Twenty-six crosses stand in a field on the edge of town to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 6, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
I held my hand over my mouth as I read about last Sunday’s mass shooting in Texas that claimed the lives of 26 people, shaking my head at yet another example of how guns control this country. I wondered what would happen if you asked any random person in America, ‘How have guns controlled your life?’ I bet they’d all have a personal story to tell.
This week, I put my theory to the test. Over the course of five days, I posed that exact question — ‘How have guns controlled your life?' — to a high school counselor, two science journalists, three employees of a tech startup, and a dozen young folks at a youth center in East Oakland.
Initially, I'd set out to talk to every single person I interacted with for the entire week. But bringing up the topic of guns to someone you’re casually conversing with — a teller at a bank, or a post office clerk — only causes alarm and suspicion. It isn't what you do. Not in America. Not now.
All I wanted to know is just how many people in this country are living a life that’s controlled by guns. How many folks have been physically wounded, or are dealing with the loss of loved ones, or live everyday with the fear of what might happen?
How many are survivors of this everyday war we fight in America?
The young people told me that guns control their lives daily. Two of them had stories of losing siblings to gun violence. One mentioned the perception of power that comes with owning a gun, and observed that it isn’t just the victim who is controlled by guns, but also the shooter. Another said that there are places they can’t go because of the potential for gun violence; fear of guns, they explained, is almost as controlling as guns themselves.
At the tech startup, one person told me that he’s more aware of people when they get onto a BART train; while he’s mindful to not profile others, he’s become overly sensitive to what could potentially happen. He also told me that after the 2012 shooting in a movie theater in Colorado that claimed the lives of 12 people, he can no longer sit anywhere in a theater that’s not near an exit.
One of the journalists told me how, earlier that same day, she'd had to console her young child who awoke bawling because of a nightmare that there was a shooter at her school.
I asked the high school counselor how guns have controlled her life, figuring I'd get an answer about her students, who are commonly referred to as “at-risk youth.” But her answer went beyond her daily work — she told me that a close family member was shot and killed in a temple in the Bay Area over a decade ago.
That's a lot of pain and hurt caused by guns, and it's not even complete. Out of the nearly 20 people I spoke with, every single one had a story of how guns had controlled their lives, in one way or another.
Today, Veterans Day, America celebrates its members of the armed forces who’ve been involved in military combat. It's a day to read about those who lost their lives in America’s deadliest war, the Civil War. A day to understand what it was like for those who fought in the bloodiest war the world has ever seen, World War II. A day to think about those involved in America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan.
And while this is a much-deserved national holiday for those uniformed service women and men, I wonder when we might have a day to recognize the civilian soldiers who have been killed, are wounded, or are living with PTSD from everyday gun combat in America. Those who face warfare but don’t don uniforms with the flag on the shoulder; the educators, writers, entrepreneurs, and young people who lead everyday lives controlled by guns.
In a country where an average of 93 shooting deaths happen every day, imagine if we had just one day when we could strive for no shootings in America, anywhere.
Imagine one day when we could openly talk about gun violence, so that people like the ones I talked to this week could see that they’re not alone.
Imagine a federal holiday to honor those who’ve lost their lives while attending church in Texas or South Carolina, while dancing in Miami, while singing along at a concert in Las Vegas, or walking to class in Colorado or Connecticut.
And on that same day, we’d honor the young brothers and sisters we’ve lost in East Oakland as well.
Just one day to collectively pay our respects to those killed by guns, and recognize that we are all veterans of this same combat. One day to help change our collective mentality. And then, the next day, we could get to work creating legislation so that we don’t have to continue living in a gun-controlled society.
It’s hard to imagine that. Especially in America, especially now.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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