It was a lovely evening at a sidewalk café in New York City. I was catching up with a friend, a survivor of Sandy Hook, when our Google news alerts went off simultaneously. Our separate search terms activated, we knew it was going to be especially awful. We both swiped our phones for the breaking news of the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. We held hands and choked back tears as we read the unconfirmed details available in that moment. There were some things our personal experiences with gun violence had taught us with certainty; the brutal jolt and denial that comes with the notification, the swirling confusion of the horrific details, the unrelenting shock and grief, the dichotomy of unendurable pain juxtaposed simultaneously with endless numbness. Life, as Charleston knew it, will not be the same for generations.
I can remember the moment that I learn of each horrific mass shooting. I recall the shock and horror as body counts rolled in. I can also recount the details of the shootings that have not garnered national attention; Guillermo and Rafael – shot and killed at work, Lindsay – shot sitting with friends, Kate and her dad – shot in front of her 6 year old by her abusive ex. They go on and on, some have died, some have survived. All the lives impacted in each of these shooting irrevocably changed.
Every day in America roughly 272 families learn that someone they love has been shot. Every single day in the US, 88 of those families plan funerals; 7 of those families must select coffins for children — each and every day in our nation.
Each and every day in the US, approximately 180 people of those shot survive. I am one of them. I’m also a full time wheelchair user, due to the bullet that ripped through my body shattering my family, community and future along with my spine. My fiancé, who sheltered me with his own body, was shot in the head. Although we’ve survived our injuries, life has never been the same. While the number of deaths due to gun violence has been trending down in recent years, the numbers of gunshot victims has remained relatively stable since my own shooting 11 years ago.
Eleven years ago, I was a tall, athletic, PTA mom; riding in a car, holding my fiancé’s hand when a stranger fired a gun in our direction. We weren’t in a bad neighborhood. We weren’t out buying or selling drugs. We didn’t flip someone off on the freeway. We were simply random victims. Besides my spinal cord, my own gunshot wound stole my belief that “good” people in “good” neighborhoods were safe from gun violence and the notion of the heroic “good guy with a gun.”
My fiancé, truly a good guy, was armed at the time of our shooting and more than capable of defending us if he’d had the chance. How exactly do you protect yourself from random ambush? From being shot in the back as you pull into a drive-thru for a quick dinner?
There are approximately 100,000 shootings every year in the US; equal to the entire population of Las Cruces, New Mexico or South Bend, Indiana, or College Station, Texas. A recent article in Mother Jones magazine estimates that gun violence costs our nation $227 billion annually; $55 billion more than Apple’s worldwide revenue in 2012. It costs each of us, each man, woman and child in the US, $700 apiece every single year.
There are costs that can’t be measured. What is the value of my then 12-year old son’s innocence the night he was ripped from his warm bed and rushed to my trauma room to say goodbye as his mother lay dying? What did it cost him to bury his terror and confusion to be brave at my bedside? What is the price a mother perpetually pays who has lain drenched in her own son’s blood in a Charleston church during the carnage at their bible study? How does an entire community find normal after 20 of their first graders and 6 of their teachers have been massacred? What is the lifelong impact of child upon child dying in Chicago neighborhoods? What does it take to forget the coppery smell of blood mixed with the acrid odor of expended bullets? How do you become whole again after you’ve picked the blood and skull and brain matter of your beloved fiancé out of your hair?
These are some of the unspeakable, incalculable costs of gun violence. Yet, they are paid more than 100,000 times each and every year with each new shooting. Certainly, if we as a nation found the courage so often displayed by the victims of gun violence, the same conviction that causes some to throw their bodies in harm’s way to protect those they love from the ravages of a bullet, we could take steps to curb the slaughter. There is room for protections of our Second Amendment rights and sensible reforms aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not have easy access to their power.
This is where I spend much of my time; working to reform our gun laws to prevent more victims. I meet directly with legislators, both in Washington D.C., and in their home districts. I write and speak about the impact of gun violence wherever I’m asked to do so. My resolve to curb this endless churn of new victims grows with each survivor I hug and each mile I push in this wheelchair.
Why is it that mental illness and violence in our media and culture are no more prevalent here in the US than other developed countries yet our rate of shootings and gun deaths is astronomically higher? Are either of these truly the root cause? Until and unless we treat the issue of gun violence as we do any other public health issue and allow the collection of empirical data, we can only make educated guesses.
When more than 75% of Americans supporting universal background checks, why does Congress fail to act? With the growing number of highly-publicized deaths of children by negligent discharge, why are legislators across the country promoting laws that would make it illegal for pediatricians to even talk with their patients about safe storage of firearms in the home?
We must quiet the voices of extremism on either side and work with the commonsense and compassion of the vast middle who agree that dangerous people should not have easy access to firearms. That owning and carrying a gun is as much a responsibility as a right and therefore should be accompanied by a background check and appropriate education on how to safely carry, store, maintain and fire that weapon.
It is because anyone at any moment can join this growing family of gun violence survivors, that I, along with so many others, work each and every day to stem the tide. It is the collective strength and resolve that allows us to interact with apathetic elected officials and face down the extremists who threaten us, call us names and try to intimidate us.
Every time there is another mass shooting, America discusses the reasons why: the person was mentally ill, or it was a parent’s legally purchased gun, or it was a gift; from racism to terrorism. Every time there is a call for measures to help curb the violence, the gun lobby’s weight with members of Congress drowns out the voices of regular people across the country who would support some degree of meaningful change. And every time there is an Aurora or a Tucson or a Charleston splashed across media, other survivors of gunshot violence across the country can’t help but feel, all over again, the bullets that tore their own lives apart.
We are shocked and rightfully horrified by mass shootings. We remember their details, worry about “the next time” but then we move on. The carnage from the daily toll of “every day shootings” is even greater although ignored in the national conversation.
Today, just like yesterday and the day before it, an average of 272 families will be notified that someone they love has been shot; 88 of them will begin to plan funerals; 7 will buy child-sized coffins. Since that night 11 years ago when I was shot in the back and paralyzed in a random shooting, more than one million people have been shot. One million human lives shattered by gun violence. For every person shot, how many others are impacted? How many families, neighborhoods, and whole communities are shattered by a single bullet?
It is the lesser known, quiet horror of the everyday-ness of gun violence that we, as a nation can and should address. We, as Americans, must demand from our leaders effective, non-partisan action. It is that conviction that causes those of us who know firsthand the horror of gun violence to fight on. And fight we will.