New York Times
A Message From the Club No One Wants to Join
By GREGORY GIBSON
GLOUCESTER, Mass. — My sister Wendy died by suicide with a gun and my son, Galen, was killed in a school shooting. Lately, I’ve been working with fellow survivors to pass sensible gun laws, volunteering for Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. We survivors have had children, spouses and relatives shot and killed by strangers, partners, or by their own hand.
Some of us have been shot as well. Holes in bodies presenting as mounds and stripes of scar tissue. Holes in hearts. Scar tissue all over. We are a diverse group, from the suburbs and the city. Many of us belong to other survivor groups. There are quite a few in the Boston area to chose from. The only criterion for membership is, well, you know. We joke that it is a club no one wants to join, but it gains a million members a year — 35,000 gun deaths, 100,000 wounds, the hundreds of thousands of family members, friends, neighbors and loved ones whose lives have been turned upside down by a gun.
On Thursday, we went to the State House in Boston. Demonstrations of one kind or another are frequent, but this one was about a gun bill. Images of the school shooting on Wednesday in Florida, in which 17 people were killed, still burned in everyone’s mind, and the local media were out in force.
We were there with other advocacy groups to support legislation that would temporarily restrict access to guns by people who pose a danger to themselves or others. We believe such a law will save lives, and our intent was to rev up the noise machine — to make sure that lawmakers know about the bill and its importance. The hall was swarming with brightly lettered shirts and buttons, even a few handmade posters.
The reporters saw our “survivor” T-shirts and asked if we’d mind saying a few words. We were happy to do so. That’s why we were there.
But the words we truly want to say about the obscenity of gun violence, and the cowardice and cynicism of politicians, and the misplaced pity of the American public, their self-absorbed refusal to put their clickers down, get off their couches and — it all turns into a rant so quickly. Or tears. We need discipline to stay on message.
Reporters asked me that day — they keep asking me — about how it feels. How does it feel, after all I’ve been through, to be standing there the day after all those people were killed in Florida? The blinding camera light goes on, and I’m back in the interrogation chair. How it feels is that I’d like to plant a Boston cream pie in your face for asking such an inane question. How does it feel? Why would anyone need to know that? It feels awful, of course. Not because I “know what they’re going through.” How could anyone truly know what other people are going through when they hear their teenager is dead?
It feels terrible, is one answer. Because I understand from my own experience that when you suffer a loss like this, it feels like this: Not only has my loved one died, I have died as well. My former life, the life I would have lived with that now-dead loved one, exists no more. All the years we’ll spend grieving for our loved ones, we’ll also be grieving for our own lives — our old lives. Because we don’t know we’re grieving for ourselves as well as our loved ones, we can’t get to the source of our grief, and it comes to seem bottomless, as if the world were made of grief. But somehow we survive. It’s amazing how many of us survive. It’s amazing that survival is the rule rather than the exception.
I told the reporter: “It feels like it did the last time, and the hundreds of times before that. My son was killed 25 years ago. It doesn’t seem possible that this could keep happening.”
“How could this keep happening?” the reporter asked.
“It’s too easy to get guns,” I said. “It’s too easy for disturbed juveniles with still-developing brains to get guns. It’s too easy for mentally ill people to get guns.”
We were already too deep in the weeds. The camera light snapped off; the reporters moved on.
But the interview continues in my imagination. I have questions for the reporter. Do you think that what you are doing will stop what’s happening with guns in this country? Why are you so curious about my squishy emotional insides when they are clearly not part of the situation you are supposedly reporting? Surely you’re aware of the iconography of televised mass shooting reports. The fleeing victims, the hugging weepers, the shrouded corpses, the departing ambulance. There’s a form to it now. It’s drama. It’s entertainment. How does it feel to keep reporting mass shootings as you do?
When gun violence becomes commodified as content by the media, we consume it rather than experience it. As a nation, we’re dead to it now. Despite our momentary hysteria, we’ve pretty much compartmentalized gun death, random mass shootings in particular. Consequently, we live in a country that seems to agree that 33,000 gun deaths a year is an acceptable price to pay for our unique, constitutionally guaranteed access to firearms.
I do not believe this can be true. But how do I pierce America’s complacent hide? Polls tell us that than 90 percent of people favor universal background checks, but a much smaller percentage actually do anything — at the ballot box or anywhere else — to make background checks a reality. How do we break through to the goodness in people? How do we get the attention of that vast middle?
There we were, pushing for another law that will save a few families from enduring what our families have endured. There are models that work; Massachusetts has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country. It also has the lowest gun death rate in America. There are dozens of ways to reduce gun violence, but the country as a whole seems to lack the will to do any of them. We lack the will to elect people who understand that sensible gun laws will save lives.
I’ve been at this for 25 years, and frankly I’m fed up with carefully reasoned essays, with weeping in front of cameras. I’m fed up with vigils, candles and moments of silence, and I think America is, too.