It’s hard to describe the feeling one has while stepping over a bloody footprint greeting you at the front door of an apartment where someone had been murdered just hours earlier. I never want to do it again; once was more than enough.
I still don’t know to whom the footprint belonged. It was nothing like I expected, nothing like what Hollywood routinely conjures up. It was small, easy to miss if you didn’t know the aftermath of murder lingered in the air. It wasn’t clear if it had been imprinted on the concrete by a sneaker, boot, or bare foot. Maybe a paramedic had left that trace of the drive-by shooting behind. Maybe it was my youngest brother, the target of the shooting. Maybe it was the mother of one of my nieces, the woman whose body the bullets found instead of my brother. Or maybe it was left behind by one of the kids under the age of five who had also been in that apartment when the bullets began flying, a few of which left holes in the wall just above the bunkbeds where they slept.
I never wanted to go back to that apartment again, and never have. As a journalist, I’ve documented the final several weeks of an elderly woman dying from ovarian cancer, watched her waste away into nothingness as her family mourned her pending death until she was no more. I was there when a woman barely in her 20s succumbed to a rare form of cancer; I spoke to her mother as she struggled over whether to take her only daughter off life support. I’ve attended funerals for aunts and uncles and a father and father-in-law who were felled by chronic and acute medical conditions. None of them haunt me the way my brother’s girlfriend’s death haunts me.
That’s why I know what students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are feeling as they grieve the loss of 17 people gunned down in America's latest high-profile mass shooting. I know their pain. I know their horror. I know their fear. I know their anger. I know their confusion, their emotional hurt, and the psychic scars that will remain with them a long time, maybe forever. That’s why I’m glad they are being heard.
I’m moved that their impassioned pleas might be the catalyst to finally force real change in our all-too-static gun debate. It is heartening to see their presence on the national stage force the gun lobby and those holding onto an unrealistic and dangerous view of the Second Amendment to play defense for a change. There have been mass walkouts and canceled gun shows and a pro-NRA president grasping for a way to control a narrative. That’s why conspiracist theorists have shown up once again, this time to try to stop a movement that seems to be gaining steam, to shame those grieving students into silence. I’ll be the first to tip my cap if these kids can do what legislators in DC and the images of angelic-looking white children after the Sandy Hook massacre couldn’t. I’m cheering them on.
I’m also wondering why they are being heard when black families like mine weren’t, particularly given the kind of gun violence we face is more prevalent and robs earth of more lives than what happened in Parkland. Mass shootings have been increasing in recent years but remain “a tiny fraction of the country’s gun deaths,” according to the Washington Post. Such shootings supposedly get more attention because of their public nature, the high body count and, as the Post notes, “they occur without warning in the most mundane places.”
For families like mine, deaths from drive-by shootings into apartment buildings also occur without warning and leave a high body count of one. A single loved one taken by a bullet feels like a million. You’d have to trust me on that, for I hope you never get to experience it for yourself.
For families like mine, whether in small towns like St. Stephen, South Carolina, or major cities like Chicago—where the presence of black and brown death is rarely mourned by the public and routinely used as a way to deflect conversations about ill-advised police shootings and brutality—such deaths are never a small thing, even when we know some of those involved hadn’t been living upright lives.
Families like mine have also been screaming to high heaven about the danger of guns, about how we’ve been tired of seeing too many of our young taken too soon, about the need to do something. But we’ve largely gone unheard.
The kids in Parkland face bizarre accusations they are actors employed to force the government to take people's guns away. That’s horrific. But the kinds of barbs we’ve long faced—a wondering aloud if murder is in black people’s DNA—can cut just as deep. It’s why an opioid crisis that has largely had a white face has been met with sympathy and empathy for those struggling while the crack epidemic’s black face conjured up only outrage, stereotypes, and harsher drug laws.
For families like mine, all the times we’ve marched in the streets and held candlelight vigils and launched mentorship programs and gathered in prayer circles have largely gone ignored by the public at large. That’s why we’ll be cheering the kids from Parkland on as they try to command attention on social media and plan marches backed by celebrities, but we’ll find it hard not to lament that the daily deaths we face have long been deemed less important than those in Parkland.
We know guns aren’t the cause of all the carnage, but we know they make carnage more likely, more deadly. We know much-discussed but long-delayed gun control measures won’t stop all unnecessary killing but will make it harder for bad actors to do as much harm, whether at a country music concert in Las Vegas or on a back road in rural South Carolina. We know that even if you ban so-called assault rifles, the kinds of weapons that are more likely to take our lives (like handguns) will still be in wide circulation. We also know we must start somewhere.
It hurts that our pain, our suffering, has become background noise to elected officials who don’t even pretend to listen anymore. But if it takes an army of angry, grieving white kids in Florida to wake America up to this country’s dangerous obsession with guns, we can live with that. It’s maybe our best hope of ensuring more of our kids have longer lives.
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Issac Bailey is the author of the new book MY BROTHER MOOCHIE: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South (Other Press; one sale May 29). Follow him on Twitter.