‘We don’t have to live this way and our children shouldn’t die this way.’ Sorrow, reckoning after another mass shooting – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Brenda Mitchell’s son, Kenneth, was shot and killed trying to break up a fight outside a Matteson, Illinois, bar in 2005.

One week earlier, her younger son, Kevin, left for his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“In my mind, he was the one who was in danger,” she wrote in a searing essay. “Never in a million years would I imagine Kenneth would be the one to die from an act of gun violence, right here at home in a free country.”

Kenneth left behind two sons, in addition to his shattered parents, brother and countless friends. His mom, a minister, poured her grief into service. The funerals she officiated, especially for young people, cut fresh wounds.

“The crime is on humanity,” Mitchell wrote.

She also went on to become a fellow with the Everytown For Gun Safety Survivor Network, a state chapter co-leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and a volunteer in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

I spoke with Mitchell on a recent Thursday evening, alongside Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts. Watts, a mother of five, founded the grassroots gun safety organization in 2012, after watching the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary unfold on her TV and searching for a way to slow the tide of violence that keeps washing over our communities.

We were in conversation for a Family Action Network event on gun safety in our communities, inspired, in part, by the July 4 parade shooting in Highland Park, Illinois.

I asked Mitchell if gun safety is one issue, in her estimation, or if it’s dozens of complicated issues that call for dozens of different solutions.

Both, she said.

“But one thing remains the same,” she said. “And that’s the need for common sense gun laws.”

“You used to have kids talk about growing up to be doctors and teachers and nurses,” she continued. “The reality now is, ‘I just want to grow up. I’m afraid if go to school will I make it home? If I play on the playground? Even if I lay in my own bed and go to sleep, will I wake up in the morning? Will I see tomorrow?’”

Four days after our conversation, a 43-year-old gunman walked onto Michigan State University’s campus and opened fire, killing three students and wounding five others before shooting himself.

Arielle Diamond Anderson, 19, was studying to become the first doctor in her family. Brian Fraser, 20, was the president of his fraternity. Alexandria Verner, 20, played basketball in high school and dreamed of attending Michigan State. “She made you better,” Verner’s high school superintendent told The New York Times.

One minute, alive and filled with a wellspring of potential, a lifetime of memories and hearts full of joy and loss and ideas and regret and doubt and hope.

Shot to death the next.

Every year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, more than 3,500 children and teens are shot and killed in the United States. Another 15,000 are shot and injured. Gun violence became the leading cause of death among American children and teenagers in 2020.

The Gun Violence Archive has counted 72 mass shootings in the United States so far this year. Last year there were 647 mass shootings, 21 of which involved five or more fatalities.

We know the routine: Shooting. Outrage. Sorrow. Thoughts and prayers. Finger pointing. Deflection. Hold our breath for the next one.

I asked Watts about the finger pointing: It’s mental health. It’s video games. It’s bullying. It’s gangs. Is it all of those things? Is it none of those things? Is it actually just guns?

“It is just easy access to guns,” Watts said. “We have the same rates of mental illness as other peer nations, but we have a 26 times higher homicide rate. That’s because of easy access to guns. If it were video games, then Japan would have one of the highest gun violence rates in the world. About six people are shot and killed in Japan every year, and yet they play the most video games of any developed nation.

“You can go on and on and on with the red herrings,” she continued. “At the end of the day, all peer nations are home to people who are mentally ill, to toxic masculinity, to domestic abusers and on and on and on. What they don’t have is a gun lobby that’s essentially been given a seat at the table to write their gun laws.”

Moms Demand isn’t anti-gun. Many of their volunteers are gun owners, Watts said. Mitchell said her husband is a gun owner.

“It isn’t about preventing people from accessing guns,” Watts said. “It’s about making sure the wrong people don’t have access to guns, and that having a gun is treated as the monumental responsibility it is.”

Universal background checks. Mandatory gun safety training. Red flag laws that allow police or family members to report when someone who has guns is a danger to themselves or other people.

“Laws are the moral underpinning of our society,” Watts said. “There has to be a moral underpinning that says we will not allow gun violence to be the No. 1 killer of children and teens in this country.”

She points to the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in changing the laws and social norms around driving under the influence.

“Incrementalism leads to revolutions,” Watts said. “It is worth showing up for every day.”

It’s also worth examining the ways gun violence perversely connects communities, so no one is left working and grieving and healing alone.

“I started Moms Demand Action as a white woman in the suburbs who was afraid my kids weren’t safe in their schools,” Watts said. “That’s what brought me to this issue, and shame on me for not getting involved before.

“School shootings and mass shootings are about 1% of the gun violence in this country,” she continued. “They’re horrible. But the everyday gun violence that’s impacting communities is with handguns, and it’s gun homicides and gun suicides. It’s so important to look at this issue holistically and to understand that it’s complex.”

And the consequences are profound.

“We are burying our children in a free country,” Mitchell said. “We are committing genocide in some neighborhoods. Enough. Enough.”


“Let’s be clear,” Watts said. “It is preventable and it is senseless. We don’t have to live this way and our children sure as hell shouldn’t die this way.”

Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at heidikstevens@gmail.com, find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens’ Balancing Act Facebook group.

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