Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords stands with Lelan O’Brien ’23, a Giffords Courage Fellow.
When gun violence changed his life forever, Lelan O’Brien ’23 decided to take action. After interning with the Brady Campaign, which works to end gun violence, O’Brien served as a Courage Fellow for Giffords, a group led by shooting survivor and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

This month, O’Brien attended a lobby in Washington, D.C., where he met Giffords and other lawmakers working toward a safer future. There, O’Brien and the other Giffords fellows had the opportunity to “tell our own stories, which was very cathartic,” he said.

O’Brien lost his father to gun violence in the spring of 2021. That tragedy motivated him to intern with Brady the following semester while participating in Hamilton’s Washington, D.C., program. “A lot of our work at Brady was using the Giffords research to form our opinions, which was awesome,” he said. “Then I saw the opening for the fellowship and was like — I think this is my opportunity.”  

Lelan O’Brien ’23

Major: Government
Hometown:  Black River, N.Y.
High school: Carthage Senior High School

Once selected to be a Giffords Courage Fellow, O’Brien attended a series of workshops hosted by the organization, which covered the expenses to bring together its 12 fellows for two days of gun violence education. “You learn a ton … they bring in their staff for presentation after presentation,” O’Brien said. The second part of his fellowship involved community engagement, which he completed at Hamilton; the final part was the recent lobby event in Washington, D.C.

At Hamilton, O’Brien spoke with student groups and administrators, spreading awareness about gun violence and promoting the movement in which he had become involved. One highly successful meeting was in April with the All Beliefs Union. O’Brien recalled around 25 people turning up on a Wednesday evening. Part of this was likely due to the timing of the event, he noted, which was held shortly after Hamilton experienced an active shooter threat. “People were ready and willing to have a conversation about gun violence,” he said. Drawing on his personal history and skills as a peer counselor, O’Brien felt comfortable fostering and guiding a meaningful discussion among his peers.

The following month, O’Brien presented to an audience-packed Red Pit about the gun control movement. “I shared my story, broke down some statistics, busted gun myths pushed by the gun industry, and shared how everyone could join me in partaking in the movement,” he explained. Before a large audience of students and administrators, O’Brien spoke for around 45 minutes and answered a few questions. “It was awesome, and really successful,” he said. 

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Lelan O'Brien ’23 (center) with his colleagues in Washington, D.C.
Lelan O'Brien ’23 (center) with his colleagues in Washington, D.C.

Now a Hamilton alumnus, O’Brien will enter Columbia University’s master of social work program in the fall, a decision he traces to his love of author Brené Brown and Director of the Counseling Center David Walden, as well as to his time as a Hamilton peer counselor. Better understanding “human connection and human emotion,” O’Brien said, was a goal he came to value strongly in college. “I could be a therapist,” he remembered realizing during his time as a peer counselor. “I love this — maybe I should start applying to grad school for social work.”

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