Survivors of East Garfield Park, Highland Park Mass Shootings Speak Out in Support of Ban on Assault Weapons

A measure to ban some guns, which was partially prompted by the Fourth of July mass shooting in Highland Park, received its first hearing Monday.

The proposed legislation would ban the future sale of a list of guns defined as assault weapons (HB5855). While the bill is many stages away from becoming law, leading Democrats are committed to its passage.

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The initial testimony came from survivors like Lauren Bennett, who was with her family, including her young sons, at the Fourth of July Parade in Highland Park when she heard what initially sounded like fireworks.

It wasn’t.

It was allegedly a 21-year old man repeatedly shooting an AR-15 style gun. Bennett was shot twice.

“Imagine a hot, metal dart-like projectile tearing through your body at supersonic speed. Faster than the speed of sound. You’ll feel it burn through your skin and likely you’ll grab whatever part of your body was hit because you know that something’s not right, only to feel excessive amounts of blood draining out of you and soaking everything,” she said. “At this point, you most likely feel like you are dying, maybe wondering if this is how it all ends. I can assure you that is what I was thinking.”

She was shot once in her lower back and hip, then as she got up to run she was shot again, in her upper back, nearly missing her spinal cord.

The crowd was under attack and bullets were pouring down.

“My husband was running with our 6 and 9-year-old boys, literally for their lives, shielding them while exposing himself to shooting bullets, because we all know that their innocent young lives are far more precious than our own,” Bennett said. “These boys dodged bullets, jumped over fallen bodies while running behind me, looking at my blood-soaked body, and they assumed their mother was probably bleeding to death.”

Doctors said she was lucky to survive. Seven people did not.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said during her testimony that the suspect fired 83 rounds in under one minute, using a gun he had legally purchased.

Banning weapons like the one used in Highland Park won’t stop all gun violence but it’s a first, commonsense step, Rotering said.

“Just like we don’t allow people to handle nuclear materials or own missile launchers and so on, these weapons are too dangerous for public access. Please, help us reclaim or freedom and defend our human right to live,” she said.

The package legislators are debating would forbid the future sale of what it defines as assault-grade weapons, as well as switching devices that can turn other guns into them.

Those who currently own guns on the list would need to register the firearm with the state.

Shukeitha Jackson wants legislators to go further.

Her 17-year-old son Dayviontay was killed in Waukegan in 2016.

Six years later, she still misses him. Jackson relives the tragedy, the trial and the autopsy. She can’t let go of how her son required a closed casket because the assault rifle’s bullets so damaged his body.

“It is my opinion that assault rifles should be banned, making laws and punishment for those who have chosen to break them be way more harsh than they are now,” Jackson said, regardless of the perpetrators’ ages or circumstances.

Four months after the Highland Park tragedy, another mass shooting occurred on Halloween in Chicago’s East Garfield Park community.

Conttina Phillips was outside with family members, holding a vigil for a relative who’d died from illness when shots rang out seemingly from every direction.

She said it felt and sounded like a battle scene. The bullet that tore through her leg was so large it broke the bone.

“We need to do something about the guns. Not only the AK-47s. All guns. What will it take?” she said.

Whether the assault-weapons measure succeeds could be a partial answer to the question.

But Jacquie Algee, whose teenage son was helping a friend move when he was randomly shot and killed in 1995, said it shouldn’t take a mass shooting in a wealthy suburb to make it happen.

Algee said her heart goes out to Highland Park victims, and she prays for them.  But she says there’s a gulf between the reaction to that, and what happens after shootings in communities of color.

“In this city, 10 Black kids that were shot and killed that day. There were 62 that were shot and injured. And yet, yet the reaction and the result of what has come from that reaction, both from a local, state and federal perspective, far surpasses what we’ve been given, and what has happened to use and to our children and our families and our community,” she said.

Algee said nothing will change, unless change is focused everywhere.

This was the first of what will likely be three hearings this month, with another on Thursday expected to feature leaders of anti-violence community organizations.

Gun owners and advocates will be the focus of the third and final hearing, though several had an information opportunity on Monday.

After the hearing adjourned, teacher Chris Thach asked to speak; legislators let him, though it will not be part of the official record. Later, a couple other gun owners had some direct conversations with the state representative who led the committee.

Thach said the Highland Park shooting was not due to lack of gun control, but because authorities did not enforce laws already in place. Thach also said requiring those who legally own guns on the assault weapons list to register with Illinois government will create a dangerous precedent of a pre-crime registry, of the type used by authoritarian governments to crackdown on dissidents.

Another pair of gun owners spoke afterward with state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, who led the hearing. They told him some of the guns listed in the bill are used by farmers to kill coyotes and other predators, and that their neighborhoods don’t experience crime because criminals know that homeowners are armed.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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