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The next day at the rally, Soto stood onstage holding a picture of her sister, trying to get some of that attention back. Insects buzzed in the trees above. A motorcade raced along the adjacent street. Soto looked out at about 200 people seated in black folding chairs — a good crowd, she thought, in part because of the recent Navy Yard shooting. “My sister was gunned down,” she began.
During the bus tour, Soto had taken the advice of fellow gun advocates and revised her speech to make it more detailed, and lately she had been telling stories to crowds that she never shared with her family. “We can’t really bring ourselves to talk about it in private,” she said. She knew her speech by heart, but she found it easier to read onstage from an iPad, because it made her memories feel more like remarks.
“We laid my sister’s clothing from that day out on her bed,” she told the audience. “If you have never seen what a bullet hole looks like, your imagination doesn’t do it justice. There were five. One was right by her heart.”
Next to speak was Badger, the 76-year-old retired Army colonel shot at Giffords’s event in Arizona: “There were nine chairs, and this man was just walking down the chairs, shooting them, point-blank,” Badger said. “A congressman. A judge. A 9-year-old.”
Next came Jennifer Longdon, paralyzed in a random shooting in 2004: “My fiance’s most devastating injury was a bullet that roared through his brain,” she said. “Then I was in a room that reeked of blood and antiseptic.”
The speakers rotated onto the stage for about an hour before the president of the local NAACP announced the beginning of the event’s long finale: He would read from a list of names of people killed in gun violence this year. He bowed his head and spoke in staccato rhythm. The audience remained in place — mournful, appalled, activated.
“Michael Arnold, age 16, killed with a gun.
“Sylvia Frasier, age 53, killed with a gun.”
Ten minutes went by, then 20. Some people began checking e-mail on their cellphones. Others left to get lunch. A few dozen more waited until after lunch and then returned to work, leaving behind a sea of empty chairs.
“Michael Cunningham, age 38, killed with a gun.
“Gerald Cunningham, age 27, killed with a gun.”
The remaining survivors at the rally departed for a reception. A man in a business suit walked by and pulled an empty chair into the shade to talk on his cellphone. A school group from Indiana wandered through, sat for a minute and then left.
Soon all that remained was one person at the lectern, reading names that were broadcast through a speaker system. A helicopter flew by. A nearby protester screamed into a megaphone about the federal budget. The speaker leaned into the microphone and raised his voice. “Courtney Davis, age 20, killed with a gun,” he said, but there was nobody left to hear him.