The timing was a grim underscore. Ten people were shot in Baltimore on Tuesday, May 10; on Wednesday, gun violence survivors came together to meet, to lend support to each other, and to talk about getting their voices heard (”After 10 shot in one day, Baltimore residents and leaders decry increasingly brazen gun violence: ‘It’s like a norm now,’” May 11).
Blood is running in the streets, and people feel despair about stanching the tide. Each new injury or death is another trauma for those who have experienced a shooting or who have lost a loved one to a shooting. But that doesn’t mean survivors want to stay silent or retreat. They — we — want to make a difference and turn pain into purpose. We also want to go beyond an incremental approach that is satisfied with gun violence policy marked by small steps, reaching only for low-hanging fruit. The onslaught of death is too great.
Survivors Empowered collaborated with the Rebuild, Overcome and Rise Center at the University of Maryland (ROAR) to organize the event, “Centering Survivors: Honoring Lived Experience in Gun Violence Policy,” because we see the urgent need to stop the killing and because we know that many survivor voices have been drowned out by professional advocates or other “suits.” We’re for survivors — we are survivors — and we want to lessen the ranks of future survivors.
Not every survivor will have the same message but most will feel the same acute frustration and hurt when faced with yet another year of stalled federal legislation to implement even the most basic common sense gun violence policy changes. It’s not that gun violence survivors — often parents — have been absent from the stage. But many times, they have had bit parts and been used for photo ops organized by large organizations that seem to move glacially.
This year can be different. We are doing our best to make it so.
Ten years ago, we were overcome by a monumental, life-changing tragedy when our daughter Jessi was slaughtered in the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting. Ever since, we’ve been fighting to get universal background checks, limit the sales of weapons of war and make sure that ammunition makers don’t sell their products willy-nilly without verifying the identities and ages of their purchasers.
Our early foray into the fray ended in great financial loss after we were encouraged by a large and well-known anti-gun violence organization to bring suit despite an outrageous law on the books then, and still on the books now. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act prevented us from making the bullet manufacturer accountable and resulted in our bankruptcy. Our case was dismissed on the very first motion, and we were ordered to pay the defendants’ attorney’s fees. It bankrupted us.
After regrouping, we sold whatever remained and began life on the road, reaching out to other survivors after most of the mass shootings that have pockmarked this country again and again. We are now on our way to Buffalo.
We have learned it’s not just mass shootings. The yearly toll of murders and suicides by firearms each year for the last decade has been about 40,000, with approximately 400,000 dead since our Jessi was killed. We honor them all in our “Honor with Action” tour, coinciding with the 10 years since Jessi was murdered.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, ROAR is building alliances and helping lend strength to the many survivors who need a whole range of practical and emotional support. We brought along to the “Centering Survivors” event our recently produced tool kit, created jointly with the national organization Giffords, for survivors’ use. We long for the day when the need for such a tool kit stops growing.
Survivors are not incidental players, and their pain is not to be exploited. Instead, we need to respect lived experience, not co-opt it. The people who came to our event are more than participants or subjects. They are also authors of their own experiences.
We are united in our purpose to overcome inertia or complacency. We are united to spread strength and forge peace.
— Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, Denver, Colorado
The writers are co-founders of Survivors Empowered.
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