These Survivors' Stories Highlight The Real Effects Of Gun Violence In America

by Lilli Petersen
Courtesy of Karina Vargas

America has a problem with gun violence. In 2017 and 2018, America's decades-long love affair with firearms was thrust into the spotlight thanks to multiple high-profile shootings, including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the subsequent March For Our Lives movement. But while the spotlight on gun violence might have been new for many Americans, for far too many others, it was just another chapter in an ongoing tale. According to a new report from gun safety advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety, America experiences gun violence at 10 times the rate of other high-income countries, with more than 36,000 people dying every year. And for survivors of gun violence, that number is measured in memories.

While high-profile mass shootings frequently receive the lion's share of attention, the real face of gun violence is often less public. Everytown's report, titled A Nation Of Survivors and released Feb. 1, notes that more than half of gun deaths, some 22,000 a year, are suicides. Nor are deaths the only consequences of gun violence — somewhere around 100,000 people are injured by guns every year but survive, often with lifelong consequences. For those who lose loved ones, the holes in friendships and communities remain. Put together, it's a lot of people: A December 2018 survey sponsored by Everytown found that 58 percent of Americans had some experience with gun violence.

Internationally, the statistics stand out. According to numbers from a JAMA Network study published in August 2018, the U.S. had a gun death rate of 10.6 people per 100,000 in 2016, even higher than the 10.2 cited in the Everytown report. Compare that with 0.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 in Japan, 0.3 in the UK, and 2.1 in Canada.

In fact, per Everytown, as of the first week of February — a scant five weeks into the year — the United States has already seen more gun deaths than other wealthy countries will see all year. It's a milestone that the advocacy group is marking by honoring those who have themselves survived gun violence or lost loved ones with Gun Violence Survivor Week, from Feb. 1 to 8.

This year, Everytown's Survivor Network honored survivors with the Moments That Survive campaign, sharing the stories of those who have been touched by gun violence. Below, three survivors of gun violence tell Elite Daily about the memories that stay with them from their experience.

The following stories have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Brandon Wolf
Courtesy of Brandon Wolf

Wolf, 30, is a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016, the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. His friends, Andrew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, were killed in the shooting. He has since helped found The Dru Project, which provides scholarships to LGBTQ+ individuals and supports gay-straight alliance groups in schools, in Leinonen's memory.

I’ll never forget, standing there in front of the sink in the club bathroom, terrified people crowding around me, and I got the first smell of blood and gun smoke. That’s when it felt real to me.

The sensation that sticks with me of the initial moment when I figured it all out is panic. All I can remember is that feeling in the pit of your stomach — for people who don’t like roller coasters, when you go over that first drop and you’re not sure you’re going to make it. It’s that feeling in the bottom of your stomach, a knot. Every time I get into a situation where I feel like something bad is going to happen, that sense of panic comes back. That’s one of the most vivid memories of the shooting: a feeling of sheer panic.

I’ll never forget Monday morning, getting the call that Drew had not even made it out of the club that night. You think about that grief that is so overtaking, it’s so overwhelming. I think from that moment for the next 24-36 hours, I don’t remember anything.

After the shooting, people were talking about, "Where does this fit in a national landscape?" Talking about a presidential election. And I remember in that moment, making a decision that, if I didn’t speak up, if I didn’t say something or do something, that my friends would just forever be two of 49 victims. So I made a choice that week that no matter what happened, no matter how low I felt, no matter what the world around me said or did, I was going to make sure that people knew who they were.

For so long, we’ve been told there’s nothing we can do about it. The common refrain, thoughts and prayers. And it’s not doing anything, we’re not getting anywhere. I think what you’re finally hearing, from the front lines, from the people who are living it every day, is that we’re not taking it anymore. Emma González kind of wrapped it up for us after the shooting in Parkland. She said, "We call B.S." There is plenty we can do about this issue.

One of the really pressing things we have on our plate right now is HR8, which would expand background checks. 97 percent of Americans agree that we need expanded and universal background checks. We need to close the gun show loophole. That’s a really big deal. There’s a lot of common sense legislation that if you sit down, and it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, if we just talk about health and safety in this country, we all agree on it.

I've had numerous opportunities to be a surrogate on campaigns, to fight really hard for gun violence prevention measures. To give really momentous speeches in front of large groups of people. Those are the moments that stick out to other people. What sticks out to me are the quiet moments. The ones that make me feel something are the ones where I’m all alone, I’m sitting down, I’m doing something that Drew and I would have been doing together. I almost feel a sense of peace. As if he’s come back and put his arm around me again.

