It was supposed to be a party.
There was BBQ, bowls of chips, and coolers of beer. Neighbors complained about the noise, so they turned the music down a notch. Two young men in their early 20s—one sitting on a bean bag, the other lying prone on his belly—worked the joysticks on a video game. There was another knock at the door.
There were two shots, one immediately following the other. In an instant, both young men were dead, both shot once in the back of the head execution-style with a 9mm handgun.
When police arrived, they found scared partygoers crowded outside in the parking lot. There was a good description, but no one knew the gunman. He had gone as quickly as he’d come, disappearing into the dusk.
It was nearing the end of summer when I got the call. A detective said my brother had been killed. The medical examiner identified him by a tattoo. While some people may opt for their mother’s name or that of a lover, my twin brother had my name emblazoned on his upper shoulder.
Pregnant with my second child, I was dressing for work when the phone rang. I will never forget the all-consuming pain I felt in those moments. I remember how my husband threw his arms around me as I crumpled onto the floor and wept. Nearly 20 years prior, our father had been murdered in a strikingly similar fashion, shot four times in the head.
“He’s dead,” I sobbed. “Somebody killed Chris.”
By the night’s end as many as 19 more families got that same call. Ten families and the community that loves them will feel that same gut-wrenching pain. Some 20 others were also injured at Umpqua Community College.
That should be enough.
Three years ago, it was an elementary school in Connecticut. In all, 26 people were slaughtered at Newtown, among them 20 schoolchildren. Then there was a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and another in Lafayette, Louisiana. There was a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a mall in Portland, Oregon. Only weeks ago, it was two journalists in Moneta, Virginia. North Charleston, Columbine…
On any given night, it’s in the streets of American cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Tomorrow there will be a child sitting in a Chicago classroom who is more concerned about being shot on the walk home than the pop quiz that might come.
Some will tell you that this is the wrong time to talk about gun violence. They will tell you that we should not politicize the issue while families are grieving. As a survivor and as someone who owned a gun most of my adult life, I could not disagree more. There is not a single day in this country when a family does not grieve over the loss of someone to gun violence.
It is time, right now, to confront gun culture in America. It is time to tighten restrictions on legal purchases and crack down on the illegal gun trade. For starters, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, should be renewed. The online sale of firearms should be banned altogether and the gun show loophole must be closed. The lion’s share of gun violence in this country is committed with cheap, illegal handguns—the kinds of guns that killed my father and brother—and straw purchasers must face stiffer criminal penalties.
As I write this, President Obama is addressing the nation in a press conference.
“As I said just a few months ago and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we’ve seen one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough,” he said with a measure of sadness and anger. “It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”
“We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses who want to do harm to other people,” he went on to say. “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Conservative voices in the discourse will invariably point an indicting finger at the president for being “political.” Meanwhile, a Republican-controlled Congress is making a political choice to do nothing. It has even forbidden government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the issue in any meaningful way.
The president was right. When hurricanes and floods come, we do something to make Americans safer. When roads are unsafe, we gas up the paving trucks. When an airplane fails a maintenance check, we ground it. When over-the-counter cough syrup is used as an illicit drug, we start checking the IDs of every buyer. We lock up sinus tablets at the drugstore. We regulate automotive manufacturers because we know the danger of not wearing seat belts, toxic pollutants, and poorly made tires. Guns, the most dangerous consumer product on the market, should be no different.
But this isn’t only about a president or 535 people sitting in Congress. As a country we have not done enough, and today 10 families deserve more. Clearly, we cannot eradicate all gun violence in the United States, but that should be no excuse for failing to enact responsible reforms. Despite public opinion polls that plainly spell out our collective support for reasonable gun safety laws, Congress has failed to move. And it won’t move on gun issues until we move on it.
Each year, more than 30,000 people lose their lives to guns in this country. That pain, our national shame, does not take a holiday, and neither can we.
This is on us.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of casualties.