Gun violence is a national epidemic. Alongside countless others in our nation, I am a living, walking, breathing statistic related to this cumbersome issue. On October 1, 2017 (often referred to as “1 October”), I fell victim to the deadliest mass shooting in modern-day history. It took place at an outdoor country music festival that was held adjacent to the famous Las Vegas Strip, with hotels looming overhead. I knew gun violence was an issue in our nation, but never thought I would come face-to-face with it. It just never crossed my mind that a non-affiliate, who was later deemed to have no apparent motive, would dare cause harm to 20,000+ concert attendees that night, all while residing in his hotel room 32 floors high, overlooking the crowded festival grounds.
Leaving 58 dead and hundreds injured, many of whom are still recovering to-date (yes, to-date, in 2021), the tragedy had a way of reeling me back to the desert-floor of Las Vegas 2 years later. What brought me back was not solely the need to connect with other survivors during the two-year anniversary. I did not heavily lean on the concept that revisiting the festival grounds could be healing, as many survivors had told me. The determining factor was the 2020 presidential candidate Gun Safety Forum, hosted by the youth-led movement ‘March For Our Lives’ (MFOL). Upon hearing of this forum, to be held during the two-year anniversary of the Las Vegas Route 91 tragedy, I knew it was the opportunity I had been seeking to utilize my experience to help implement positive change for our nation and its people. After connecting with a representative from MFOL and expressing my desire to be present, I was graciously offered an invitation to attend alongside numerous partners of MFOL.
Flying into Las Vegas was, in a strange way, a breath of fresh air. It reminded me that I, two years prior, was able to safely depart and have more opportunities to live my life, and live it right. The festival grounds, though abandoned-in-appearance, like a ghost town, were visible as my plane circled around the airport waiting for an opportune time to land. I could still see some teal-colored chairs that I recognized as having been there during the 2017 festival. It was an eerie sight and made me think of those who might have sat in those very chairs during the moment our lives changed forever. It truly was a ‘lives changed forever’ moment. Although trauma can be addressed in therapy and by utilizing healthy coping mechanisms, it becomes a permanent part of you and your being. In some weird way, it is almost like receiving the heart of a transplant donor. You mourn a piece of your old self, but know your heart is still beating and you are still breathing. God did not call you home yet and you have to keep pushing forward. That is why I am back here, in October of 2019, to not just be another face in the crowd, but to be a representative for all impacted by gun violence.
While in attendance, I not only represented the massive population of gun violence survivors, but I represented the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Campus Safety Violence Prevention (CSVP) knowledge community, as well as my job supporting the mission of the Office of Student Conduct at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was able to connect with survivors of school shootings, namely Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, individuals who reside in neighborhoods that struggle with daily gun violence, and, perhaps the most gut-wrenching, mothers who have lost their children to accidental shootings within the home. As I heard the stories of tragedy flow from the brave mouths of those still aching, I recognized that resilience in the eye of the storm would one day triumph over this national epidemic.
As I continued listening and learning, I recalled that it was in the short days following the loss of their campus constituents that the Parkland survivors began to initiate the youth-led MFOL movement to end gun violence. These students utilized their anger, hurt, and confusion, which quickly gained the attention of the media, to birth MFOL. From the stories of those who witnessed gun-related deaths within their neighborhoods came a tremble in their voice, but I saw the strength in their stance as they addressed presidential candidates, face-to-face, seeking answers and action, not condolences. A fellow survivor of the Las Vegas shooting spoke, sharing her experience of holding a fellow concert-goer, a stranger, who had been severely shot and died in her arms. As I glanced around the room, I recognized that there were no dry eyes. No presidential candidate down-played the stories being shared. Not one attendee mocked another. Nobody denied the prevalent issue-at-hand.
It was in this moment I realized that through tragedy comes immense endurance to do the right thing and be the good that is oh so needed in this world of ours. I learned that so long as we keep speaking up and speaking out, there will supportive, listening ears and positive change is bound to come. We must keep persevering in the eye of the storm.
Robin Brown serves as Conduct Analyst at the University of California Santa Barbara and Enough is Enough Co-Chair for the Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Knowledge Community.