When looking for survivors of gun violence, I often come across people I’m not expecting to find. Many, many — too many people.
In Charleston where I traveled to this week, for example, I went with the purpose of talking with people from the 2015 racist shooting at the famous African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Mother Emanuel Church. I went to Sunday service, and I interviewed a couple of church members while in town.
Most of the people I ended up speaking with about their tragic losses, however, were not from that well-known shooting by the white supremacist. Rather, they were mothers and fathers whose children have been killed by gunfire. A sibling who lost her brother to gunfire. Moms who ended up becoming part of a club they never wanted to belong to. Once people heard what I was doing in Charleston, word-of-mouth notifications began buzzing.
One woman I interviewed learned that her son had been shot dead in the wee hours of his 18th birthday. “He was 18 years old for every bit of 15 minutes,” she told me. The death is unsolved.
In another incident, a father was with his grown son when they were both shot by two young men apparently looking for beer money that Friday night. The father was shot five times and lived. The son was shot once and died. He left behind a wife and young daughter, plus his parents and sister and her children. And hundreds of friends, many of whom his parents only met at the celebration of life service. The family continues to search for ways to cope. God helps them, they say.
In fact, every single person I interviewed in this deep-south city told me it was their spirituality that helped quell the pain — somewhat.
From Charleston I travel to Orlando, then Parkland, and finally Newtown, Connecticut. Yes. I picked those specific places because of “big” shootings there. Famous mass shootings that murdered so many people, including high school students and grade school children. We all know that one could travel to any state in this powerful country, and find remnants of a big shooting. But there are also hundreds, no thousands, of smaller, “hidden” shootings. Happening one bullet at a time.
What I’m realizing deeply, as I speak to an increasing number of survivors, is that gun deaths — by guns that are illegal, or legal and not locked up, or any number of other shooting scenarios — have become way too commonplace.
One survivor of the AME shooting that stole nine lives of her spiritual community including her dearest friend, said she went to seven of the funerals, but then simply could not make it to
One mom talked about the young people in her community, some barely teenagers, who have been to a dozen of their friends’ funerals. And then her son’s funeral became one more.
Because I’m on the road this month, this post is shorter than usual. Once I have time to sift through everything people have shared with me, I will again include more details, names and photos. So many stories of grief — along with the mixture of resilience and baby steps.
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Mary Tolan is a journalist and journalism professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. On sabbatical, she is reporting on survivors of gun violence.