Signal Mountain student a national leader in anti-gun violence movement

photo Seo Yoon Yang, a senior at Signal Mountain High School, raises a sign during an anti-gun violence demostration. Photo contributed by Lucy Steigenga.

Seo Yoon "Yoonie" Yang, 18, a senior at Signal Mountain High School, has a challenging job.

She's an anti-gun-violence activist, which means pushing for stricter gun laws in a deep-red state where Second Amendment rights are held dear.

To friends she is Yoonie, a fun nickname for a formidable young woman who has been toughened by years of face-to-face debates with people who often don't share her views.

Yang said she learned a long time ago that talking face to face doesn't mean seeing eye to eye.

"People want to argue with me even before they get a chance to listen," she said in a recent interview. "There is a misperception that gun-violence prevention and gun safety are a direct attack against gun owners and the Second Amendment."

Not true, Yang believes; but that's sometimes a hard sell.

More than just a teen dabbling in a public policy debate, Yang is on the 16-member national advisory board of Students Demand Action, a grassroots, anti-gun-violence network of more than 400 local groups nationwide.

The group pushes for, among other things, universal background checks for gun purchases and so-called "red flag" laws that permit police or family members to ask a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person who shows evidence of being a danger to themselves or others.

Some gun rights advocates argue that these red-flag laws constitute prior restraint, a violation of the First Amendment right to free expression, and are therefore unconstitutional.

For Yang, the anti-gun violence cause is personal.

Before moving to Signal Mountain about two years ago, Yang lived in South Florida where she attended Alexander W. Dreyfoos High School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Dreyfoos High is about an hour's drive from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, scene of the nation's deadliest high school mass shooting. In the winter of 2018, 17 people were killed and 17 more were wounded by a gunman firing a semi-automatic rifle at the high school in Parkland.

Yang was one of a generation of young anti-gun violence activists who saw the Parkland shootings as a call to action.

She remembers when news of the shootings hit her high school campus.

"I don't think any of us understood the magnitude until an hour or so later," she said. "Everyone was crying. There was a shift in the student body."

After the shootings came a series of nationwide student walkouts to protest gun violence, and Yang joined the growing movement.

"You can never overemphasize the impact of gun violence on so many facets of our lives," she said.

Yang's family immigrated to the United States from South Korea about 16 years ago - when she was 2 - and she hopes one day to become a U.S. citizen.

Her father teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Yang quickly learned that East Tennessee was not the same as South Florida, where the Parkland shootings still dominate the debate over gun laws.

Yet, she believes that there is growing awareness of the anti-gun violence movement here, and for good reason.

"Rationally, I think the chances of it [a school shooting] happening here are as good as anywhere," she said. "This is a repetitive epidemic.

"We want to see legislation that honors the Second Amendment but regulates guns in a way that keeps our community safe."

Contact Mark Kennedy at