The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My son was killed at Sandy Hook. We need to do more to prevent another Charleston.

Let's train our young people to identify warning signs in others.

The author and her late son, Dylan. Photo courtesy of the author.

June 17 was the last day of school at Sandy Hook Elementary. My Facebook news feed was filled with pictures of smiling children looking forward to the fun summer days ahead. One picture in particular made me cry. A group of boys, many of them familiar faces, had just finished third-grade. They were my son Dylan’s classmates, but Dylan wasn’t in the picture.

Dylan was killed in his first grade classroom on Dec. 14, 2012, alongside 19 other first graders and six educators. While I continue to be grateful for the children and adults who survived that day, sadness and anger overcome me each time I see pictures like these. Dylan should be there, too. Schools should be safe places.

That night, my news feed filled with another tragedy. Nine worshipers were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My heart breaks for the victims, their families and their community.  Sympathy, compassion and love are fundamentally required. But broken hearts do not make change.

While the motives for this hate crime may be very different from the crime that took my son from me, there are similarities. Access to firearms. Mental health issues. Ignored signs that violence was imminent. And the destruction of yet another seemingly safe place.

Are we honestly surprised? Every year in the U.S., 500,000 acts of gun violence are committed — including homicide, suicide and injury. Almost 90 people dying every day.

Are there any safe places left in America? When did we become a country that accepts this level of daily violence? How many times can we watch the news filled with these preventable horrors and then look away to get on with our own lives, all the while hoping that the next news story isn’t about our town?  How much longer are we going to incorrectly believe that we cannot do anything about gun violence?

We must reject the narrative that it is hopeless and we are helpless. These acts of violence are preventable and there are actions we can all take in our own homes and community to make a difference. In 70 percent of all gun violence acts (including suicides), at least one other person was told an act of violence would be committed. We need to educate ourselves, and our children about the warning signs. And we need to train ourselves to reach out to trusted adults when we hear or see threats.

No person should be afraid to go to church, school, a movie theater, a grocery store or just walk down the street and wonder if they might not ever go home again.

I refuse to accept that our public spaces are dangerous. I refuse to teach my surviving son to live his life in fear of other people. We are not an unsafe country.  But we are failing as a society to look after each other, intervene and get people help.

We are failing to deal with the toxic combination that we see in acts of violence. Sometimes it’s irrational fear, hatred and racism. But for many Americans who lack the skills to cope with stress and anger, or for the very few with severe mental illness, easy access to a firearm leads to tragic loss.

And make no mistake, the ripple effects that damage families and communities reverberate over a lifetime.