University of North Carolina students push for gun safety after deadly shooting of faculty member

University of North Carolina students and faculty hold a vigil for slain professor Zijie Yan on August 30, 2023 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Professor Zijie Yan was shot to death on Monday, August 28, 2023. (Eros Hoagland/Getty Images)

A shooting that left a faculty member dead and frightened students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has galvanized gun safety advocates and local Democrats, who rallied the grieving campus community Wednesday to fight for stricter state gun laws.

About 600 students held protest signs on a large lawn in the heart of campus and bowed their heads during a moment of silence as the iconic campus Bell Tower rang in honor of the deceased associate professor, Zijie Yan.

Yan, who led a research group in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences, was fatally shot Monday by one of his graduate students inside a science lab building at the state’s flagship public university, authorities said.

Students who spoke at the rally described hours of terror and confusion during a lockdown and police manhunt that resulted in the arrest of Tailei Qi, 34, who has been charged with first-degree murder and having a gun on educational property. Qi briefly appeared Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, and Judge Sherri Murrell ordered that he remain jailed without bond. Dana Graves, a public defender who represented Qi at the hearing, left court without talking to reporters and did not respond to an email seeking comment.

RELATED: UNC-Chapel Hill shooting suspect Tailei Qi appears in court for first time

With quaking hands and trembling voices, students chanted Yan’s name Wednesday and raised signs that read "learning not lockdowns," "this is my reality" and "1 death by guns is 1 too many." They waved copies of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, which went viral overnight for its Wednesday front page displaying emotional text messages sent and received by students during the lockdown.

"One shot was fired but an entire community was injured," said Luke Diasio, vice president of the UNC chapter of March For Our Lives. "It was the most terrifying experience of my life."

March For Our Lives co-founder David Hogg, who launched the nationwide gun control movement in the immediate aftermath of a fatal mass shooting at his high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, hugged teary eyed students, several who he had met previously. He urged them to take their pain and anger to the ballot box.

RELATED: UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member shot and killed in campus building, authorities say

"The reality is, if we don’t mobilize after these things happen, they’re going to continue happening," Hogg said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This is a critical state because this is where change is possible, a lot more than in Washington. If students at UNC and elsewhere turned out and voted, they could change the state legislature."

Hogg criticized North Carolina Republicans, who hold a narrowly veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly, for enacting legislation this year that repealed a permit system requiring sheriffs to evaluate gun applicants before they could purchase a pistol.

As Republicans plan to redraw legislative maps in a special session this fall, state Democrats are preparing for an uphill battle in 2024, said state party chair Anderson Clayton. Elected at 25 years old, Clayton has trained her focus on young voters, whom she views as essential to shedding Democrats’ superminority status in the legislature, holding onto congressional seats and retaining control of the governor’s office after Gov. Roy Cooper ends his term.

"Now is always the time" for political action, she told the crowd. "Now’s too late in a lot of ways to be thinking about what we’re doing at this moment and how you can engage and put your voices out there."

Volunteers with the UNC Young Democrats registered 24 new voters at the rally, the organization said.

Clayton called for "a reckoning in our state capital" and accused Republican leadership of not taking the shooting seriously.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican and UNC alumnus, had said in a statement Monday that he was "heartbroken" for his Tar Heel family and thankful for the officers and first responders who apprehended the suspect. Moore’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Clayton’s accusation.

Danielle Kennedy, a freshman from Apex, held a handmade sign that read "This is my 2nd School Shooting." The computer science student told The AP she was overwhelmed Monday with familiar feelings of terror after having lived through a similar three-hour lockdown earlier this year when a student brought a BB gun to her high school.

"The first time around, I felt afraid, but now I’m just angry," Kennedy said. "I’m living proof of how common and deeply traumatic this is for kids in our country."

Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.