Part vigil, part call to action, a small crowd gathered in Woodland Park last week to hear from local survivors of gun violence in the wake of a series of mass shootings that have rattled the nation.
Organized by Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America — a nationwide group founded after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 — the June 2 rally held by the Flathead Valley chapter included pleas for gun control legislation. Chief among them, a ban on the types of firearms used in recent tragedies in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas.
“You know, if the murder of 19 children and two teachers is not going to be the impetus for safer gun laws, then what will be?” asked Emily Casey, an organizer with Moms Demand Action. “That sounds familiar, we were here a decade ago asking the same questions after Sandy Hook.”
Casey shared her personal connection to gun violence with the crowd. Her sister Jessica was killed by her husband after they had separated — he shot her during a child swap in front of their two young sons, she said.
A background check would have revealed a restraining order and history of domestic violence, Casey said. It could have made a difference, she said.
Background checks, raising the purchasing age for firearms to 21 and “red flag” laws, which would let relatives or public safety officials petition a court to strip an individual of guns, were among the proposals raised during the rally. Organizers also called for a ban on the sale of what are colloquially known as assault weapons.
In both the recent Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, a gunman used an AR-15-style semi-automatic firearm to kill multiple people. Congress is mulling such a ban on semi-automatic military-style rifles, which has the support of President Joe Biden, following the spat of high profile attacks.
Rallygoers last week paid tribute to the lives lost during the mass shootings in Texas and New York. Paper bags with tea lights lined the front and side of the pavilion and included the victims’ names and ages. Moms Demand Action volunteer Julie Kreiman read the names of the victims and paused for a moment of silence.
MUCH LIKE Casey, Amy Rohyans Stewart has seen the rippling effect of gun violence up close. She nearly lost her nephew to it several years ago.
Then a 15-year-old, the teenager got into an argument with another boy via text message. Stewart told the crowd that the disagreement was over a girl, in typical teenage boy fashion.
They planned to meet up and fight, only to find out that the boy who had challenged him was armed with a gun. He shot Stewart’s nephew and his two friends, leaving one to die of his injuries.
Though her nephew survived, Stewart said it left him changed. He has struggled with addiction, mental illness and incarceration. He’s currently in jail, she said, the same jail as his shooter.
“Connor didn’t die that day, but he was certainly taken away from us,” Stewart said. “The only thing that saved Connor’s life was playing dead and talking to him as of late, he watched an interview of a little boy in Uvalde who said, ‘all I could do is play dead.’ It was the first time I heard my nephew cry in a really long time.”
The pain and trauma from that act of gun violence permeated through her family ever since. Stewart said she prays everyday that her nephew’s shooter “doesn’t win, that he doesn’t succeed in killing Connor.”
Former firearms industry executive Ryan Busse, author of “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” also spoke at the rally. He noted the safety standards implemented around guns and their use during his time as a firearms executive: bulletproof glass protecting the executive offices in case someone from assembly decided to “go postal” and strict background check requirements for anyone using the company gun range.
Despite being an executive at the company for 20 years, he still had to undergo a background check and carefully adhere to safety requirements or the session would be shut down.
“… Perhaps you can remind people that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to institute a fraction of what every single gun company does within their own factory walls,” Busse said.
Moms Demand Action organizer Tara Lee said the group is interested in bringing in more advocates like Busse, firearm owners in favor of “common sense gun control.”
“Male, white gun owners are a really powerful dynamic to solving this problem,” Lee said. “So, we ask that this group isn’t just moms, it’s ‘mothers and others,’ and if you know of any responsible gun owners we’d love them to join our cause as well.”
ATTENDEE HOLLY Mergenthaler had her young son coddled against her chest as she spoke about how she’s never known a life without the threat of school shootings.
Her mother was in high school for Columbine, Mergenthaler said. She was in elementary school during Sandy Hook. She now fears for when her son is old enough to attend school.
“I haven’t been alive for a period where there weren’t massacres in schools,” Mergenthaler said. “I grew up with the same shooter drills that kids are doing now. So it’s insane to me that the same violence happening when my mom was in high school, is happening now that I have a child and frankly I’d like it to be done by the time that my son is old enough to start school.”
She said becoming a parent has brought home the reality of mass shootings.
“After the Uvalde shooting I messaged my mom and I was like ‘wow, so this is what it’s like to go through this as a parent,'” Mergenthaler recalled.
The night concluded with Moms Demand Action volunteer Valerie McGarvey reading a poem written by Amanda Gorman about the recent mass shootings, which ends: “maybe everything hurts, our hearts shadowed and strange, but only when everything hurts can everything change.”
For Casey, that’s certainly true.
“… What keeps me going is that I fight in honor of my sister,” she said. “I know Jessica would want all of us to keep facing this uphill climb instead of giving up.”