Just as President Joe Biden was wrapping up his address to the nation on gun violence last Thursday, the 911 calls started coming in Ames, Iowa, where a gunman killed two people at a church before turning the gun on himself.
The Iowa violence followed a series of mass shootings in recent weeks, most notably a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, here in Chicago, Memorial Day weekend was one of the most violent in recent years with at least 47 people shot, including nine fatally. As gun-related violence spikes nationwide, gun control activists are wearing orange this weekend to honor survivors of violence and raise awareness.
Wear Orange weekend was inspired by Hadiya Pendleton, who was 15 years old when she was shot and killed in a South Side park in 2013. After her death, friends commemorated her life by wearing orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves. Years later, her mother Cleopatra Cowley reflects on her daughter’s life and impact.
“Wear Orange weekend is about highlighting issues of gun violence across the country. (Hadiya’s) friends got together, and being as young as they were, selected orange as a bright color, which is a symbol to hunters not to shoot. So it’s their way of saying don’t shoot, don’t shoot us,” said Cowley, “Our perspective has been to celebrate life because I appreciate the 15 years I had with her more than I hate the time without her.”
Many survivors of gun-related violence and supporters of the Wear Orange Campaign believe part of the solution to saving lives is stricter gun laws. Groups like Moms Demand Action say the recent shootings make their movement more urgent.
“The recent shootings have really galvanized our movement. In the past two and a half weeks, we have had hundreds of thousands of individuals across the country who signed up with Moms Demand Action to volunteer to see what they can do, how they can contribute to reducing the senseless gun violence that occurs not just in this city, but across the country,” said Valerie Burgest, the co-chapter lead for Moms Demand Action in Illinois.
A gun reform package Democrats are calling the Protecting Our Kids Act is making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would raise the legal age to buy certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, ban new high-capacity magazines (existing ones would be “grandfathered in”), crack down on gun trafficking and require safe storage of firearms, among other measures.
Burgest says while the legislation won’t be enough to address the root causes of violence, it’s a step in the right direction.
“There’s so many factors that go into gun violence, especially in our communities, not just the mass shootings at a school or supermarket, but the everyday gun violence that we experience in our communities,” said Burgest.
Many gun rights advocates, however, are opposed to any form of legislation, and worry new restrictions could impact legal gun owners.
“We have a right to self-defense and we know that we’re responsible for our own safety,” said Rhonda Ezell of Chicago Guns Matter.
The shooters in both the Uvalde and Tulsa shootings used AR-15-style rifles, and now calls are growing to ban assault weapons including semi-automatic rifles. The U.S. had a federal assault-weapons ban from 1994 to 2004 and there’s data showing this ban was effective in preventing mass shootings including a study from Northwestern Medicine, which found it likely prevented as many as 11 mass shootings.
Despite the data, some gun rights advocates feel a ban goes too far.
“Banning firearms isn’t going to stop an individual from choosing to commit violence. These people are mentally ill. They are planning these attacks in advance and they’re making the decision to go out and commit heinous crimes. I don’t think that the blame should be placed on a firearm,” said Ezell.
Burgest, on the other hand, says the goal of Moms Demand Action isn’t to be anti-gun, it’s to be anti gun violence.
“It's not gun control, it’s gun violence prevention. That is our target. That is our goal to stop senseless shootings.” Burgest said. “Yes, you may not be able to stop an individual from committing a mass shooting, but we shouldn’t make it easy for them to do so either.”
Burgest says she’s hopeful lawmakers will take action on gun legislation, while Ezell points to mental health as the issue politicians should focus on to reduce gun-related violence.