In the Trenches

In the Trenches: The Imperceptible Toll of Gun Violence Activism

Joanna MacGugan

12 May 2020


The world has turned upside down since I first composed this essay in March. It has been unsettling to see gun violence become intertwined with the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gun sales are soaring. According to The New York Times, about 2 million guns were sold in the United States in March, the second highest month for gun sales ever behind January 2013, following Barack Obama’s reelection and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Domestic violence is on the rise as victims are forced to shelter with their abusers and social support is limited. Those who suffer from mental illness may now find themselves with access to guns while in self-isolation, heightening their chances of dying by suicide. Armed extremists are storming state houses and conflating gun rights with their demands that governors abandon common sense public health precautions. In the midst of this madness, Canada witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in its history when a gunman posing as a police offer killed twenty-two people in Nova Scotia; some of the guns he used were reportedly obtained in the U.S. [source: CBC]. Gun safety advocates are endlessly responding and adapting to every new challenge that emerges.

So much has changed since March, but the central message of this essay remains the same. No matter what kind of “new normal” arises in our post-COVID-19 world, gun violence will persist – but we won’t stop fighting it.

I’ve been involved in gun violence prevention for a relatively short time. Seven years ago, I was perched on my desk chair, my five-month old sleeping in his rocker beside me, ready to begin the workday. Almost immediately, details of the grisly scenes unfolding in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary began to trickle in. This was the beginning of a new reality for my child – lockdown drills, metal detectors, and bulletproof backpacks would become ordinary elements of his childhood. The horrors of that day are seared into our collective memory. Apart from 9/11, I don’t know of any other event in recent American history that has shattered our sense of security or our faith in humanity in quite the same way. I wasn’t ready to dive into activism at the time. Kids, grad school, and teaching consumed every ounce of my time and energy, and I had nothing left to give.

Two years ago, I realized I didn’t have the option of sitting on the sidelines anymore. I needed to engage with progressive activism as I watched division and chaotic leadership threaten our country’s security. The Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida occurred just as this realization crept up on me. Shortly after the shooting I attended a local meeting for gun violence activists and met a young single mother who had lost her only child, a bright seventeen-year-old, to gun violence on the streets of Boston. Her extraordinary strength and commitment to creating positive change despite her unimaginable grief was the pivotal moment for me; I knew I had to join this fight with everything I had to give. My local group began to coalesce last spring, and I assumed leadership in July. We had a busy autumn growing our team, building community partnerships, increasing public awareness of our state’s ‘Red Flag’ laws, and advocating for the passage of critical firearms bills in the State House.

It was exhilarating to lead the charge at first, but as I settled into my leadership role, I discovered that the work we do is gratifying and profoundly unsettling in unequal measures. We have plenty of legislative successes to celebrate, and we appear to be winning against the powerful gun lobby as more state governments are passing common sense gun safety bills into law all over the country. Twelve states and Washington, D.C. passed lifesaving Red Flag laws since the beginning of 2018, bringing the total number of states with Red Flag laws to seventeen (Source: Everytown Research). But we also deal with daily reminders that our work is rooted in the bleakest of death statistics. As I composed the second draft of this essay, details broke about six people shot dead at the Molson Coors campus in Milwaukee. Lately, the grimmer side of this work is weighing heavily on me, and the kind of optimism that I need to keep going is increasingly elusive. The fatigue is real, and burnout seems inevitable. When you see us rallying in public, you might think we’re strong and determined. You may not notice our exhaustion, and you may not realize how much of a toll this work takes on our mental health.

On a rainy evening last December our local group paused all activity to honor victims and survivors of gun violence as part of a national network of vigils to mark seven years since twenty children and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We heard from celebrated surgeon Dr. Michael Hirsh, who told us about his friend and colleague John Wood. John left the New York City trauma center where they both worked to deliver crackers to his pregnant wife for her nausea, was held up at gunpoint by a young kid demanding his wallet, and shot in the chest because all he had in his pocket was crackers and the young kid felt disrespected – details that Dr. Hirsh learned twenty years later. Dr. Hirsh has since dedicated his life to preventing gun violence by establishing voluntary gun buyback programs along the east coast. This wasn’t the first time I had heard his story, and it wasn’t the first time I wept at the terrible injustice of it.

GVP-Infographic 1

We also heard from the leader of Clark University’s March for our Lives chapter, who has close personal ties to Newtown. We sat in silence and watched a slideshow featuring gun violence victims annotated with the dates of their deaths and where they died – victims of all ages, genders, and colors, because gun violence doesn’t care about boundaries. My voice broke as I read the names of the twenty first graders and their educators who perished at Sandy Hook. I was overwhelmed with heartache. I left the event in tears, wondering if I’m cut out for this work. I fear I don’t have a thick enough skin to keep absorbing horrific stories of trauma, loss, and hard-fought for survival. I’m not sure I’m strong enough for this work. I’ve found it difficult to muster the kind of optimism that I need to keep doing this work since that raw December day.

