The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At gun violence memorial, visitors reflect on two weeks of mass death

The Gun Violence Memorial Project showcases the lives of the thousands killed by guns each year: Mass shootings, community violence, suicide

The Gun Violence Memorial Project at the National Building Museum in Washington on May 28. The exhibit contains four houses, each with 700 bricks that allow families to display items from their loved ones lost to gun violence. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Shawna Oertley stepped into the stark white room, silent but for the muffled sounds of sullen voices. Immediately, she was overwhelmed.

Before her were four houses the size of a small sheds, all built of 700 glass cases shaped like bricks. Etched onto each was a name and death date. Inside were small objects meant to represent a whole life, now gone.

Oertley, 58, had found herself inside the Gun Violence Memorial Project.

It had been two weeks since 10 Black people were killed inside a Buffalo grocery store, and four days since 19 children and their two teachers were killed inside their elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. In both mass killings, young men used semiautomatic rifles to gun down their victims. Those killings have dominated the news cycle, but they represent just a fraction of the epidemic’s toll in the United States. The memorial was created by the MASS Design Group, Purpose Over Pain and the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, to convey what the headlines could not.

We need a national memorial to gun violence. Now.

Oertley, who works in construction in Chicago, had flown to the nation’s capital for a Memorial Day weekend getaway, and she had come to the National Building Museum early Saturday to learn about architecture. But then she saw the Gun Violence Memorial Project.

She read the sign at the exhibit’s threshold. Every day, it said, more than 100 people in the United States are killed with guns, and 200 are shot and wounded. Each week, guns kill 700 people — each of them represented by the 700 bricks used to build the four glass houses before her.

The sign invited her to walk through, to spend time with the lives inside each brick, to reflect. And then it asked her to act.

House number one.

A mix-tape CD in a yellow case for Leslie, 24, featuring “Bennie and the Jets.” A student ID for 16-year-old Blair, killed in Chicago while shielding a friend from bullets on the bus after school. A “World’s Greatest Father” mug for Michael. A rosary for Esteban. A wrench for Paul. A video game console for Domonic. Hair clippers for Andre. A “Welcome to our class!” card for Sarah, age 5, killed by her father after her first day of kindergarten.

The idea of the kids was what undid Karin Engstrand, 69, whose emotions built and built as she moved from one house to the next. When she’d first seen the name of the exhibit, she hadn’t wanted to go in. The news of the past two weeks had just been too much. All those children, killed in just one day. And now here she was looking at mementos about others. Babies. Toddlers. Teens.

She’d come to town for her son’s college graduation, and the family had decided to venture to a few final museums before flying back home to Minneapolis, where the aftereffects of George Floyd’s murder by police was still raw.

Engstrand hadn’t personally been touched by gun violence, but she’d always been willing to help. She donated money. She signed petitions. But walking through the memorial, she felt helpless.

“You want to be hopeful …” she trailed off. “I just don’t think it’s going to stop.”

House number two.

A photo of 2-year-old Angelina’s big brown eyes beside a card that says “descanso” — Spanish for “rest.” A Washington Nationals hat for Frederick. A letter from the United States Marine Corps to Bob, a first lieutenant, awarding him the Bronze Star for service in combat. A Dunkin’ Donuts cup for Kenneth. A “REWARD” card for David, dead at 19, with a pleading question: Do you know who murdered my son? A remembrance stone for the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. The press badge of sports journalist John McNamara, a victim of a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland.

The call to action, the volume of loss, the fact that guns are legal — it all felt bizarre to Yichao Su, 25, and Aviva Wang, 26, who grew up in China. Su is a film student in London. Wang is pursuing her master’s degree in education, with a dream of teaching elementary students.

The Uvalde shooting at Robb Elementary School had prompted many teachers to speak out for stronger gun regulations, to demand that lawmakers stop saying that school shootings could be prevented if educators were taught how to shoot back. They said they were tired of active-shooter drills. They said their students were afraid.

Wang thought about none of that as she walked past. She plans to get her degree and move back to China, where communities don’t experience gun violence because almost no one can own guns.

House number three.

A teddy bear for Columbine High School, where a mass shooting in 1999 left 13 people dead. A two dollar bill for Michael. A blue bandana for Louie. The Streetmedic’s Handbook for Camilo, an EMT and aspiring firefighter in California. A glass Coca-Cola cup for Michelle, PhD. A calculator for Chris and a comb for Da-Keem. Earrings for Coco. A sparkling pink scrapbook for Alexandria, age 18, killed by a stray bullet while picking up her younger brother from a birthday party.

The Piper family couldn’t stay in any one house for too long, because the immensity of what they represented had become too much. In 2022, it was difficult to not feel immersed in tragedy and trauma. Choosing to go inside felt necessary, but it was hard.

They’d come for the weekend from Pennsylvania, not planning to find a gun violence exhibit at a museum about buildings. But they were learning so much.

They knew how often guns are used to kill people in mass shootings and in crimes. But they hadn’t realized just how many U.S. gun deaths involved suicide — nearly two-thirds.

House number four.

A compass for Phillip, 26, who ended his own life with a hunting gun — a gift from his grandfather. Pompoms for Alexis, a cheer coach killed by her ex-boyfriend. A baby picture for Arthur. Drumbeat Red L’Oreal lipstick for Cat. Ballet shoes for Hannah. Bedazzled sunglasses for Noelle. A résumé from Dariel, 20, an aspiring clothing designer whose goal was to “change the world of fashion.” A newspaper article for Kenneth about the police officers who fatally shot him. A piece of paper with Louis’s last words to his mother: “It is what it is. I love you.”

The sign had told Oertley to reflect, and so in the glass houses, she absorbed each brick. She took photos of some, because she wanted to remember them as individuals, and then she felt bad that she couldn’t take pictures of them all — to honor each life equally.

Now, she knew, it was time to act. She stepped into the exhibit’s final installation, a room where visitors could sit and read the books about gun violence scattered on the tables. One about gun violence in Chicago, her hometown. Another containing poetry. A blue one, from the students who survived the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. school, which reminded her of the last time she came to Washington.

It was March 2018, one month after 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The surviving students organized millions to flood the streets near Congress, calling it the March for Our Lives. They demanded a host of gun reforms. Some speculated it might even be a tipping point.

“Nothing,” Oertley thought, “has changed.”