After three weeks of traveling in the Southeast and the Northeast talking with survivors of gun violence, I am taking a break in a quiet corner of Vermont. Here, I am reflecting on my reporting. I am thinking about the many people I have met, the heartbreak I have encountered, and the incredible and varying shapes of people’s partial recovery and new paths.
In two restaurants, I ended up doing unplanned, short interviews with employees, one in Charleston, the other near Parkland. Both of these women had opinions and feelings about the shootings that had shaken their communities. Neither of them knew the victims killed or injured, but when they heard about my project, they wanted to tell me about how the shootings had impacted their towns. A lot.
Several people I interviewed were parents whose children had been shot dead in the schools of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida. Both communities were also struggling with the ripple effect of suicide. Two parkland teens and one Sandy Hook father recently took their own lives, leaving the other families, teens and parents feeling gutted.
Then, there were the two mothers I talked with whose sons had been shot in cold blood — in or near the neighborhoods where they lived.
Several of the parents whose children had been murdered simply want to get back to focusing on being good parents for their remaining children. Moving through their deep grief, they regretted the way they felt diminished as parents for the children who lived, as they processed the loss of the ones who did not.
I also met other shooting survivors, like the men who mourned their friends who had not lived through the Orlando shootings at the Pulse nightclub.
I spoked to an elderly woman who survived the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) shooting in Charleston. She continues to live with the memory of closing her eyes in prayer, only to hear gunfire, and opening them to see people around her being slaughtered. A White supremacist, the shooter, had been welcomed into the spiritual setting.
I talked with teenager Holden Kasky in Parkland who was in school the afternoon of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He had just left his classroom that serves autistic students when the alarms sounded. His brother Cameron was with him, and the two boys were told by a teacher to get into a nearby classroom right away. He told me how he had worried about his friends being enclosed in a small room when bullets caused a lockdown, because one of his autistic classmates makes loud noises when stressed. Would that bring the gunman, he wondered and worried. He slowly told the story of the police with “really big guns” at the chaotic school scene, recalling broken glass everywhere.
“Put your hands up,” he remembered the police shouting.
Neither Cameron nor Holden were shot that day.
Their father Jeff Kasky filled me in on the political action committee he and other parents of Douglas High School students started called Parents vs. Assault Rifles. And his son Cameron co-founded the student-led gun-violence prevention group Never Again MSD, and helped organize the now-famous March for Our Lives event against gun violence. A senior in high school, he and his activist classmates are still committed to their mission. Yet, they are also working to graduate from high school, perhaps go to prom, and are still just, of course, teens.
“What’s so sad is when you meet them is that they’re just teenagers,” said Kristin Song, whose son Ethan died Jan. 31, 2018, at 15, as he was fooling around with a neighbor’s loaded gun and was killed. Song has met the Parkland students at gun-reform events. “When you just chat with them like this they’re silly and goofy and they’re talking about, like you know, graduation. And then when they’re on (stage), they’re like talking about these incredibly heartbreaking things. I felt so bad for them that all of that was robbed.”
Song said when she visited with some of them in Washington, D.C., she complimented them on how assertive and articulate they were.
“And they said, ‘Well, we have to be. We’re the hunted generation,’” she recalled. “I can’t even comprehend that.”
The two mothers in Charleston who lost their sons, now work with other moms who are going through the same losses due to gun violence — their sons, too, were shot and killed.
“I’m getting tired of moms picking up moms, moms picking up moms,” said Tisa Whack, whose 23-year-old son Tyrell Miles was murdered in Summerville, South Carolina, near Charleston in 2015. “If you reach the age of 25 in this area, it’s, it’s amazing.”
She and another mother who lost her son to gun fire co-founded the group “We Are Their Voices.” The nonprofit “provides outlets, access and opportunities to help young men divert from negativity in an effort to end gun violence,” the website states.
Later this month I will be home, sifting through the many interviews I have done with survivors of gun violence since last summer, shaping them into articles or chapters or blog posts. And I will let the people who temporarily let me into their lives tell their own stories.
One of the main lessons I have gained from this latest reporting journey, is the way gunfire impacts so many people on different paths of life, in various neighborhoods, and at what were once the unlikeliest of places.
Then, within the past week, two big-headline shootings took place: one in a California Synagogue, another at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. And during that time, far too many of other young people were shot and killed in their own neighborhoods, sparking only local stories, if any at all.
Gun violence is all around us, and close by, and people are learning how to cope. Or not.
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.