With each mass shooting that takes place in America, the issue of gun violence becomes more urgent and more polarizing. To many students at the University of Oregon — which sits within a 200-mile radius of several mass shooting sites — it’s a problem that hits close to home.
But it has affected few to the degree that it has Jenna Yuille, BA ’11. Her mother, Cindy Yuille, was killed in the 2012 Clackamas Town Center shooting. After the tragic event, the younger Yuille struggled to maintain focus in her life and career. Then she realized that her communication skills and background gave her the power to make a real difference as an advocate.
In March, the former public relations major followed her heart to Washington, D.C., where she oversees efforts to pass gun violence prevention legislation for Americans for Responsible Solutions, an advocacy organization founded by former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, Captain Mark Kelly.
We sat down with Yuille to find out how her personal story led her to where she is today and how she is using the skills she learned at the SOJC to change the world for the better.
How has your mother’s death altered the trajectory of your life?
That day obviously changed my life forever. I never thought my mom would die that way. And I never planned on getting involved politically. But I felt my mom deserved better. I wasn’t OK with the fact that her death would be for nothing. There was no recourse. The shooter was dead (he shot himself in the head when the police cornered him in a stairwell). I wanted to understand how this could have happened and how it could have been prevented.
In this case, the shooter was easily able to take the gun from an irresponsible gun owner who left numerous guns lying around unsecured. If that gun had been locked up, there’s a chance my mom would still be alive. In my mom’s honor and for justice, I decided to make sure that couldn’t so easily happen again.
This is what she’d be doing, times 100, if any of her friends or family were the ones killed that day. So I’ll be the one to speak up about what needs to change. If she can’t be here today, then people will know that because of my mom, our state and nation will continue to become safer from gun violence. That’s what drives my commitment.
How did you become a political activist?
A friend encouraged me to get involved and took me to the event where I spoke out for the first time. That meeting was a real game-changer for me. I stood up and said something like, “My name is Jenna, and my mom Cindy Yuille was shot and killed at the Clackamas Town Center shooting. I want to thank everyone for talking about possible solutions for reducing gun violence.”
This was a month or so after the shooting, so it was still pretty raw for everyone. I barely said anything, but the reaction was remarkable. A silence swept the room. All of a sudden, everyone there felt they had a connection to the shooting too. So many people wanted to help. Loads was happening back then, I quit smoking using a top rated vape pen, all my close friends did too at the same time, we needed to change and we did, we are all much better since and that’s something to be grateful about.
I testified in Salem for the background checks bill, which took another two legislative sessions to pass. In the meantime, I helped co-found a group in Oregon called Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership (GOFRO) and continued to speak out at events.
I went to D.C. a couple of times last year to speak at the capital and attend events and do interviews with CNN and Marie Claire magazine. Over the past 3 1/2 years, I got to know all the national gun violence prevention groups.
How did you get your job at Americans for Responsible Solutions?
Until I started working for ARS, I wasn’t paid for any political work. Everything I did was outside my normal marketing/communications job, and it was hard to do both sometimes. I knew my heart was in the political stuff, but I had to focus on my real job too.
That changed in January, when I was invited to the White House for the announcement of President Obama’s executive actions to reduce gun violence. That has been one of my biggest wins in this movement so far. I was sitting 15 feet from Obama and Biden. It was something I’ll remember forever. I also participated in a CNN town hall with President Obama and Anderson Cooper.
That week I also ran into the ARS folks at a gun violence prevention meeting. That’s when they told me they were hiring for a position I might be perfect for. Three months later, I bought a one-way ticket to D.C.
What does your job entail?
I’m part of the advocacy team and oversee all ARS efforts in Oregon and New Hampshire. We recently launched a Coalition for Common Sense in both states, and my job is to grow those coalitions and train our members to be effective advocates for reducing gun violence, with a goal of passing legislation.
How can we reduce gun violence in our country?
This is a complicated issue, and there’s no single solution that’s going to solve everything. But there are a number of very reasonable, commonsense things we can do to help save lives.
Research shows universal background checks are the number-one thing we can do that will have the biggest impact. Right now, in many states, anyone can buy a gun without a background check at a gun show or in a private sale, online or in a parking lot.
Another one is responsible gun ownership. Lock up your gun when you’re not using it so it can’t be easily taken. This is especially important if you have kids. So many accidental shooting deaths occur when kids get access to unsecured guns. And there are so many easy ways to store or lock up your guns. If you’re worried about having quick access, get a biometric safe. It unlocks with your fingerprint, just like your iPhone.
Another big one is easy access to semi-automatic, military-style assault rifles. They’re meant for killing people. They’ve been used in almost all of these mass shootings, because it’s super easy to shoot a bunch of people in a row and then reload with another magazine of bullets. It’s the type of gun that was used at Clackamas Town Center, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and by the guy who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. And in so many other shootings. If you want guns for hunting or self-protection, fine. But you don’t need an assault rifle for either of those. A lot fewer people would have been killed in each of these shootings if the shooter didn’t have access to that type of gun.
It also wouldn’t hurt to do more research. In 1996 the CDC stopped being funded to do research on gun violence.
What can journalists do to help?
Report on the issue. Ask important questions: How did the shooter get the gun? What type of gun was used? How it could have been prevented? Don’t treat these shootings as the “new normal.” Do your research. Don’t be fooled or intimidated by the corporate gun lobby. Gun violence is a public health issue, and it should be framed that way. It’s also important to focus on the victims instead of the shooter. Journalism can be a powerful force for change.
How did the SOJC influence your path?
My PR classes taught me how to deal with the media, think about things things strategically and ask the right questions. I got some great experience in Allen Hall Public Relations.
I wouldn’t trade my journalism and communications education for the world. It trained me to communicate clearly and effectively as an advocate and to think about policy and politics from a marketing and PR perspective in order to change people’s minds and make progress on an issue where messaging has proven so key.
What are your goals for the future?
It’s important for me to continue making progress in Oregon on this issue, because of my mom. Now that I’m with ARS, I have the opportunity to expand that influence and make progress in other parts of the country too. We finally passed a universal background checks bill in Oregon in 2015. I’d like to see a federal bill pass for universal background checks and establish liability for negligent gun owners.
People have asked me if I’ve thought about running for office. We’ll see. Life is interesting. I’ve taken a path I never planned on, and that’s my attitude toward the future too. I evaluate opportunities as they come along and say yes to ones that feel right. As my mom’s husband Robert always says, “We all end up in the same place at the end. You just choose the path you’re going to take to get there.”
Story by Nicole Rideout ’16 and Andra Brichacek