In the early hours of Monday morning, the students of Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis were just students. Their parents were just parents; teachers were just teachers. Shortly after 9 a.m., when a 19-year-old opened fire in the school, killing two and injuring multiple others, those identities forever changed. On Tuesday, police said the shooter was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and over 600 rounds of ammunition. In his car, a note referring to mass shootings was found.
Following the shooting, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Interim Chief Mike Sack told reporters that “while on paper we might have nine victims … everyone who survived here is going to take home trauma.” He’s right. The U.S. is filled with people who take home trauma after senseless gun violence rattles their community. But we are also a country where many Americans can’t relate.
The U.S. is filled with people who take home trauma after senseless gun violence rattles their community. But we are also a country where many Americans can’t relate.
Gun violence happens so often that if it hasn’t affected you directly, it can be easy to become jaded by the horrific details that emerge after a mass shooting.
For survivors like me, that’s not possible. At some point, something inside of me snapped. And it’s the same feeling I hope moves every voter, particularly those fortunate enough not to know the grief of losing a loved one or watching the innocence of a child vanish, into action.
On July 3, I was just a mom. The summer air was thick and hot as we prepared for the holiday weekend. Proud symbols of Americana were everywhere. Red, white and blue bunting adorned window sills while American flags, big and small, flickered in the breeze. All over Highland Park, Illinois, meats marinated and treats baked in anticipation of sizzling grills and recipe requests.
I went to Target and bought an inflatable pool with a bench to cut the summer heat with a drink while the neighborhood kids splashed around.
In September, I returned the pool unopened. As the salesperson took it away, I felt a twinge. Guilt maybe? Relief? Or perhaps it was just the feeling of release as I let go of something connected to before. Back when a shiny plastic pool on a hot summer day could make me happy and hopeful.
On a recent morning, my son described something he wanted to be a “deliberate” memory. I don’t remember the details of it, but this part of what he said stood out: “I will hold onto that memory on my brain plane.”
I’m not sure where he got this concept from, but since then, I’ve often wondered about what’s on his “brain plane” from July 4.
Is it the same as what’s on mine? A kaleidoscope of scenes and sounds that still make my skin prickle. Does the dread creep in, washing over him like a wave of uneasiness? Does he remember the sound of grown-ups wailing and screaming, “There’s a shooter!” and “They’re dead!” Did he see the faces of stunned children as they bounced along in the arms of frantic running parents? Does he remember crying, “What’s happening?! I’m scared!” over and over again? Does he remember collapsing on the ground, begging not to die? Does he remember my voice as I desperately tried to convince him to keep running? Does he remember inconsolably screaming when we got in the car?
That particular moment is imprinted on my “brain plane.” The scream had come from so deep inside him. It was the sound of someone’s world coming to an end. A piercing expression of trauma and relief that no words in the human language are capable of describing. He let it all out in a series of blood-curdling howls until his little body was empty, and he slumped in his car seat, exhausted and sweating. His sandy blonde hair was plastered to his forehead, and his eyes were glazed.
Minutes later, we made it home safely. We were the lucky ones.
A veil of shock hung over our little town in the days following the shooting. Chairs, bikes and bags sat unmoved on the parade route as the FBI finished its investigation. The eeriness was preserved by a boundary of yellow caution tape and the looming police presence that guarded it 24/7. And then, one day, the tape came down, and all the items were cleared away as if nothing had happened.
I can’t remember the exact moment I got activated. It could have been at the anti-gun rally my neighbor organized in our local park days after the shooting. Maybe it was after I learned that, similar to the one I experienced, the majority of mass shootings are committed with legally purchased assault weapons. Or it could have been after reading that over 300,000 children have been exposed to gun violence in schools since Columbine, according to a Washington Post database. Perhaps it was a couple of nights after the parade when my son grabbed his head and said it was too full of thoughts and vomited all over the place.
When I say that on July 3, I was just a mom, it’s because that’s what I remember. Summer days crawled by, and kids jumped on the trampoline as the sun dipped into the horizon and the moon took its place in the black sky.
I felt safe.
I know now that it was all a lie. None of us are safe. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your town can’t be next. Don’t push aside the nagging feeling that your children might not come home from school. Don’t believe for a second that you can’t be gunned down in the produce aisle. At the movies. At a music festival. At a parade.
We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to watch community after community be broken by bullets. We don’t have to mourn another tragedy. We can ban assault weapons. We can demand that our lawmakers step up and protect our children and our communities by banning the future sale, transfer and manufacturing of assault weapons.
If you’re someone who is concerned about your Second Amendment being infringed upon, don’t let the gun lobbyists fool you. This is not a gun grab.
I’m fighting to ban assault weapons because no ordinary citizen needs a weapon that is powerful enough to liquify a person’s organs.
This is not a partisan issue either.
The majority of Americans support an assault weapons ban. We can join together to get this done. How do I know? Because we did it before with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. A 2019 study found that while it was in effect from 1994 to 2004, the likelihood of mass shootings was 70% less.
I used to be just a mom.
I don’t have that luxury anymore. And the unfortunate reality is the network of mass shooting survivors is growing. But you don’t have to wait until a mass shooting happens in your community or to someone you love. You can help pass a federal assault weapons ban now by doing two things: calling your senators at 202-224-3121 to ask them to support a federal assault weapons ban and voting for gun-sense candidates who will vote yes to pass a federal assault weapons ban.
Join the fight before it’s you and your child running for your lives.