America’s mass shooting culture, fear, and ‘freedom’

“I have been lucky to not lose any friends to this epidemic. Many cannot say the same.”

Jenny Hellwig, News Editor

A note: I wrote this piece a while back. Unfortunately, I cannot even remember exactly what mass shooting event triggered my desire to write it, which is emblematic of how prevalent these events are, and how desensitized our culture is to gun violence.  

Highland Park, Illinois, is a special place for me.

Every time I go home, one of the first things I do is drive to Bright Bowls, a smoothie bowl place in town where one of my best friends works.

After I get a bowl, I stroll down the streets, usually on a hot summer day, and look at the overpriced clothing at Rock N’ Rags, a boutique local to the town. I go and sit on the beach with my friends and watch as streaks of purple and orange fill the sky.

On July 4th this year, my friend was making smoothie bowls when a man began shooting from a rooftop across the street during a parade. She watched as people fled the area, shots ringing and chaos breaking out on the normally calm and quiet street.

All she could do was shelter as the town was destroyed around her. I was out of town the day of the shooting. My stomach sank as I heard the news, and I immediately texted my friend— “Are you safe?”

Thankfully, she was safe. One block over from the shooting that claimed seven lives, her store sheltered dozens of people and drove many of them home since they couldn’t get to their cars, which were parked on the street of the shooting.

Earlier this year, I had sent the same exact text to another friend. We had gone to Indiana University to visit friends, and he had gone out to a bar while I stayed in. That night, five people were shot in the bar, Kalao, while he was inside.

“Are you safe?” I texted, panicked. Although no one I knew was hurt, the mood of the campus was dampened after the shooting. I spent the rest of that trip on edge as rumors flew about the suspect being on the loose and committing more shootings.

Both of us were fine, but during that trip I again had the familiar, sinking feeling of fear in my stomach.

And again, a few months ago, I had to text yet another friend, who attends Michigan State University, where three were killed in a mass shooting on campus.

And a town over in Charlottesville, three students were murdered in yet another act of senseless gun violence in November. As we heard the news, many of us had to reach out to our friends at UVA.

And again, the Club Q shooting earlier this year struck fear into members of the LGBTQ community and their allies, witnessing yet another targeted act of hatred. And again, in California. And again, in Memphis.

And again, just last week, in Nashville, where schoolchildren were shot dead.

How many of us are connected to people and places affected by gun violence? I have been lucky to not lose any friends to this epidemic. Many cannot say the same.

Walking around downtown Highland Park this summer, I looked at the memorials set up for the victims of the shooting. Before my eyes, the place had been transformed— it was no longer a quaint town near Lake Michigan. On that day in July, it became a battleground. The air hung heavy with the knowledge of the atrocities that had been committed there.

I started to think about how we were supposed to be celebrating our freedom on the 4th. It’s our “freedom” that allows us to go buy as many guns as we want, without background checks or permits a lot of the time, and at ages as young as 18.

I am not saying that there can’t be responsible gun ownership. But without basic gun control, are we really free? If we can’t go to parades, schools, malls, movie theaters and churches without being afraid for our lives, how exactly do we live freely?

Our militaristic, gun-obsessed culture serves to embolden the growing extremist sects in our society. It empowers the same extremists who shot others based on race like in Buffalo, and the same extremists who stormed our Capitol.

The politicians who oppose gun control and basic reform are not doing so out of principle. They are paid by gun lobbyists—those are their true constituents.

They know their hands have been bloodied and they don’t care because they don’t serve us. The Democrats are not exempt from criticism, either. They refuse to abolish the filibuster and pass substantial legislation to protect us.

I hate to say “just vote.” I even understand not wanting to. But our only chance to protect ourselves and ensure a better America for our children is to speak out.

We need to say, this is not normal. Our towns should not be transformed into battlegrounds. We should not have to live in fear of the next shooting—fear that this time, it will be closer to our friends, our families, and our homes.