It’s no secret that gun-control is an issue I'm extremely passionate about, and advocate for frequently on social media. Expressing my views so openly on this topic, however, has brought me more controversy than I ever anticipated. I feel like my advocacy is often chalked up to me being “a looney liberal”, and my arguments are dismissed as “liberal logic”. I’ll admit that I am somewhat of an idealist, so maybe I was destined to be a liberal? I don’t know. What I do know is that my motives aren’t political. They may not even be logical. My passion for this issue is purely emotional, and it’s driven by my uncontrollable tendency to empathize with others. My experience with guns is nonexistent, but my capacity for empathy is innate. So the way I feel about guns has a lot to do with the places my mind goes when I hear about someone getting shot by one. It has a lot to do with what I think about, when I think about gun violence in America.
When I think about gun violence in America I think about the third grade. That’s where I was when two, armed teenagers entered Columbine high school and slaughtered their fellow classmates before taking their own lives. I remember seeing it on the news every day for what seemed like forever. The grownups in my life were shocked and horrified, just like the rest of the country. For a while it was all anyone could talk about. But as a kid the whole thing seemed so far away –like it had happened in another world that I wasn’t a part of. I remember the classroom “lock-down drills” our school would have in preparation for the day an armed intruder roamed our halls. I would crouch under the desk with my friends, while the teacher hurried to turn the lights out, and lock the door. She would “shhhh” us from her little spot, huddled against the door, as we whispered and giggled in the darkness. Our world was narrow, and innocent, as it should be at that age. And in our world we were certain that no harm would ever be allowed to come to us. The drills became just another exciting game. When I got older I came to fully understand and appreciate the horror of the Columbine shooting, and when I recall my early memories of the event, I can’t help but think that it shaped my childhood more than I realized.
The next mass shooting that would affect me in a profound way came in my early 20’s. The theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado struck me as so disturbing and twisted, that even writing about it now makes my stomach churn. When I think about gun violence in America, I think about the first time I learned of the gruesome details surrounding the Aurora shooting. The awful images it brought to my mind then are the same ones that replay over and over every time I think about it now. I can’t help but imagine the rows of faces bathed in light, gazing up at the giant movie screen. I see their confused expressions, and I watch as they change to looks of shock and terror. I have horrible mental images of people frantically trying to flee the spray of bullets directed at them, crawling on hands and knees through theater aisles, and taking cover as best they can. My mind conjures up scenes of people reaching for their loved ones in the dark, calling their names, calling out for help. I imagine the screams of fear and panic echoing off the theater walls, mixing with deafening bursts of gunfire that seem to never end.
When I think about this massacre I think about how it has forever changed the people who survived it. I think about the final breaths taken, and the last moments spent in that theater by those who never made it out alive. Nobody should have to die like that. And no one should have to live with the fear of that possibility. Then another mass shooting happened just a few months later, and I remember thinking I had never actually known fear until then.
When I think about gun violence in America I think about the slaughter of twenty children, and six adult staff members that took place inside of Sandy Hook Elementary School shortly before Christmas in 2012. When I first heard the news it seemed inconceivable that such a thing could happen. I thought it must have been some kind of tragic accident; that nobody would purposely go after a school full of children. But as more details emerged I couldn’t deny the awful reality. I cried for days after the shooting, thinking about all those innocent, little children. I saw them in my head –terrified, confused, crying out for their parent’s, unable to fully grasp that they would never get to see them again. I thought about the evil and the carnage they witnessed while they waited to die. How their innocence was taken from them just moments before their lives were. I thought about their classroom, about brightly colored posters listing vocabulary words, and a chart with the days of the week. I saw Crayola paintings of little, square, houses sitting on bright green lawns, complete with blue skies and a yellow sun, hanging proudly on display –everything covered with blood spatter. I imagined their teacher, frantically pleading for mercy, trying to save them. I tried to imagine what she must have felt in the moment she realized she wouldn’t be able to. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even imagine. I can barely get through typing this without sobbing.
More than anything, though, my thoughts wondered back to the parents who never got to pick up their babies from school that day. I thought about them coming home to a kitchen full of afterschool snacks, and plastic cups covered in cartoon characters. I imagined a mother laying down in her child’s unmade bed, clinging to the sheets and inhaling their scent –desperate to remember the way her child smelled after a deep sleep. I imagined the Christmas presents wrapped neatly under the tree, with little bows, and tags that read -From: Santa. The thought of them sitting there unopened after Christmas seemed like such a cruel reminder of everything they’d lost so soon after losing it.