Stillness provokes reflection. In the winter lull after the busy work of event planning subsided, I had time to reflect on the heavy and heartrending work that we do. Nothing had prepared me for the heartache that comes from spending days immersed in gun death statistics, survivors’ stories, and tragic headlines. Did you know that firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens, and black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by guns than white children and teens (Source: Everytown Research). I’m not talking about school shootings that dominate the headlines every few months or so. It’s critical to understand that 100 Americans die by guns every single day – many from suicide, city violence, or domestic violence. This is not normal; it doesn’t happen in other developed countries. Firearm suicides claim the lives of 23,000 Americans every year, including 1,100 children and teens – these statistics hit me especially hard because I’ve known three people who ended their lives with their own guns (Source: Everytown Research). So far this year, thirty-eight children under the age of 11 have died and 111 have been injured as of 26 March 2020 (Source: Gun Violence Archive). This number includes children who died from unintentional shootings, most often because adults left their loaded guns unsecured and accessible – a sickening and wholly preventable epidemic of gun violence.

GVP-Infographic 2

The data tells us that we have become a nation of gun violence survivors. Nearly everyone I have met since I joined this movement seems to have a personal story about how gun violence altered their lives. I have met survivors like Jody Marchand, whose husband shot and killed their teen daughter Olivia in front of Jody’s eyes, and Brenda Moss, whose son Shawn was shot seventeen times. These women honor their children by committing their lives to eradicating gun violence (Jody started the Live for Liv Foundation in Olivia’s honor. Watch Brenda’s stirring address to Moms Demand Action volunteers immediately after news broke of the shooting in an El Paso Walmart). It amazes me that they have mustered the strength to continue despite their unbearable memories; I constantly ask myself why can’t I do the same? When I hear survivors’ stories, I often feel powerless to stem the tide of violence even as our movement celebrates a rising number of successes.

The pensiveness that the December vigil stirred up in me has been amplified by regular reminders that American gun culture is haywire. Our nation is truly weird. Is it not bizarre that gun rights extremists are free to storm state houses with their cherished AR-15s because it is legal to carry firearms, but not umbrellas or protest signs on sticks because they could be used as weapons (Source: Rolling Stone)? Even here in Massachusetts, known for being a remarkably liberal state, I’ve had to learn how to respond to gun extremists who can’t think or feel beyond the NRA’s talking points or their precious 2nd Amendment. It boggles my mind that there are so many people who would rather do nothing than enact reasonable legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers because, they argue, doing so would punish law-abiding citizens. And think for a moment about those who advocate for arming teachers as a viable ‘solution’ to prevent school shootings. Teachers are called to teach, not take up guns against their own students or use their bodies to shield children from bullets. I don’t know a single teacher who is actually on board with this and, as a former college instructor, that’s a hard no from me. Gun safety advocates are not just fighting the massively powerful gun lobby, we’re also fighting those that have absorbed the NRA’s devious marketing messages – which amounts to a depressingly colossal number of Americans.

Some days pessimism wins. One of my more frustrating moments arose during a recent volunteer meeting. Our guest speaker, a local police officer specializing in gang violence, closed his Q&A session by sharing his opinion that common sense gun laws really won’t change patterns of gun violence in our city. My jaw dropped; in an instant he had negated our group’s entire raison d’être. His words were exactly the opposite of what we needed to hear from one of our community partners, and they affected me deeply. ‘What if he’s right?’ I wondered. What if the localized actions we take aren’t making a meaningful difference to the bigger picture at all?

Our work centers on survivors’ trauma, rising gun violence statistics, and embittered opponents; too often, these factors converge and result in feelings of powerlessness. Society hammers the importance of ‘self-care’ into our heads, but it’s hard to see how a ten-minute meditation practice will magically dissolve the feeling that our advocacy work may not be enough to change the world for the better. When negative feelings overwhelm, I force myself to think about the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary students who never welcomed their first-graders home from school. I think about Jeremy Richman, who found life after his daughter Avielle’s violent death in the halls of Sandy Hook so unbearable that he chose to end his own life. I am in this fight for Jeremy, and for those who continue to struggle with everyday life after the horrors of Newtown. I have to make the conscious decision to choose hope.

I paint a less-than-rosy picture of our advocacy work, but I have to acknowledge the positive as well. If it was entirely negative, I would have fled from this movement in the first few weeks, and simply given in to those who insist there are no effective solutions to America’s gun violence crisis. I have witnessed a tremendous outpouring of support for our work, and I’ve organized a core group of committed volunteers that step up to get things done. It is an incredible feeling meeting like-minded activists who are working to build strong community partnerships and common ground with responsible gun owners. We are educating the public about life-saving Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ‘Red Flag’ laws, and we are advocating for gun violence research that will give law enforcement better tools to do their jobs. We are working to save lives.

We find ways to keep going because we know there are millions of Americans who agree that our country urgently needs common sense solutions to this gun violence crisis. If you see yourself as one of those people, please know that you give us the strength to choose optimism over defeat every day that we do this work. I leave you with this plea: if you see us rallying in your town’s public spaces, please step up to us to say, ‘thank you,’ or ‘keep going,’ or ‘how can I get involved?’ These small acts make it easier for us to choose hope. Be like the woman who barreled towards our table at an arts event to gush that she’s been waiting for a local group like ours to form, or the gun enthusiast at the same event who shared that he believes in common sense gun laws and values our work. Be like them, and you’ll remind us how important it is to see the negatives not as a signal to give up, but as motivation to keep going. That’s how we will stay in this fight until we win.

March on the White House-August 2019
Moms Demand Action March on Washington 2019

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Joanna MacGugan is a social historian hailing from central Massachuetts. She earned her Ph.D. in medieval studies from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Since leaving the ivory tower she has been involved in gun violence prevention and dabbled in freelance editing and writing. She is currently writing a book about social practices and literacy in late medieval Dublin.

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