An Open Letter To Our Politicians
I had my first baby in 2012. Four months later, a man walked into a movie theater in Colorado and began shooting. When the police arrived 90 seconds later, 70 people had been hit by bullets. 12 died. One was a six year old girl. She was shot four times in the chest. Her pregnant mother miscarried a week later.
I thought it would be the last mass shooting. I thought after Aurora and Virginia Tech and Columbine, legislators like you would have had enough and would do whatever was necessary to keep people, especially children, from being gunned down in a place as innocuous as a movie theater ever again.
Five months later, a man shot through the window of a Connecticut elementary school, walked in, and began shooting. He first killed the school principal and school psychologist. He then walked into a first grade classroom. The substitute teacher had heard gunshots over the intercom and huddled her students into the class bathroom. The man found them and murdered the teacher and 15 six and seven year olds with a weapon built for war. Those hiding nearby recall hearing a little boy scream, "Help me! I don't want to be here!" to which the shooter replied, "Well, you're here," and continued shooting.
There are parents in this world who have to wake up every morning knowing their six-year-old son was filled with terror and begging for his life right before he died.
One six year old survived. She had played dead. When she was reunited with her mother, she said, "Mommy, I'm okay, but all my friends are dead." There is a mother in this world who had to try to respond to that statement from her daughter. Likely many times.
After the initial room, the shooter walked into another first grade class. He shot and killed the teacher and 5 more six and seven year olds. Then he shot and killed himself. Police arrived at the school 14 minutes after the shooting started. Six female school employees and 20 children were dead.
I remember watching the Connecticut state medical examiner on the news. He fought back tears as he described the bodies of slaughtered children dressed in brightly-colored kids’ clothing. Most victims had been shot multiple times. Body bags wouldn’t work for some because there wasn’t enough of their body left to bag.
After hearing that gruff, older man in his lab coat choke up describing the incomprehensible condition of children’s corpses, I thought legislators like you would do whatever was necessary to keep children from being gunned down in their schools ever again. Some legislators tried, but their efforts were blocked.
I had my second baby in 2015. Five months later, a man walked into a church in South Carolina and began shooting. A five-year-old girl witnessed the shooter in the course of six minutes, shoot and kill nine worshipers. He shot them multiple times from a close range. He shot them because they were black. He shouted racial slurs while he murdered. The five-year-old survived because she played dead.
I hoped legislators like you would do whatever was necessary to keep people, especially children, from being gunned down in church. Or from being gunned down because of their race. But it was seeming less and less likely.
The number of mass shootings was growing and the time we spent talking about each one was shrinking. We all have lives to live and only so much emotional energy to spend grieving.
Around this time I began looking for exits in every building I entered. I began avoiding seeing movies opening weekend. I felt nervous sitting in church with my two kids. I now knew a shooting could happen at any time and any place. And while I knew the data and statistics demonstrated the chance of anyone in my family being a victim of a shooting was just above zero, I knew data and statistics did nothing for the movie-goers in Aurora, the children in Newtown, and the worshipers in Charleston.
The next big shooting I remember was in 2016, when a man walked into a gay nightclub and shot 102 people. 49 of them died. Victims were as young as 18 and as old as 50.
I heard an interview with one of the victim’s mothers. Her daughter had just graduated high school and was on vacation in Orlando with friends. She had talked with her daughter earlier that day. Her daughter told her she and her friends had found a night club to visit. They knew it would be safe because it was a gay club.
I wondered if that mother felt relieved when her daughter graduated, the threat of a school shooting now gone. I wonder if she felt happy when she heard her daughter had found a safe place to celebrate with her friends. Listening to her interview, I realized my fear of my family being torn apart by a shooter would never end.
After the Pulse nightclub shooting I wrote to Senators Lee and Hatch and Congressman Stewart, my senators and representative at the time. I told them how worried I was. I told them I feared my children or any child might be harmed in a mass shooting and asked them to do something to keep anyone from being gunned down just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I received emails from all three offices describing legislation the politicians supported, and linking to statements they had made regarding gun violence. I appreciated these responses, even if they didn’t address the problem as aggressively as I would have liked. I did not write to members of the state legislature, but I wish I had. I think change can happen much quicker on a local level, which is in part why I’m writing this now.
I assume no progress was made on the legislation Hatch, Lee, and Stewart said they supported, because nothing changed after Pulse. The number of mass shootings continued to rise. The time we spent talking about each one continued to shrink. All the while my anxiety and the anxiety of the nation grew.
In the fall of 2017 my oldest daughter started kindergarten. I was so excited for her. But I was also filled with dread. Somewhere in the back of my mind I dropped her off every morning knowing there was a chance I would not see her at pickup. Every time I saw a missed call from the school district on my phone, my heart sank.
When her kindergarten class had their first active shooter drill she asked what it was for. I tried to explain in a way that would not heighten her anxiety, but would convey how seriously she should practice what to do if an angry man with a weapon built for war enters her school. After our talk she went to bed and I cried.
