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America’s gun violence and the incalculable toll of empty seats

After the Walmart shooting, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said it’s not time to talk about gun control. But too many families know it’s past time.

Empty chairs are seen on the street after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

I teach a class at a local university, and one of the first lessons I give is one I wish I had received as a journalism student: how to interview people who have experienced trauma.

When you’re in college and considering reporting as a profession, it’s natural to focus on where you hope your career ends up. Maybe you want to investigate the misdeeds of government agencies, or write features about high-profile figures, or cover a national beat that addresses technology, health or politics. And maybe one day you will get there.

But first, you will probably find yourself sitting across from, or on the phone with, a person who has lost someone suddenly to gun violence.

Families of Chesapeake Walmart shooting victims mourn their losses

You will probably find yourself at least once, if not repeatedly, I tell my students, talking with a person about the newly empty seat at their table.

The empty seat. It seems almost a cliche image. But if you talk to people who have experienced an unexpected loss, they will tell you about the very real pain of looking at that tangible reminder of once-occupied space.

In a column this past spring, I shared with you the trauma my middle-school classmates and I carried after gang members (who had the wrong address) barged into a teenage birthday party and started spraying bullets from handguns and shotguns. They injured several students from my school and killed my 14-year-old classmate Blanca Garcia.

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

I have forgotten many details from that time in my life; I can’t even tell you which posters hung on my bedroom walls. But the sight of her empty desk in our classroom remains a seared-in memory. At the time, it hurt to look at it, and it hurt to ignore it. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. After the Uvalde shooting, when I spoke to a former classmate of mine who had become an educator, he described his empathy turning to numbness: “It went away when we came to school on Monday morning and saw her empty desk. That’s when the innocence of my childhood left.”

Empty desk. Empty office cubicle. Empty chair. Between domestic shootings, street shootings and mass shootings, we are a country filled with empty seats.

Each year, journalists write stories that tabulate annual homicides regionally and nationally. You will start seeing some of those pieces published soon. Many of those numbers come from counts by local and federal law enforcement agencies. But since trauma seeps in messy, wide-reaching ways, affecting not only victims but everyone who cared about them, there is no way to know how many people have actually been affected by gun violence. In that way, the true toll of empty seats is incalculable.

What we do know is those numbers are rising at concerning rates across the country, including in horrific ways in two shootings this month in Virginia.

‘We aren’t numb; we’re traumatized’: Another mass killing rocks U.S.

On Nov. 13, three University of Virginia student-athletes — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry — were shot and killed, and two other students were injured on a bus returning to Charlottesville from a Washington, D.C., field trip. The suspected gunman and other students had watched a play about Emmett Till and eaten Ethiopian food.

Then, on Tuesday, an employee at a Walmart in Chesapeake shot and killed six co-workers before turning the gun on himself. In his rampage, he took the lives of Kellie Pyle, Lorenzo Gamble, Brian Pendleton, Randall Blevins, Tyneka Johnson and Fernando Chavez-Barron. Chavez-Barron, whose name was not released initially because of his age, was just 16.

On Friday, authorities released a note found on the phone of the gunman, whose name I’m not including here to minimize the attention he receives. It was labeled “Death note” and ended with the line: “God forgive me for what I’m going to do.”

Youngkin is right: U-Va. shooting is ‘moment for us to come together’

Authorities also revealed on Friday that he had bought the 9mm handgun he used in the shooting that same morning. It was that easy for him. He was able to walk into a place carrying whatever thoughts would drive him to want to kill his co-workers and walk out with the ability to carry out that destruction.

After that shooting, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was asked whether he was open to legislative solutions to prevent gun violence, and he put off giving an answer. He told reporters now was not the time to discuss it.

“We’ll talk about it,” Youngkin said, according to reports. “We will talk about this. Today is not the day. It’s not the day. But it will be. And we will talk about it.”

Now is exactly when we need to talk about implementing more gun-control measures. Too many families know it is far past time we talk about it. Putting off those conversations means delaying action, which means more shootings, more death, more empty seats.

When I decided to become a journalist, I never expected to write about shooting deaths. But in the span of my career, I have written about the subject again and again — and again. I can’t tell you how many times, because I can’t bring myself to count all those pieces.

I interviewed college students on the Virginia Tech campus after the mass shooting there, knowing that even as they spoke about their hopes for bright futures, they would carry some of the darkness of that day with them.

I sat across from a mom as she talked about why she wanted lawmakers to see the post-shooting autopsy photos of her 16-year-old daughter, a girl who used to text her “I looovvvvve you Mommy.”

This mother wants you to see a disturbing photo of her fatally shot daughter. Maybe it’s time we look.

I listened as a woman described going on a date with her husband, a Peace Corps worker, and then telling him repeatedly “We love you” as he lay dying after being struck by a stray bullet.

I have had parents collapse on me and sob as they’ve talked about the children they have lost to gun violence, and I have watched children try to look brave and unaffected as they’ve talked about losing adults in their lives to gun violence. I’m tired of writing those pieces. I also feel driven to keep writing those pieces.

As journalists, all we can do is tell you these stories. We can’t put in place the legislation that will help make it more difficult for people intent on killing to get guns, or enforce the laws that already exist to protect people from gun violence.

We can just talk to people about the empty seats at their table — and, until things change, prepare future journalists to do the same.

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