Gun violence across the United States mostly affects the people who are shot, of course, and their families. A shooting upends lives, routines and perceptions of reality. But even those not directly impacted feel the ripples. Ordinary people who live in communities that have had mass shootings can come to view life in a new way.
“It bothers you to see that your friend or your classmate gets shot. That’s going to run you buggy, because that’s going to be something on your mind 24/7. That’s a soft spot. That’s your heart,” said Ruth Gadsden, a waitress in Charleston’s soul-food restaurant Martha Lou’s Kitchen. The tiny pink restaurant, which inside displays several photos of the former President Barack and Michelle Obama and a few of Martin Luther King Jr., serves meals like fried chicken, chitterlings, collard greens, bread pudding, washed down with sweet tea.
“I would rather they outlaw guns, because we ain’t in the wild West no more. But the way it is now, we are in the wild, wild West. Because everybody just shooting,” said Gadsden, 65. “Back in the day — what happened to fist fighting?”
As she handed me my dinner bill, Gadsden asked why I was in Charleston. I told her I was reporting on survivors of gun violence, and she had a lot to say. She felt sad for the people who lost family at the American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church shooting nearly four years earlier. On June 18, 2015, nine people were shot and killed by a white supremacist at a bible study group in the AME Church, referred to as Mother Emanuel.
“For everybody who done lost a child, a momma, a daddy, a brother, a uncle, that hurt,” Gadsden said. “And that pain you never recover from. You never, ever going to recover from that, because that’s a pain and a memory going to be with you the rest of your life.”
Gadsden, whose mother opened the iconic Charleston restaurant three decades ago, also expressed strong feelings about people who leave their guns unsecured at home or in their vehicles. That action often leads to killings by shooters with stolen guns, which occurs every day in American cities across the country, including Charleston.
“They are a gun owner. And they should take the penalty with it,” Gadsden said. “If the gun gets stolen, they need to serve time. Because they should have been more protective of that gun.”
For another restaurant worker 550 miles south of Charleston, gun violence in the U.S. shocks her.
“I love liv(ing) here in the United States,” said Estefany Sawmet, 34, a native of Columbia who has made southern Florida her home for five years. “When I move here, I feel safe. Totally different to my country.”
Sawmet works as a manager and waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida, a community adjacent to Parkland, and drives a florist’s delivery truck part-time. She said her native country is known for being dangerous, but shootings in Columbia are usually related to cartels or drugs — not mass shootings at schools or in churches.
“In Columbia, I know happens bad things,” said Sawmet, whose second language is English. “But no kids, no school, no like, ‘I want to kill people.’ No, that don’t happen in Columbia. No concert (shootings). No, no like a homophobic thing.”
She said the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland shook the Florida community to its core. She belongs to a church whose members joined many others in prayer near the high school after the shooting February 14, 2018.
“We pray outside,” she recalled. “And we find a lot of flowers, a lot of toys, like (teddy) bears. And was so sad. Terrible.”
The American holiday Valentine’s Day was new to Sawmet when she moved to the U.S. She said the special day is ruined for people of the greater Parkland area.
“Every people here in United States celebrate Valentine’s Day, and nobody wants to celebrate,” she said. “It’s not a celebration now.”
She said she watched people at the restaurant, church, floral shop and throughout the two communities react after the 17 Parkland high school students were killed, and another 17 were injured.
“I think that day the people changed,” she said. “They don’t feel safe, they move (away), they scared. And everyone thinking about what? People don’t want to go to school with a shooting gun. It (was) like a nightmare.”
Gadsden, in Charleston, also felt the shock wave move through her community after the shooting at the AME Church, the country’s first independent black church.
“I don’t know all of them personally, but I have seen them and been in their company,” Gadsden said. She pointed out photographs on the restaurant’s wall of individuals killed in the shooting. “This is Myra (Thompson). I went to school with Myra.” The next person she pointed to was Cynthia Hurd. “She was a librarian. She was a sweet lady. And this guy, Daniel Simmons. He used to bring my uncle communion on Sundays.”
She gazed at the photographs.
“Everybody there, they didn’t deserve to die. None of them,” she said. “All of them sweet.”
For Sawmet, in Florida, the horror of the Valentine’s Day high school shooting is something that will always stay with her, and she wants to make some kind of remembrance to honor those teenagers killed and wounded.
“I’m not from here. But for me, I want to remember that day, like, every year,” she said. “I want to put a tattoo, maybe next year for Valentine’s Day: ‘Never Again,’” she said.
Would it be in English or Spanish?
“In English, obviously,” she said, wanting to connect in a supportive way to her new home. “A lot of people need to know what happened in the school.”
For Gadsden, it comes down to good versus evil.
“We need to show more love in the world,” Gadsden said, getting ready to take a to-go order. “That’s something we don’t have. Love. It’s a four letter word like hate. But love is more power because it soothes you and gives you a piece of mind. Hate you hold in your heart, and it weighs you down. So why not let it go?”
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.