It’s Christmas. New toys litter the floor of my living room as bags of torn paper and flattened cardboard boxes hint at our weak attempt to contain the chaos that Christmas always brings. The sounds of the holiday have died down now, and I am left listening to the rhythmic snores of my toddler and husband as they cuddle next to me. Despite my utter exhaustion from playing Santa late into Christmas Eve, wrapping gifts and assembling toys with bleary eyes, I can’t fall sleep.
Bells and candles. Those symbolic reminders of the holiday season have haunted me for the past 11 days, and every time I light a candle or hear a bell ring, I want to hold my children a little closer.
Part of me wants to forget. To pretend that we live in a world where the only days we light candles and ring bells are the holidays, where there aren’t anniversaries for things like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
But I can’t. I know first-hand how gun violence can affect families. In the past year, as news of more and more mass shootings and gun violence has filled the news, I’ve found myself an accidental activist.
I’d never pegged myself as a political person. My conservative Idaho upbringing chafes with the idea of being an advocate for gun reform. But, tragedy changed me. When I hear about yet another shooting, it all comes rushing back. I remember the phone call when I learned that my mother had been shot by her husband. I remember stroking her hair through plastic gloves as she battled a potentially lethal MRSA infection, tears streaking my face as I prayed for her. I remember the feeling of utter helplessness and vulnerability. Gun violence is no longer an abstract idea that I can push aside.
On Dec. 14 at the “No More Silence: A Call for Remembrance and Resolve” event in the chapel of the First United Methodist Church of Seattle, I again felt that consuming vulnerability as the sound of bells echoed across the foyer. The 26 tolls of the bell, and the 26 candles lit at the altar to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, were tangible symbols of a tragedy that I still have trouble comprehending.
Moms Demand Action Communications Lead Eileen Bennhoff was the first person to speak.
“We are here today because we have pledged no longer to remain silent about the toll that gun violence takes on our society,” she said.
She shared a few sobering statistics: An average of 33 people (eight of them children) are killed every day by gun violence in America, making us the country with the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world.
“Our elected officials in Washington, D.C., may not be taking action, but we are … The time for silence is over."
An interfaith prayer was offered by various church leaders, including rabbis, bishops and reverends. We heard the same beseeching theme:
“We could have saved precious lives by changing society’s ways, and we have not … Dear God, this hurts us so much, teach us, guide us, help us to save one another.”
“As we remember these precious lives and move forward into the future, we pray that their living and dying will not be in vain … “
Prayer can feel so futile when confronting something so very concrete and destructive. I said a silent prayer for peace instead of letting anger in. I have been so angry.
It's estimated that 2,700 children have been killed by guns in the U.S. in the year since the Sandy Hook massacre. That's equivalent to 135 Sandy Hooks just this past year. Nearly two-thirds of the 109 new gun legislation laws passed in the past year ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners. I never would have imagined that following a tragedy like Sandy Hook and the string of shootings since, our legislators would make gun laws even more lax. As I've spoken about my stance on gun responsibility legislation, I have become frustrated with the inability of some people to step outside of their political dogma, examine statistics and facts, and accept that change needs to happen. During the prayer I reached for my husband's hand and wondered if the heat of my rage will remain perpetually warm like his hand, if it will ever go away.
Then, I saw a familiar face as Margy Heldring of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence approached the podium. She read The School Prayer by Diane Ackerman.
“I swear I will not dishonor my soul with hatred, but offer myself humbly … I will honor all life wherever and in whatever form it may dwell …"
It was a quiet confirmation that anger isn't the answer.
Zoe Anne Moore spoke next. Her voice broke and her pain was palpable.
“This is my first time sharing my story, but I do remember the Sandy Hook Massacre. The wound was already there, but it opened wide that day … In January 2010, my daughter took her life. She was able to purchase a gun, and she used that gun to take her life. My life has not been the same since … ”
She held up some pictures. “I know you can’t see them, but I have these pictures of my baby … ” Her voice softened as she looked at the photos.
Next, we heard from Liz Hjelmseth, who was shot with the family rifle by her brother at the age of 8.
“I am a survivor of gun violence that was, before the day it happened, unthinkable to my family and to myself … I am originally from Montana and come from a long line of gun owners. My grandmother had an NRA bumper sticker on her GTO that said ‘If you outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns.’”
She recounted years of rehabilitation and surgeries, how her grandmother scraped her bumper sticker off of her car, and her family sold all of their guns.
“We could fill the ocean with the tears that my family and I shed. Being a survivor of gun violence doesn't make me an expert, but it gives me perspective. Every day, I have the unique experience of living a life that was detoured into disability because of the intersection of an easily accessed gun and mental illness.”
Music by the Seattle Peace Chorus followed, and then we again rang our bells, this time with the pledge to not remain silent when it comes to gun violence within our communities.
I left the service with my emotions swirling. I thought of the cherubic faces of the youngest Sandy Hook victims — so much potential lost to a senseless act. There are so many people bravely sharing their stories, who are so often greeted with political rhetoric, flippant remarks and anger. The more stories I hear, the more I learn one truth: Telling your own story can be painful, but not as painful as remaining silent. Yes, the apathy or animosity people often face when they speak out is painful, but not as painful as the shootings that continue to plague our country and take the lives of more innocent victims. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
If you’d like to be a voice for gun violence prevention in your own community, please visit Moms Demand Action.
All images courtesy of Garet Munger