A national debate about gun violence, Second Amendment rights, and the legality of automatic weapons has raged through America with increasing intensity over the last few decades. And with a rise in mass shootings at schools and other public places, gun control has become a central issue in youth culture and pop culture, with more and more celebrities and entertainers speaking out.
After Tuesday’s tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed, and the Buffalo, New York supermarket shooting in which ten Black people were killed in a racist attack, there is a new urgency to the conversation. And many artists have spoken out this week, including Taylor Swift, who broke a prolonged social media silence to share her “unbearable heartbreak” about Uvalde.
Although musicians including Ted Nugent and Killer Mike have aligned themselves with the powerful lobbying group the National Rifle Association, popular musicians since the 1960s rock explosion have often sided with liberal causes including pacifism, non-violence, and gun control. Here’s a timeline of a few notable moments when musicians from many different generations, genres, and backgrounds have waded into the debate to decry gun violence or advocate for stronger laws regarding the sale and ownership of guns.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
On May 4, 1970, a student peace rally at Kent State protesting the Vietnam War turned tragic when 28 Ohio National Guard soldiers opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine more. The folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who’d just released their blockbuster album Déjà Vu two months earlier, quickly entered the studio and recorded Neil Young’s angry, mournful “Ohio,” rush-releasing it weeks after the shootings.
Neil Young has remained an outspoken advocate of non-violence and gun control in the decades since. And in 2018, Young released a music video for a live performance of “Ohio” that includes a spoken intro and protest footage that connects the Kent State tragedy to contemporary school shootings. Young’s bandmates have also continued to support gun reform. In 2018, David Crosby told C-Ville Weekly, “The idea that you can walk into a gun show and buy a bumpstock AR-15 like a machine gun, without even showing a driver’s license, that can’t be right.”
The Bronx hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions helped give birth to the nascent “gangsta rap” genre with their 1987 debut album Criminal Minded, with group member Scott La Rock brandishing a gun in the album’s cover photo. After Scott La Rock was killed in a shooting later that year, however, BDP co-founder KRS-One pivoted to a more socially conscious style of music, decrying the effect of gun violence on the Black community.
Scott La Rock’s death, and the killing of a young fan at a Boogie Down Productions show in 1988, spurred KRS-One to found the Stop the Violence Movement. The organization released the all-star song “Self Destruction,” featuring rappers like MC Lyte and Heavy D lamenting shootings and urging hip-hop fans to leave the guns alone. Sales of the single and a VHS tape of the music video raised over $100,000 for the National Urban League, which had partnered with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder wrote one of the band’s first major hits, 1992’s “Jeremy,” after reading about Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old Texas boy who shot himself in front of his school classroom in 1991. The Mark Pellington music video for “Jeremy” originally included an actor portraying Jeremy putting a gun in his mouth, although the censored version that aired on MTV cropped out the weapon. In 2020, Pearl Jam put the uncensored version of the “Jeremy” video on their YouTube channel in honor of National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
The band’s more pointedly satirical 1993 song “Glorified G” opens with Vedder singing, “Got a gun, in fact I got two/ That’s okay, man, ‘cause I love God.” As it turns out, the song was directly inspired by Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese, a proud gun owner who was a little out of step politically with the band, and was fired from Pearl Jam in 1994.
In 1996, Sheryl Crow released her highly-anticipated self-titled second album. But one of the country’s biggest music retailers, Walmart, refused to sell the album after getting wind of the song “Love Is a Good Thing” which opens with the lyrics: “Watch out sister, watch out brother/ Watch our children while they kill each other/ With a gun they bought at Walmart discount stores.” The album still managed to go triple platinum without Crow giving in to the chain’s request to change the lyric.
In 2019, Walmart announced that it would no longer sell handguns or ammunition shortly after 22 people were shot at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. “I was so happy to see Walmart take the stance that it did and how just forward-thinking and responsible it was to take that stance and to stop selling guns,“ Crow said in an interview with Buzzfeed.
