A man with an assault rifle entered a Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Clinic in Colorado Springs last Friday, killing three people, wounding nine others, and traumatizing a community. These facts are extraordinarily similar to those describing my sister Shannon’s murder 21 years ago in Brookline. Shannon was a 25-year-old graduate of Boston College and had committed herself to ensuring women’s access to affordable health care. On Dec. 30, 1994, she was killed while working at Planned Parenthood, by a man carrying an assault rifle, who then shot several others. After Shannon’s murder, we committed to make positive change and see a day when no other family would experience a loss like ours.
I have struggled since the news broke on Friday to understand how this could have happened again. Is it because some presidential candidates are irresponsibly spreading misinformation and painting a target on clinics that exist to help women? Has the national culture of violence in our society become so commonplace that we now accept it as a part of our “new normal”? Is it true that the only action an individual can take to ensure our community’s safety is to “say something if we see something”? These truths are part of our current reality. In this reality, we also see time and again that when someone uses a gun to terrorize a community, people die. It saddens me that this is still the case 21 years after Shannon’s death. It is heartbreaking that we as a society appear to accept this reality and do not hold our leaders accountable for their unwillingness to change it.
In response to Shannon’s death, we fought for gun safety legislation in Massachusetts. Working with advocates and legislators, we achieved passage of an assault weapons ban, along with enactment of some of the strongest gun laws in the country. Although this was a huge step for the Commonwealth, I knew that the man who killed my sister bought his rifle in New Hampshire, making a national solution necessary to save lives.
I have spent my career advocating for crime victims and have sat with too many families whose dinner table included an empty seat due to gun violence. Gun violence doesn’t know race, socio-economic status, educational level, ethnic background, or religious affiliation. Each day we learn of people shot by their intimate partners. We hear stories of young men of color gunned down in our cities and rename it “youth violence,” diminishing its horrific impact. As a nation we mourn together after mass tragedies. We mourn those killed while practicing their faith in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and a Baptist church in Charleston, S.C. We attend vigils for those killed at universities like Virginia Tech. Our way of life is forever altered when we cannot go to a movie or the supermarket without considering our evacuation plan. We will forever remember the tragic loss of lives in Aurora, Colo.; Lafayette, La.; and Tucson. Our entire nation stood together in silence to honor the teachers and children executed in Columbine, Colo., as well as Newtown, Conn. Gun violence is indiscriminate. Its only common truth for families touched by it is that the loss is forever.
Sadly, as these events unfolded, our leaders in Washington joined us in mourning while they let the federal Assault Weapons Ban lapse into nonexistence. They have not enacted legislation to close the “gun show loophole” or enacted laws that would promote sensible background checks so that homegrown terrorists and criminals cannot arm themselves. We are told that guns are not the cause of violence, and our attention should be focused on issues like a failing mental health system, race and cultural relations, access to affordable health care, poverty, and education. I couldn’t agree more that these issues deserve our attention, but people are dying as quickly as the bullets fly. Less than one week after the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado, we are once again seeing the headline “Mass shooting” in San Bernardino, Calif. At what point does this “new normal” become unacceptable to us?
Our time to seek a new day is long overdue. Those of us who have experienced gun violence have an opportunity to tell our story and ask our leaders one question: “What have you done today to keep guns out of the hands of those who will commit violence?” As a national community of survivors, we have the opportunity to commit ourselves, as my family did to Shannon, to hold our leaders accountable and work toward a day where no other family will suffer the same senseless loss we did.
Liam Lowney is executive director for the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance.