Gun violence is a tie that binds many in the United States. A nation with only five percent of the global population is home to 300 million guns, between 35 and 50 percent of civilian owned guns in the world. From mass shootings (defined by the inclusion of more than four victims) to suicides, at least 30,000 are killed each year by guns in America, and over 80,000 people are wounded. Discourse about the implications of the Second Amendment and ties between the government and the American gun lobby continues to grab headlines as the rate of gun deaths grows, especially among 15-to-24-year-olds. In a panel at the Women in the World New York Summit, Kim Odom, Sandy Phillips and Dorothy Johnson-Speight—women from different backgrounds who lost children to gun violence—spoke with Juju Chang of ABC News and Chicago prosecutor Kim Foxx about the effects of these murders.
They spend each day recovering from the trauma of a bullet spent. They have made attempts at healing within their communities. Now they’re fighting back on a national scale to prevent others from enduring such loss.
After her 24-year-old daughter Jessi was killed in 2012 along with 12 others in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater by a shooter who purchased guns online without a background check, Phillips and her husband sold their belongings and took to the road to push for reform. They founded Jessi’s Message and sued Lucky Gunner, the company who sold weapons to the mass shooter. Jessi’s parents demanded that the seller require ID and background checks, but were denied by a judge, who cited the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms act, which provides a shield from liability for the gun industry when their products are used in crimes. The grieving parents were also ordered to pay $200,000 in legal fees for the gun company. “He didn’t have to provide any ID, he didn’t have to go through a background check,” Phillips said of the Aurora shooter. She and her husband haven’t paid Lucky Gunner – “and we won’t,” she said to applause from the crowd.
“You have college students who are buying guns and selling them so they can pay off their tuition. This is what we’ve created in America,” Phillips said. “[The Aurora shooter] brags to this day that he chose a mass shooting because it was so easy to get a gun.” In response to massacres like the one in Aurora and the 372 mass shootings that occurred in 2015, President Barack Obama in January put forth executive actions to strengthen background checks, increase mental health checks, and improve gun technology to eliminate accidental deaths, which occur with great frequency among children with access to guns.
A gun’s path, from purchase to the hands of those who use the weapon to harm themselves or others, is among the reform advocates’ greatest concerns. The young man who shot Johnson-Speight’s 24-year-old son Khaaliqseven times over a parking space in 2011 had killed another young man five months earlier, using a weapon that was purchased by his girlfriend. It’s common in many crimes: Guns purchased by women are two times more likely to be used in a crime as gun purchased by a man. Women buyers often are coerced or intimidated by significant others unable to buy weapons because of prior records. LIPSTICK: Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner City Killing, the organization Odom founded after her 13-year-old son was killed after playing basketball outside of his Massachusetts home, has campaigned against straw buying to highlight the high price women—especially minority women—can pay when buying guns for men.
“I learned another important question to ask is, ‘where did that gun come from?’,” said Odom, a pastor who heard the gunshots that killed her son from her home. “I went on a quest of those trying to be a part of finding solutions.” The link between straw purchasing of guns by women and domestic violence is just one of the many ties between male-on-female violence and easy access to guns. But for Johnson-Speight, it’s a factor that hits close to home. The woman who purchased the gun that killed Khaaliq was being abused by her boyfriend, who pulled the trigger.
“So many aspects of grief and your journey is because someone consciously took your child’s life,” Johnson-Speight said, speaking to the experience of the mothers on the panel. She founded her Philadelphia organization, Mothers in Charge, to help combat gun violence and reshape the narrative. “It’s a public health crisis,” Johnson-Speight added. “When you think about public health crises, you think about Ebola and things like that, and all of the federal dollars that go into that – gun violence needs to be treated that way.”
Gun violence must be reframed as a preventable culture crisis that sets Americans apart from the rest of the world, she explained. Even though Surgeon General Vivek Murthy takes this position, research on the causes of gun violence has been blocked. Just after nine black churchgoers were murdered in a racially-charged Charleston, South Carolina shooting last summer, in October the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee rejected an amendment that would have allowed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on the underlying causes of one of the greatest contributors to death in America.
The violence is tied closely to race as well as gender: men make up 84 percent of gun homicide victims, and of the 30,000 killed each year in America by guns, 60 percent are suicides by men. Black men are ten times more likely to be shot and killed than white men, making gun violence the major cause of death for young African American men. No city knows the traumatizing effects of gun violence quite like Chicago, where over 3,000 shootings occurred last year, killing 500, a rate of shooting that has already risen 84 percent in 2016. Foxx, Democratic Nominee for Cook County State’s Attorney, was raised by a single mom in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing complex and has experienced the impact of guns first hand. As a prosecutor for nearly 20 years, she has seen cycles of gun violence affect her community and argues that access to weapons is a primary cause for concern. Another major concern is the traumatic impact gun violence has on communities.
When a 9-year-old sitting on a swing in Chicago was lured into an alley and shot in the head – “literally executed,” Foxx said – the trauma his classmates felt went unmet. “They truly believe that they also need to be armed because they saw one of their classmates die. It’s easier to get accessibility to a gun than it is to get treatment at a mental health facility,” she explained, noting that cycles of violence will continue if trauma from gun violence goes untreated and conflict de-escalation methods are not introduced. “How do we slow the process down when conflict arises, now that we know that the accessibility of guns is a factor? Beyond that moment, once that trigger is pulled, once the bullet is shot, it’s over,” Foxx said.
On stage, Phillips took Odom’s hand. Odom then reached out to Johnson-Speight, and Foxx and Chang joined the chain.
Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter.
Additional reporting contributed by Anna Hall.