The Second Mourning After
When it comes to raising a child, there’s a tender window of time that remains open through the fourth or fifth grade, where a child can show affection without being self-conscious. It is an incredibly sweet time that manifests, for example, during the morning drop-off, when the parent gets out of the car to say goodbye, and the child barrels toward them, bestowing a big hug before running off to school.
“Have a great day. Be safe. I love you,” I’d say to my boys.
This memory is top of mind as I think about the parents in Uvalde, TX, hugging their kids on that Tuesday morning in May, unaware that those hugs would be their last. Their tender window is forever closed.
I saw my own sons — Rafa and Santi — at 10-years old — among the photos of the slain, brown-skinned children, and in that instant, my heart felt the connection: The students at Robb Elementary could have been my children. In my heart, they are my children. They are our children.
In 2016, I wrote the first “Mourning After” missive in the wake of the Pulse massacre, where forty-nine people were murdered and fifty-three more were injured at a LGBTQ dance club in Orlando. Like most of the victims, my sons are young, Latino, and gay. Then, as now, my heart saw Rafa’s and Santi’s faces among the slain as the press published the photos. I wanted to take action — make calls, raise money, take to the streets, whatever — but I felt paralyzed by confusion, anger, and grief. The only thing I could do was write.
In the wake of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the other 327 schools that experienced mass shootings since 1999, we did not make societal or political changes needed to protect our people. Why should we expect any changes this time?
Feeling the need to do more than write, but unsure what I might do, I looked in the mirror, and remembered the advice I give to folks every day when they confront impossible situations and long odds:
When things get difficult, turn to wonder.
And so, I began to wonder.
I wonder about my own relationship with guns.
Like 60% of U.S. residents, I do not own a gun. I have never held a firearm, let alone discharged one. When I was 10-years old, my Aunty Rosie suffered a gunshot wound by two young men who robbed the family grocery store. Still, my family did not opt to buy a gun as a response. My dad was a fisherman, not a hunter. And while my brothers shot cans with their BB guns, I never engaged in those activities. Popular culture taught me that guns are associated with masculinity. I never related to the gun-slinging hero. On the contrary, I had more in common with the hero’s female lead, but that’s a topic for another missive.
My history with guns has led to my negative bias towards firearms, and the people who own them. My personal narrative goes something like this -
- I am scared of guns, therefore I am scared of people who own guns.
2. All gun owners ascribe to a gun culture set on preserving an exaggerated interpretation of Second Amendment rights at all costs.
3. Guns can injure and kill innocent people; therefore, gun owners are inherently violent people.
I can see the holes in my narrative as I read these words aloud, and I am committed to doing the work to disrupt my biases. Part of this work includes actively reaching out to friends and acquaintances who own guns, and understand their values and motivations. I learned that many use firearms for hunting, and I have been nourished by food from their hunting. A few own guns for protection, and others keep them as family heirlooms. One friend even invited me to join them at the shooting range. I’m not quite there yet. Through my conversations, my aim is to disrupt a false narrative against all gun owners. If these folks are part of my circle of belonging, it does not follow that they are equivalent with mass shooters.
However, I have felt my judgment ramp up in the wake of the tragedies of the past week, and I notice my thoughts and feelings move toward fear, othering, and the ramifications of those sentiments. My internal narrative goes something like this -
I wonder why we shouldn’t abolish all guns.
England, Australia, and New Zealand are examples where, after a single mass shooting, the governments abolished most guns, and there have been no mass shootings in those countries since then. While this type of policy is highly impractical in the U.S., there are things that many Americans agree upon. According to a 2019 poll by Gallup,
- 90% support universal background checks for gun purchases;
- 52% want stricter laws on sales of guns (vs. 11% who want less strict laws);
- 61% believe there should be a ban on the manufacture, possession and sale of semi-automatic guns; and
- 68% believe the age limit to purchase guns should be raised from 18 to 21.
These issues can be quickly resolved through acts of Congress, but the political will, at least thus far, has not been there. Our representatives send thoughts and prayers but don’t use their authority to make real change. As Coach Steve Kerr said, “I ask all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence…are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children and our elderly and our churchgoers? Because that’s what it looks like.”
I understand that the U.S. will likely not follow suit with England, Australia, and New Zealand within my lifetime, but we can look to Canada, Finland, or Switzerland for examples of common-sense gun control laws that will prevent further mournings after.
