It was a delightful day to attend an Independence Day parade honoring our nation’s birthday in my community of Highland Park, Illinois, a 30,000+ suburb just north of Chicago. As a longtime resident, I raised my two wonderful children with my wife there, and have attended dozens of these celebrations over the years.
This year, I arrived at the 4th of July parade at around 10:00 am around when the parade had just started. Like any community, there were children with their decorated bicycles or red flyer wagons, parents, seniors, pets, lawn chairs and blankets pockmarking either side of the parade route. Everyone was enjoying the festivities, smiling, waving to one another and to those on floats. The parade led off with representative vehicles from law enforcement and first responders like the local fire and police, which was followed by the local high school marching band, acrobatic and musical groups, naval personnel from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north in our county, and other private companies and services that are embedded in the community.
Twenty minutes into the parade, I heard a pop, then two. At first thinking it must have been the backfire from one of the vehicles, then maybe it was errant firecrackers going off, but that would be way too early in the day to hear that type of noise.
But then, there were multiple pops in rapid fashion, and then my mind thought, gunfire? I remember such noise when I was training as a reservist decades ago, but I could have never imagined such a thing would happen in Highland Park, especially on July 4th.
I was wrong. When I heard these sounds, I was about half of a block away and the crowd lining the street suddenly rushed toward me in a stampede of human flesh. They were escaping the indiscriminate bullets meant to kill them.
I gingerly continued, step by step, to where the general area where the gunfire had emanated, which had stopped by then. I thought perhaps I could lend some assistance if there was a need, as I did have some first aid instruction years back. As I approached, I saw blood on the sidewalk and those injured with blood on their arms and legs. The most nauseating of all were the three adults lying on the ground, motionless and askew, covered in blood.
Others came to their aid, but were unable to offer any life-saving measures for them. These were people who enjoying life only moments before – smiling and being present at a celebration of our country’s founding with family and friends.
Then I saw a young boy motionless in the arms of his parents, one yelling out incessantly for a medic. It was later reported that this eight-year-old had his spinal cord severed from a bullet to the chest, paralyzing him from the waist down.
It was all so incredulously sickening to see – more graphic and disturbing than what we have seen and read on air or in print media. I grabbed my head nearly breaking down. I said to myself, what the hell is this country coming to if such indiscriminate carnage could come to a suburban, tree-lined community like mine? This is a community that respects life, is law-abiding, and is a great place to raise a family as my wife and I have done since the mid-1970s. It felt like a bad dream – a science fiction movie – and continues to feel surreal when I think about it. But it was real.
Law enforcement immediately responded with their own long guns drawn, a couple of whom were from the vehicles that led the parade. My assistance was not needed since I was not a qualified first responder, so I then walked home thinking that I should maybe hide behind a bush or in a parking lot until the all-clear was sounded.
The shooter was captured, but only hours later. A day later he was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder, and media reports say now he has confessed.
As a victim and witness to such a heinous act, it is hard not to get political, especially when it comes to assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines, background checks, and other measures. I believed in common-sense gun control measures before this mass murder, but now it is far more personal. Now, opposition to gun control is not just an intellectual disagreement, but something that I simply cannot – and will not – understand.
As I process the trauma my community and I have endured, I think about Justice Clarence Thomas’ decision in 2015 to oppose Highland Park’s ban on military-style rifles. In so doing, he described the type of AR-style weapon just used to kill seven Highland Parkers as a “modern sporting rifle” that many Americans use lawfully, like for “self-defense.” Say those words again, Mr. Justice, as you look at those that senselessly lost their lives on our nation’s birthday.
The simple truth is guns are meant to kill. Guns, certainly AR-style firearms, cause immeasurable familial suffering from the loss of life and debilitating injury they cause. Yes, humans pull the trigger, but the availability of these firearms makes our country unsafe. We all should have a human right to remain free from being killed or maimed by weapons of war so that we can raise a family without concern for their safety.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs there are those who talk about a myriad of other factors other than gun control, such as mental health. Sure, we can beef up resources to treat those with mental health issues, but those resources not only place an enormous burden on the mental healthcare sector but do not with any immeasurable success put in place barriers to prevent the mentally unfit from owning a firearm. Red flag laws that would help prevent such people from retaining a firearm are still being rejected by those who value guns over life. Republicans, like Governor Greg Abbott in Texas, are nothing but cowards when they turn away from addressing guns. The facts don’t lie: when a federal assault weapon ban was in place the country was demonstrably safer.
I am no neophyte in believing that the politics over gun control is not complex and controversial. But if my story is of any benefit, it should motivate us – We the People – in electing legislators who will vote to remove from the general population deadly weapons of war. For the sake of our children and future generations, we cannot let this senseless violence continue.