Shaheera Jalil Albasit
Courtesy of Shaheera Jalil Albasit

Albasit, 26, is the cousin of Sabika Sheik, the 17-year-old exchange student from Pakistan who was killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas along with nine others on May 18, 2018, just three weeks before she was due to return home. Albasit, also an exchange student working on a Master's degree in Washington D.C., was her only family member in the United States at the time.

I was talking to my mother, and simultaneously found out that there had been a shooting. Right after I got off the call with my mother, she called back immediately and she just said, "There’s been a shooting at Sabika’s school." I don’t know what it was in that moment, but every time I talk about it, I tell people that in that moment I knew that she did not make it.

What I was frantically trying then to do was call Sabika’s parents and get in touch with them and tell them not to call her. I was thinking of the possibility of, what if she’s hiding out and doesn’t want her phone to ring. But it was so weird, while I was trying to do that, I was simultaneously trying to call her and message her myself. It was very confusing.

Ever since we knew Sabika was coming over, this was in the back of my head. The U.S. is, unfortunately, known for gun violence, and this was always in the back of my head about her, not so much myself. In April, just one month before it happened, I was talking to my mother and I said, "Finally, she’s about to get done and go back. She’s safe, she’s fine." So when we found out, it hit so hard. Imagine the worst of your fear materializing. It was just a helpless moment.

I’m in a position now where I feel that, will it give me closure if I really stare down the barrel of a gun myself? Will that experience be the only thing that will give me the closure of the idea of what Sabika experienced in that moment? But at the same time I think "survivor" is a very helpful, therapeutic term. I think the distinction is very important between those who have experienced it themselves, but at the same time I think it’s very important for the discourse to talk about families and communities.

I’m interested in seeing action being taken by political leaders, because those are the individuals we trust with our goals. I’m particularly interested in safe storage legislation at the federal level, which has been introduced by Sens. Murphy and Blumenthal. Because Sabika’s killing was the consequence of weapons legally owned but unsafely stored.

Sabika’s story is not unique. It happens with nearly 40,000 people every year in this country. What I want American people to take away from her story is to have open conversations, because that’s something I’ve seen in this discourse. When some family loses their loved one, it’s a kind of grief that you wouldn’t want to experience.

Karina Vargas
Courtesy of Karina Vargas

Vargas, 24, was the accidental victim of a drive-by shooting outside her high school in Aurora, Colorado, on Dec. 6, 2010. The then-high school junior was undocumented at the time, which affected her ability to get health care. She still has a bullet in her spine and is paralyzed from the waist down.

It was a drive by shooting, gang-related. They shot into the crowd once and happened to get me. It was right outside of the school, so at that time there were some parents waiting for their kids to get out of class, for the school day to be over. There was a whole bunch of commotion, with everybody trying to get out of the scene.

When I was on the ground, I knew that something was wrong. I didn’t know what exactly it was, but I felt like my feet were standing straight up in the air, and when I looked down I realized that they were flat on the ground. I realized immediately that something was wrong, and I think that realization will be with me forever.

My friends dragged me behind a bush in fear that the car was going to come back. They took the initiative to basically throw me over their shoulders and put me in the car and drive me to the hospital. That's when I lost consciousness.

As soon as I got into the hospital they were trying to ask for my social security number and my insurance card, and my family being undocumented, we didn’t have insurance or a social security number. They barely even helped me after the emergency room. I still have the bullet inside because we didn’t have the money to make my life better. They only saved my life.

It was very hard, my parents didn’t have the funds to support this new life that I was going to have to live. We resorted to going on the news and asking for donations from the community, doing fundraisers, getting any kind of money so we could modify our house or get medical bills paid. My mom had to go around the state looking for programs that she could apply to for me. She had to go all the way to Utah to find a wheelchair that was fitted for me.

I want the government to listen to its people, not what’s profitable to them. I want people to know the struggle. I want them to know what one person has made my life go through, and I would like them to think about what they would do in my place. Would they be advocating? Would they be sharing their story? Because at the end of the day, I feel like if I’m sharing my story, that’s one more person that knows that this is a problem.

To learn more or share your own story, visit Everytown's Moments That Survive campaign website.