I wonder why people feel more secure possessing a gun (or multiple guns).
There are over 390 million guns in the U.S. — an average 124 guns for every 100 people. While 60% of people in the U.S. don’t own a gun, a Pew Research survey showed that most of the people who are gun owners have more than one, and about 1 in 11 people in the U.S. own at least five guns.
And people are buying more guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that gun manufactures produced 24.6 million handguns, 14.3 million rifles, and 7.9 million other firearms between 2016–2020.
Despite this proliferation of guns, we are not safer. Gun violence is now the number one cause of death for children, ages 1–19, surpassing car accidents. The Department of Justice determined that over 80% of the shooters responsible for mass tragedies in schools obtained their guns from the homes of family members.
Although mass shootings draw the most attention around gun violence, they account for less than 1% of gun-related deaths. One friend, who works in a local community organization, recently said, “Yes, these mass shootings are tragedies beyond compare, and we should get mad. But our organization has dealt with 30 cases of gun violence, every week, for years. I just wish people would get riled up about that too.”
According to the CDC, over 45,000 people in the U.S. died from gun injuries in 2020 — an average of 124 people every day.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that guns were the second most common method of suicide for children, ages 5–11, and that in every case, “the child obtained a firearm stored unsafely in the home.”
On the same day as the Uvalde tragedy, a gun with a fully loaded magazine was found inside of a second-grader’s desk in Sacramento. Investigators found that the child brought the gun from their home.
The adage that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” was summarily disproved in Uvalde, where 19 armed police officers did not stop the gunman from terrorizing and harming children as they begged the police to intervene.
I wonder why people are so drawn to AR-15 style semiautomatic weapons.
The National Rifle Association falsely claims the AR-15 stands for “America’s Rifle.” (The AR actually stands for ArmaLite — not “assault rifle” as some gun control advocates will say. ArmaLite is patented by the Colt Corporation. Other weapons manufacturers produce AR-15-style rifles, but they are not marketed as such).
The NRA website states that “Americans own over 11 million AR-15s, and buy hundreds of thousands each year,” claiming that “AR-15s are the most commonly used rifles in marksmanship competitions, training, and home defense.” It is, in their words, “the most popular rifle on the market today.”
If that is the case, the NRA may want to update their logo to have the eagle clutching to AR-15s in its talons.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), aka the Firearm Trade Industry Association, calls AR-15-style semiautomatic guns “modern sporting rifles.” Ironically NSSF is headquartered in Newton, CT, the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
According to the New York Times, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle was designed to fire about 60 rounds a minute, with the capacity to inflict “maximum wound effect.” Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) recently claimed that AR-15s are “the a gun of choice for killing uh, a fox.” Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) said I use it (AR-15) to kill feral pigs.”
In addition to the tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde, AR-15 style semiautomatic rifles have also been the gun of choice for the following mass shootings –
Resulting in 275 deaths and nearly 1100 injuries. I wonder if, perhaps, Congressman Buck and Senator Cassidy could find it in their hearts to use another method to dispense of unwanted animals for the safety of the American people?
I wonder what I can do to keep an open mind and an open heart, and find common ground — and perhaps higher ground — with gun owners and gun rights advocates.
In the end, my wondering (and wandering) comes back to me, and the calls to action from both my mind and heart. It is about my commitment to be bridge between those with whom I disagree. To that end, I will continue to challenge my biases against gun owners by staying in conversation, learning more about gun culture, and being open to change.
Today, survivors from the Uvalde and Buffalo tragedies set an example by reaching out through their pain and grief to build bridges within the halls of Congress. They shared stories from their hearts, which, in turn, touched the hearts of others. It may be that this time, change is on the horizon.
On a personal note, Rafael came over for dinner on the night of the Uvalde tragedy. We kept it simple, chatted, and watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. I drove him home after the show ended, and as I dropped him off, he came around the car and gave me a big hug.
“Have a great night. Be safe. I love you.”
My heart filled as I drove away, thankful that an open window remains, and convinced that — on behalf of the families of Uvalde — we must all do better. Inspired by these open minds and hearts, I know we can.
Questions for Reflections and Consideration
1. What is your narrative about guns?
2. How do you interact with people who hold an opposing narrative?
3. If you were to give Kevin one piece of advice in his journey as a bridgebuilder, what might you offer?