In October that year a man in Las Vegas fired 1,100 rounds from a 32nd floor window on music festival attendees. He shot 481 people. 481. 59 of them died. The majority of them were women, many mothers of young children. You should read about each of the victims. They were living good lives. They were about to get married. They were raising children. They were professionals. They were grandparents. One was from Cedar City.
I went to spin class the morning after the Las Vegas shooting. The instructor told us to take the negative energy we were feeling about the shooting and release it into the universe. It made me angry. I thought it was inappropriate, privileged, New Age nonsense. Releasing my vibes into the universe wasn't going to bring those 59 people back. But now I think the instructor just didn’t know what else to do. Because none of us know what to do when an angry man shoots 481 people in ten minutes. We’re sad. We express our sadness in a spin class or on social media, but then we have to go on living our lives. At the rate these incidents occur, if we take even a half a day to grieve, we’re grieving all the time. And we can’t live our lives like that. We also can’t hold out hope legislators will do something to stop these massacres when they've demonstrated so many times that they won’t. So we try not to think about it.
The following spring a man entered a high school in Florida and began shooting. In six minutes he killed 17 people and injured 17 others. Victims were as young as 14. I no longer had hope legislators would do whatever necessary to prevent it from happening again.
But I was inspired by the Parkland survivors who spoke out and demanded change. I wondered if this might be a tipping point.
Inspired by the Parkland survivors, a number of marches were organized across the country in spring of 2018. I attended the March For Our Lives in Salt Lake City. 8,000 of us marched that day. Most of us were parents who brought our young children. We walked through counter protestors who yelled about the second amendment. We felt scared but brave, and for the first time it seemed like real change might actually happen. But even when those of us protesting for sensible legislation outnumbered the black-clad counter-protestors with their tanks and rifles eight to one, the New York Times chose to write about the pro-gun rally of 1,000 that took place earlier that morning. That's the message that came out of Utah. And I’m worried that’s the message you, our leaders and legislators, received as well. I need you to know there were 8,000 of us marching for change that day. I need you to know we outnumbered the counter-protestors eight to one.
Around the same time I learned I was pregnant with our third child. During my pregnancy there were 15 mass shootings, with the definition of a mass shooting being four or more people, excluding the perpetrator, being shot in the same location at the same time. Shootings with three victims or less do not make the list.
After one of these shootings, a survivor was asked if they ever thought something so terrible would happen where they live. The survivor responded that of course they thought it would happen there, because it was happening everywhere.
Prior to the new school year stores started selling bullet-proof backpacks and desperate parents bought them.
My oldest daughter started first grade. My second daughter started preschool. I was grateful for the buzzers outside the locked school doors, the cameras placed inside their classrooms, and the damn active shooter drills. But I worried those measures might not be enough to deter a massacre. I dropped my children off every day hoping I’d see them again at pickup. I considered buying them bullet-proof backpacks.
In November 2018, a man entered a bar in California and began shooting. He shot over 25 people. 12 of them died. One of the victims had survived the Las Vegas shooting. The shooting that killed him barely made the news.
I had a baby at the end of December. A few months later my two older kids finished the school year and I felt relieved to have all three of my kids home with me during the day. It felt safer than sending them to school.
Recently I took my kids to the grocery store and a man walked in, who at first glance looked like he was wearing tactical gear, the kind I’ve seen on the news. The kind mass shooters often wear. I panicked before realizing he was actually wearing cycling gear.
Reflecting on the incident later, I realized I did not know what I would have done had he been an actual shooter. And that keeps me up at night.
Ten days ago a man cut through a fence into the Gilroy Garlic Festival and began shooting. He shot 16 people. Three died. One of the victims was 13. Another was six. Two children were slaughtered and as a nation we talked about it for an hour or so.
On Saturday a man entered a Walmart in Texas and began shooting. He shot 46 people in six minutes. 22 of them have died so far. Two children, ages two and nine are in the hospital. The two-year-old’s mother and father are dead. They were shielding their children, one of them 2 months old, from bullets. They were at Walmart as a family for back to school shopping.
Hours later a man entered a Dayton bar and began shooting. Police responded within 30 seconds, but he still managed to shoot 37 people. Ten of them have died so far. One was his sister. One was the mother of a newborn.
You know all this. But I’m reminding you. Because I’m tired. And I’m sad. And I don’t think we have to live like this.
On Saturday my seven-year-old heard me and my husband talking and she asked, “What’s a shooting?” My husband Stephen told her that a bad man had killed a lot of people. She asked, “Did the police make the bad man go to jail?” I think her question indicates she doesn’t really understand what happened. And for that I am grateful.
In the seven years I’ve been a mom there have been hundreds of shootings. Each one shattering families with the loss of a mom or dad, son or daughter. I’m so sad and so tired and I don’t think we have to live like this.
So please, tell me: what are you planning to do to protect our families? What are you planning to do to keep more six year olds alive? What can I tell my nervous kid, when she eventually learns what a shooting really is, that you are doing to keep her school and grocery store and movie theater and church and community events safe?
Please tell me. And then do it.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)