I thought about my own daughter who was in pre-K the year that Sandy Hook happened. I thought about her safety, the country she was growing up in, and the fear that every parent must live with now when sending their child to school. And I still do. My daughter is in first grade now, and every morning when I drop her off at school these are the thoughts, and images that creep into my head. They stop my heart for just a few seconds as she disappears from my sight behind heavy metal doors –outfitted with key pads and magnetic card readers –and into her elementary school.
Mother Emanuel AME
When I think about gun violence in America, I think about the tragedy that struck my own town of Charleston, SC just this past summer. I think about the massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME Church, and the 9 people killed at the hands of a hateful, racist who they had welcomed into their service with open arms. I thought about how surreal it all must have seemed at first –watching this stranger pull out a gun just moments after praying together, and the realization of being faced with a violent, and untimely death in the middle of Wednesday night church service. I thought about how desperate and afraid they must have felt. I could imagine them clinging to each other, their hearts pounding in their chests, pleading with this evil stranger, trying to make sense of what was happening. I thought about all the prayers they must have sent up that night, and what last words they may have spoken to each other before all but one of their lives were taken. I imagined their final thoughts, the silent messages of love and goodbyes sent up to their loved ones in hopes that it may find them, and offer a small amount of comfort. I thought about the kindness they had shown to this stranger, and the betrayal and fear that must have come over them when they realized why he was there.
My mind kept going back to these thoughts, and I couldn’t stop my head from forming imagined glimpses of their final moments. Now every time I walk through the double doors of my own church, and make my way through the pews, I can’t help but feel that the sanctity of it is just an illusion. And I can’t help but wonder what will be taken next. What is there left to defile after an elementary school and a house of worship? What else will be forever ruined for us by memories of violence and fear? I shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out.
My America, Your America
It’s like I said, my natural ability to empathize is what motivates me to fight for this issue. Maybe it’s extreme. Sometimes I feel like it is. There are times when I wish I didn’t feel everything so deeply. I wish my mind wouldn’t automatically go to the places it does when I hear a sad or horrible piece of news. But it does. So tragedies will always affect me emotionally, violent deaths will always disturb me, and the news will probably always be a source of pain as well as information –especially when there are more stories about violence and gun deaths everyday than I know how to process.
When I think about gun violence in America I think of how Allison Parker was murdered on camera. The look of terror I imagined on her face was so gut wrenching I knew I could never watch the video, because the real image of her fear and helplessness would literally haunt me forever. I don’t ever plan on seeing it. And when I open up my news app and see a story about a toddler accidentally shooting, and killing his mother in the middle of crowded supermarket, or a boy accidentally shooting and killing his 11-year-old brother on a family outing, or an 11-year-old boy killing an 8-year-old girl with a shot gun because she wouldn’t let him see her puppy, it has a profound influence on my feelings about guns, and their role in our society. When I think about gun violence in America I think about the children who have gained access to guns and the tragic consequences. I think about the guilt they’ll grow up with, and the loss the family will have to live with.
When I think of gun violence in America I think of every victim. I think about everything that made them unique, and human –how they took their morning coffee, what their sense of humor was like, who they most wanted to make proud, what made them smile, who they loved –and how all of it can be erased from this earth with one small little squeeze of a trigger. I think about everything they were, or ever wanted to be, and how it is gone forever. I think about it fading as they lay bleeding, and dying until all that’s left of them is a body for their families to bury. I wonder when, or even if, the value of a human life will ever be worth more than money in this country. I wonder how long we will ignore the epidemic of gun violence that is unique to us alone. I wonder when the number of deaths will be considered staggering enough to act. Personally, I think we’ve far surpassed it.
When I think about gun violence in America, I think about the country my children, and my grandchildren will grow up in. What new horrors will they associate with places that once provided us with joy, education, and sanctuary? I wonder if the violence will affect them the way that it affects me. I imagine them sitting down to write about the tragedies they’ve witnessed in their life due to gun violence. And I can’t help but think they’d fill a book.