When two heavily armed seniors at Columbine High School walked into their school in 1999 and killed 13 people, many media outlets attempted to scapegoat the influence of violent films, video games, and music. And an unsubstantiated report that the two shooters were fans of Marilyn Manson put the shock rocker at the center of the controversy.
Marilyn Manson responded to the furor by penning a Rolling Stone editorial. “When it comes down to who’s to blame for the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado, throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who’s guilty. We’re the people who sit back and tolerate children owning guns, and we’re the ones who tune in and watch the up-to-the-minute details of what they do with them,” Manson wrote. “I think that the National Rifle Association is far too powerful to take on, so most people choose Doom, The Basketball Diaries or yours truly.”
Albums like 1973’s Shotgun Willie helped make Willie Nelson one of the most recognizable faces of the Outlaw Country movement that saw contemporary country singers imagine themselves as gun-slinging badasses of the wild west. But Nelson has often espoused relatively progressive politics for a country star. In an appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight in 2012, advocated for stricter laws for automatic weapons. “I don’t know what I would do with a gun that would shoot 1000 times,” Nelson told Morgan. “I think it should be more regulated. I think a lot of guns, there’s no need for civilians to won those. Those are for military.”
Tony Bennett, who rose to fame as a jazz crooner in the 1950s, has in recent decades become one of the few pre-rock n’ roll pop stars still with a finger on the pulse of young America and progressive politics. Bennett marched in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965, and in the past decade Bennett turned his activism towards gun control.
After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting in Connecticut, Bennett teamed up with the Brandy Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for a 2013 text message campaign to help Americans contact U.S. Senate offices. “There’s something that’s gone wrong and, as citizens, we should protest what happened in Connecticut. It should never happen again anywhere in the United States,” Bennett told Politico.
Maren Morris, Eric Church, and Kacey Musgraves
In 2017, a man in a Las Vegas hotel room opened fire on the audience at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, killing 60 people and wounding hundreds more. The tragedy prompted more open debate about the right to bear arms and gun control reform than had ever happened before in the often conservative and politically cautious country community. Maren Morris, who performed at the festival one day before the shooting, advocated for gun control legislation when speaking to the Kansas City Star. “This isn’t about politicizing a tragedy. It’s about waking up when something this horrific goes down and we say, ‘How do we prevent this from ever happening again?’ And that starts with the gun conversation.
Eric Church, who performed two days before shooting, had long identified as a proud gun owner, but spoke openly about who was complicit in the tragedy. “I blame the lobbyists. And the biggest gun in the world is the NRA,” Church told Rolling Stone in 2018.
“Pray for the country community, those that got hurt tonight, and that whatever drives this evil can be f–king crushed,” Kacey Musgraves tweeted after the Route 91 Harvest shooting. In 2019, after the Walmart shooting in her native Texas, Musgraves took a more pointed stance on guns, tweeting “The system is majorly flawed and NOBODY NEEDS ANYTHING REMOTELY AUTOMATIC. PERIOD. They’re mass killing machines.”
A few weeks after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, more than 800 March For Our Lives protest events were held around the world in March 2018. Paul McCartney appeared at the New York City rally in a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “We can end gun violence.” Speaking to CNN, McCartney said “One of my best friends was killed in gun violence right around here, so it’s important to me,” referencing the 1980 murder of his Beatles bandmate John Lennon.
Olivia Rodrigo, Halsey and Selena Gomez
Following the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, many more musicians have spoken in favor of gun control legislation in May 2022. On Wednesday, one day after the Uvalde incident, 19-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo addressed the audience at her Los Angeles concert at the Greek Theater: “I’m so heartbroken that this is the reality we’re living in, and we need stricter gun control laws in America.”
Halsey vented emotionally about the tragedy on Instagram, writing “I just want all school-age children to be protected and not grow up in the epicenter of this trauma. It is so futile and revolting that lawmakers protect guns over our youth. It’s despicable.” On Twitter, Texas native Selena Gomez also wrote with anger, nothing “Those in power need to stop giving lip service and actually change the laws to prevent these shootings in the future.”