Editor's note: This story was written in the wake of The Seattle Pacific University shooting. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Umpqua community as they deal with the tragic aftermath of yet another school shooting.
Every time I read another headline about a shooting, I am taken back to a moment that I wish I never had to experience, the moment when I learned that my mother had been shot. I wrote about my personal experience with gun violence and domestic violence last December, but my journey into the world of advocacy was only in its infancy.
I never planned to become an activist. I was a busy mom, trying to raise three little ones age 5 and under. In December of 2012, my mother was shot by her husband in a domestic violence incident. I spent the year following the shooting caring for my mother as I fumbled my way through parenting and trying to understand how this could happen to my family. I watched my mother writhe in pain and fade into a thin and fragile version of her former self. There were moments where doctors worried that she might die from a septic MRSA infection. When she wasn’t in the hospital, she was in my care. Nurses cycled in and out of my home as they tended to her wounds. I answered difficult questions that my children had about their grandma, about why someone would hurt her. I revisited the darker memories of my childhood with her abusive husband, tried to dissect how everything could take such a tragic and ugly turn.
I worried for months that her shooter, my stepfather, would show up at my house with a gun. I had nightmares about him shooting my mother, my children. I would sprint to answer the front door before my children could open it when the doorbell rang, looking out the peephole every time, just to be safe. Despite my exhaustion, I was plagued with insomnia. A steady stream of mass shootings filled the news. The Aurora Theater shooting, Café Racer, Clackamas Mall. Then, there was Sandy Hook.
On the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook, I loaded my toddler and baby into the car and drove to my son’s preschool. I was an hour earlier than I needed to be to pick him up, but it calmed my nerves to sit in his school’s parking lot, knowing that I was close. I listened to the radio reports and tried to distract my other two children with snacks and silly faces. I felt helpless and sick to my stomach. How could something so horrific happen to innocent children in their own elementary school? How could gun violence happen within my own family?
I had to do something. I was angry and scared and determined.
That same month, in a meeting with ParentMap editors, the topic of gun violence prevention came up. Despite the shame and self-doubt I felt, I shakily revealed my story to my coworkers. It was the first time I had spoken of it to anyone outside of my closest friends and family. My heart felt like it belonged to a hummingbird and my voice croaked like a frog. My fear quickly abated as my coworkers expressed their compassion and surprise.
“Could you write about it?” my editor, Natalie, asked.
That’s the day that I found my voice. The day my story was published, I prepared myself for scorn, judgment and the same tired political debates that often play out when guns are discussed.
Instead, I found myself strengthened by people who were fighting for safer communities and who had their own personal stories about gun violence. I joined Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I met with community leaders, politicians and reporters. I testified before the House Judiciary Committee on two different gun-related pieces of legislation, House Bill 1840, which would require domestic violence abusers who are deemed a credible threat by a judge to turn over their firearms, and Initiative 594, which would require background checks for every gun sale in Washington State.
Suddenly, my story didn’t feel like a dark and shameful secret.
On Lobby Day, I stood on the steps of the Washington State Capitol with women and men who took the day to drive from all across the state to Olympia to speak with their legislators about background checks on all gun sales. I watched a man with a firearm strapped to his waist yell at our group. I looked at the angry, shouting man wearing his gun as I stood next to Cheryl Stumbo. Cheryl, who has undergone countless surgeries from her wounds, is a survivor of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle shooting, an incident where an angry, weapon-brandishing man decided to shoot and kill innocent people. I was awed by her courage.
I had dinner with Ayanna Brown, a mother whose 12-year-old son Alajawan was tragically killed in a shooting as he walked home from the store after buying some new football cleats. She showed me his photo, a handsome boy, tall for his age at 5’8, but with the remnants of baby fat on his cheeks that showed he was still a boy.
“They have a word for all kinds of loss,” she said. “If you lose your spouse, you are a widow. If you lose your parents, you are an orphan. They don’t have a word for when you lose your child because it’s not supposed to happen.”
I watched my mom testify before the House Judiciary Committee in support of I-594 alongside Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly. Many people wore long guns and ammo slung across their bodies into the meeting, where survivors of gun violence were in attendance. People weren't allowed to bring any signs into the meeting though, just guns. With a fist clenched high above her head, Giffords implored legislators and voters: "Stopping gun violence takes courage. The courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas. I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together. Be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight!"
At the end of the last legislative session, I took a last-minute trip to Olympia to urge my legislators to bring House Bill 1840 to the floor for a vote. The bill, which puts certain protocols in place for removing firearms from those deemed a credible threat by a judge when a protection order is issued, had been stalled for over a decade. I spent the day pounding the marble floors of the State Senate Building, pouncing at any opportunity that I could find to tell my mother’s story to legislators, pleading with them to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
My friend and gun-violence survivor Courtney Weaver joined me, showing legislators the gruesome photos of her face after her ex-boyfriend shot her in 2010. This was my third trip to Olympia in the past few months. I wondered briefly if all of our pleas and rehashing of our painful experiences would make a difference.
It did. With tear-streaked cheeks, we watched as legislators passed the bill unanimously. I’ve never felt a sweeter victory than in that moment.
Last week, as I read about yet another school shooting, this time so close to home, these activists and survivors that I have come to know were the faces that flashed through my mind. Their strength and determination give me so much hope. I’m reminded of a popular quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Seattle Pacific University’s shooting is a familiar story, one that, as a nation, we have seen tragically repeated too many times. It’s easy to feel jaded, to feel frustrated with legislators and to feel like change is hopeless.
But, I have hope.
Washington is paving the way for other states in modeling how to successfully campaign for gun violence prevention. In November, the people will have the power to decide on a piece of legislation that will enforce universal background checks for every gun sale in Washington State, Initiative 594. The beauty of democracy means that even when our legislators don’t pass legislation that the majority of voters may support, such as universal background checks, it can be brought to the people for a vote. Laws like this can’t prevent every gun crime; speed limits and seat belts don’t prevent all car accidents, but they certainly do a lot to mitigate tragedy.
When Richard Martinez addressed the media following the Isla Vista shooting, in which his son was murdered, he asked a poignant question that every citizen should take to heart:
"They talk about gun rights, what about Chris' right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, stop this madness, we don't have to live like this? Too many have died. We should say to ourselves — not one more."
We don’t have to live like this. We can change things. As a busy, working mom to young children, if I can find the time to be engaged on this issue, then anyone can. If you want to support gun violence prevention, I encourage you to write your legislators, to vote yes on I-594 and to support organizations that make gun violence prevention a priority, such as Everytown for Gun Safety, The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action , Washington Ceasefire and the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Not one more!