I must preface this post by acknowledging I am not a gun violence victim (or a family member or friend of a gun violence victim) and, therefore, have no real understanding of its impact on anyone’s life. And while I can no more comprehend the destruction such violence imparts on a family any more than I could know what it is like to be an astronaut, anyone tangentially involved in the gun violence prevention movement has a story to tell. The story of what drove them to act.
My grandparents could relate every mundane activity that occurred on the day they heard about Pearl Harbor. My parents could describe the entire day when they heard about the assassination of President Kennedy. I can relate how desperately I wanted to gather up my twin second graders and wife and cuddle with them in the hours after the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11th. And so too, I can recall the horror and sickening feelings I felt learning of the events of December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut.
Again, my story is no more significant than anyone else’s, but, for what it’s worth, here is what I recall.
It was going to be another long day at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After the always frenetic hour+ commute from Spring, TX, we began the day with my wife having blood drawn at 10:15. From the first-floor diagnostics lab, we proceeded to the imaging department on one of the upper floors where she would be undergoing a PET scan and a CT scan to quantify what effect (if any) her chemotherapy regimen was having on the determinedly marching cancer in her body. We settled into the waiting area for her name to be called. After a while, her name was finally called, and she was tapped with an IV for the tests and taken back to the imaging area leaving me alone. These tests take a long time to complete and were being done one after the other, so I knew I was in for long morning alone. I was able to snag one of the few desks I needed to connect my computer to work. After connecting to the internet and securing a connection with work, I pulled up CNN, as I always did, to see what was going on in the world outside the hospital.
The breaking news headline relayed reports of a school shooting in a place called Newtown, CT. Having graduated from the University of Connecticut, and knowing friends from across the state, I pulled up Google Maps to locate Newtown. I found it, a small community not far outside Danbury. The initial reports said that there were several casualties, but that not much was known, and the scene was still active. I remember pulling up the Hartford Courant’s website and the local television news websites to see if there was any better information. Reports were indicating that the shooting was at an elementary school and that there might be a child among the injured.
As we know, reports continued to be updated, first with five injured, then 10, then a report that many children may have been shot and some fatally. In the waiting area, where people tend to be friendly, if isolated, some with family or friends accompanying them to their procedure, others alone, looks began to be shared, as if we were all wondering if anyone else was aware of what was developing. Stares lingered a little longer than usual as if we were all sure that the horrible news we saw on our phones or computers was isolated to our nightmares and not actually what was really happening. We searched each other’s eyes in hopes that what we were reading was wrong. Waiting for someone to say it was all wrong. The reports continued to be updated. TV news crews had been dispatched and were on their way to the scene. A dozen killed. Then another update indicating maybe more. The scene had been secured, and the word was spread that the shooter was dead. I remember thinking that at least whatever horror he/she had unleashed was quashed and no one else would be injured. The number of wounded and killed continued to climb over the next hour into a dizzying number that I felt (hoped) must surely have been incorrect. There was no way anyone could kill the number of staff and children being reported. They were children! We all know how wildly exaggerated news reports tend to be in the midst of a situation. This couldn’t be true!
The waiting area became noticeably louder as people began to process and share what had happened. After several hours, my wife finally walked out from the back area of the imaging department, and as she walked toward me, I fought for the words to tell her what had happened. My eyes welled up with tears, and my throat was no longer capable of forming words. She was the one with cancer, undergoing all manner of torture to combat the disease, and here I was, hugging her and breaking down in tears. The ride home, as usual, regardless of the time of day took much longer than it needed to. I was quiet in the car. We did not have the radio on, listening to music as we always did. By the time we reached home, the final tallies were being calculated. Twenty-six dead, not including the perpetrator or his mother.
That evening, I was alone in my home office, shaking with anger. My wife entered to find me on my knees almost hyperventilating with rage. It was no longer enough to write about gun violence, I told her, I needed to get involved. She hugged me and said she understood and would help me as long as it didn’t consume me and send me into a deep depression. I promised, saying that I simply needed to do something. I knew it wouldn’t be me alone who felt that way that night. I knew thousands were already involved. I simply wanted to add my voice.
I had become angered enough by gun violence in America after the theater shooting in Aurora, CO the previous July 20th to write about it. The very first entry in this blog was simply a copy/paste of a blog entry written by one of the victims of that shooting, Jessica Ghawi. She had narrowly escaped a shooting in a mall in Toronto the previous June 2nd and wrote about the event and how grateful she felt. The second to last paragraph of her entry reads:
“I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.”
Forty-eight days later she was dead. I wish I had known Jessica. I was fortunate to meet her parents in October of 2015, six weeks after my wife’s death. They were as kind and compassionate as anyone I’ve ever met and doggedly determined to prevent gun violence. Sandy Phillips’ first question to me as she stepped out of her car was to ask how was I doing after my wife’s death. She had lost a child, and her involvement in the gun violence prevention movement was the reason I was meeting her, and yet here she was concerned about me! I had no idea she knew about my wife’s illness or death. She is an incredible individual and so is her husband, Lonnie.
So now we find ourselves four years out from the shooting in Newtown. There have been political victories and defeats in those four years and over 130,000 Americans killed by a gun over that period of time, including many in the over 200 school shootings since Newtown. The greatest shift in that time has been the involvement and organization of hundreds of thousands of people like me. People fed up with accepting gun deaths and injuries as part of “normal” American life. The gun lobby is still a juggernaut in Washington, D.C. and in state houses around the country, but it is no longer the only voice or position. Social change comes in glacially slow movements, but it comes all the same. I can never fully appreciate the scars this date has left on the family members and friends of those lost four years ago or in any of the other gun-related horrors before or since. July 20, 2012 and December 14, 2012 changed my life and forced me to add my voice to the thousands of others no longer willing to consent that gun deaths are acceptable. Four years on and the fight is not over, but we have never been so organized or vocal or determined.