but our society’s refusal to enact definitive gun control laws, and the deaths and injuries that are the result of this refusal, are the ultimate trauma….For now, some argue that we need lockdown drills, but what we really need is to adopt stringent gun control laws comparable to the laws that have long been in effect in all the other high income democratic countries of the world, if for no other reason, so that students in American schools will not have to continue to try to learn with one eye on the whiteboard and the other on the exit. [Read the full essay]