The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gunfire is not only killing kids. It’s killing childhood experiences.

I grew up performing in parades. My children have never attended one.

Empty chairs, a bicycle and a stroller are seen after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

We wore jeans and long-sleeved, white-collared shirts that kept the sun off our skin, along with every potentially cooling breeze.

That’s what I remember most vividly from the years when I used to twirl a flag in parades in my hometown.

I was in elementary school and, thinking back, I must have either been tricked or forced into participating in my school’s color guard, because it wasn’t the type of activity I would have naturally gravitated toward. I enjoy getting lost in crowds, not standing in front of them.

But I wasn’t a kid who complained much, so I probably grumbled to myself during those after-school practices that saw my classmates and I line up in the Texas sun and twirl poles that felt heavy in our prepubescent arms. Swing left. Swing right. No, you can’t stop to wipe sweat from your forehead. The school was in a struggling neighborhood and instead of individual water fountains, it had an elevated concrete trough that released water. After practice, we raced to it.

I didn’t expect to enjoy performing in parades, but I have many happy memories from those days. My favorite moment always came at the beginning of each event when the performers clustered together, waiting to get in line. During that time, we would get up-close looks at elaborately decorated floats and eye-catching costumes. It felt a privileged view. My second favorite moment wasn’t really a moment but rather a compilation of them. It amazed me to see strangers, street after street, cheering loudly for a bunch of kids in white-collared shirts awkwardly twirling flags. It made me feel a part of something bigger and brighter than my reality.

I always expected that when I had children, I would drag them to parades. I envisioned us packing a cooler, grabbing some foldout chairs and showing up early to get a front-row spot.

But now I have two boys who are in elementary school, and they have never attended a parade.

They have never gone because the risks of taking them to that type of public gathering have felt too high in recent years. Like many parents, even before this past Fourth of July saw a gunman turn a parade in Highland Park, Ill., into a massacre that left seven dead, dozens injured and countless people traumatized, I had already played out that possibility in my mind.

I was a kid when a classmate was shot and killed. That trauma lasts.

The country’s out-of-control gun violence has made that a necessary calculation for parents of young children. In deciding whether to take kids to concerts, marches and parades, parents now have to weigh the potential for fun with the potential for a shooting. Or even the potential for a perceived shooting, knowing that a “pop” or a “bang” can cause a sudden stampede.

Americans are so on guard that gatherings across the country in recent days saw people scrambling to escape real and imagined bullets.

“Viral videos of masses of people fleeing from one perceived threat or another on American streets have become a staple of social media,” wrote my colleague Marc Fisher, in a recently published piece. “In many cases, as in Washington, Philadelphia and Highland Park on the Fourth, cameras capture people first looking to each other — to their friends and relatives, as well as the strangers around them — for cues before deciding whether to flee, almost as if they trust the reaction of the crowd at least as much as, if not more than, their own instincts.”

In that piece, he wrote about two teachers from Chicago who celebrated on the National Mall. He noted: “Everyone seems to be on edge these days: When a bag of chips popped open on their Metro train that morning, they recalled, passengers jumped.”

Parents making calculated decisions about which public events to attend with their children is not a hysterical response. It’s a reasonable one, given the current atmosphere in the country. I say this as someone who grew up in a neighborhood where gang violence was prevalent and has spent a career covering shootings of all types.

An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof black lives don’t matter to black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.

After mass shootings, we see images of the awful aftermath on news sites and social media. We see shoes and backpacks left behind. We see the pained faces of relatives and the solemn expressions of first responders. We see photos taken during happier moments of the mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, friends and children who were shot. An image from the Highland Park shooting that will likely remain with many people is of a toddler in blood-soaked socks. Both of his parents were killed.

But what we don’t see — because it can’t be captured in images — is another type of loss. We don’t see how the ever-hovering threat of gun violence has affected a generation of children who can’t attend school, a sporting event or a public gathering without accepting there’s a possibility that bullets will come flying toward them and the people they count on to protect them.

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We don’t see the kids whose parents did the morbid calculations and decided not to take them to those public gatherings.

We don’t see how the country’s out-of-control gun violence is not just killing America’s children but also American childhood experiences.

Lawmakers who purport to care about the country should be livid right now. They should be feeling as fed-up as parents who are sick of what they’ve been seeing — tiny caskets and orphaned children — and what they haven’t been seeing — their children enjoying the same freedoms they once had. They should be pushing past politics and doing everything in their power to change that reality.

On July 5, President Biden posted a tweet saying, “Jill and I hope you had a happy Fourth of July, America. God bless you all. And may God protect our troops.”

Among the many responses was this one: “Mr. Biden; I’m sure you won’t read this but in case you do — PLEASE do something about gun control. I am terrified to take my children outside anymore. Parades, elementary schools, shopping malls, nothing is safe. Help please.”