On Wednesday night, as I was putting my son to bed, I received a text like so many I’ve received before. The words were simply “mass shooting in Maine.” I opened up X, formerly Twitter, on my phone and the feed was flooded with photos of an unidentified man holding a long assault rifle, what looked like an AR-style semi-automatic rifle.
I had to close it instantly.
The image of this man holding a high-powered gun — as if he was hunting people — is something I’m having a hard time shaking. I am devastated for the community in Lewiston, Maine, who are still living in fear as he remains at large.
I can’t stop thinking about the many who are wounded, who are fighting for every breath right now. I am so angry for every family that still doesn’t know if their loved one is dead or alive. Unfortunately, I know these feelings all too well.
On a cold, sunny Thursday morning in February of 2014, my mother, Ruthanne Lodato, answered the front door of our home to a stranger. The man opened fire and shot her multiple times in broad daylight. She was rushed to the hospital and into surgery, but the damage was too significant, and she died.
By the evening, Mom’s name was all over the news, and a description of the man was released to the media. This monster was still at large, and our “safe” community suddenly didn’t feel so safe. People were afraid to answer their doors – and with good reason. My mom was a music teacher and a woman of faith; she had no enemies. If she could be shot and killed in her own home, who was going to be next?
Gun violence can and does happen everywhere and to anyone. If you have not been personally touched by gun violence yet, you are very lucky. Statistically speaking, it’s not a matter of if, but when. It is a uniquely American problem — at this point, we have decided that we value the second amendment more than we value the lives of our kids and our neighbors. For many politicians, and the large majority of the Republican caucus, the sanctity of life ends at birth. While our elected representatives do little to combat gun violence in statehouses and the halls of Congress, firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens.
If you have not been personally touched by gun violence yet, you are very lucky. Statistically speaking, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
State laws in Maine do not require background checks on all gun sales, nor do they have a red flag law to keep firearms out of the hands of those who may be a threat to their communities.
Pennsylvania, where I’ve lived and worked as a gun violence prevention advocate the last six years, has similar laws. I imagine a lot of people, especially those of us in states with weaker gun laws, are asking this sickening question: How do we avoid being the next Maine?
The laws legislators in Pennsylvania are pursuing are two laws similar to ones already on the books in Massachusetts: universal background checks, for all firearms, including rifles and shotguns (which are often sold without a background check by unlicensed sellers or at gun shows); and an Extreme Risk Protection Order, often called a “red flag” law, which creates a process that allows law enforcement and family/household members of an individual in crisis to petition the court to temporarily restrict their access to firearms. After mass shootings like the event in Lewiston, we often hear media reports of the shooter’s family, friends and neighbors saying that the shooter exhibited warning signs and unpredictable behavior. That’s where red flag laws can be effective. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted red flag laws, and data shows that states have seen a reduction in firearm suicide and they have prevented potential tragedies.
Simply put: Gun safety laws save lives. The question is why are we electing people who are unwilling to put them in place?
I would like to say that I got involved in this cause because I was sick and tired of waking up to news of another shooting, another community shattered by tragedy. But the honest truth is, the cause found me. I am a member of a club that I would not wish on anyone.
Over the past 24 hours I have exchanged messages with other survivors who share similar feelings about what happened in Maine. I’m grateful we have one another to lean on during times like this, but I wish we didn’t have to. I’ve met incredible people through this work, who I wish I never knew. I wish we didn’t have to share and relive the most horrible moments of our lives in an attempt to persuade people to wake up and do something.
Ending this epidemic requires a fundamental shift as a nation. It requires a fundamental shift in our political incentive structure, that right now rewards elected officials for gun policy stances that are broadly unpopular. It will take a universe of people beyond those who have lived experiences like my own to change the dynamic.
If you’ve ever considered getting involved, we need you to join us. We need your help and your voice. We can and must do better, and I will not stop fighting for a future free from gun violence.
Research candidates and elected officials up and down the ballot to understand where they stand on gun safety. Call and write your elected officials; tell them that you need them to support common sense gun violence prevention laws. Tell them that keeping our children and our communities safe from gun violence is an top of mind issue for you at election time. Join a local gun violence prevention advocacy group to amplify your voice.
In times like these, as we watch communities deal with unconscionable pain and sorrow, we should commit to doing more than moving on to the next inevitable tragedy.