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Alyssa Smolensky is a lifelong resident of Highland Park, Illinois, and is beginning a master’s program in natural resources at the University of Missouri in the fall. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
To my knowledge, I had never heard a semi-automatic rifle until Monday. Such a neat, orderly sound amid the terrified screams of children and families running for their lives. My family and I were in that holiday crowd in Highland Park, desperately sprinting toward safety we were not sure existed anymore.
Somewhere nearby, there must have been the group of little kids who had been sitting on our left, and the elderly couple sitting behind us who waved as their grandchildren called out to them from a float. The faces of the young and old who had smiled and waved alongside us for the beginning of the parade were transformed into a faceless mass of chaos and terror as shots rang out all around us.
Hours earlier, when we were choosing where to sit, we had no idea that our choice would determine whether we lived or died. How could we? Our main concern was finding a nice shady spot with a good view of the parade. We even woke up early so that we could set up our chairs and still have time to go to breakfast at the diner on the corner. A diner that is now riddled with bullet holes and stained with blood.
Highland Park’s Fourth of July Parade isn’t the nicest out there, but I look forward to attending every year. To me, it always seemed like the perfect way to kick off our Independence Day celebration. The entire community comes together to revel in the beautiful summer weather and cheer while musicians and floats glide past us. Smiles and laughter fill the streets of downtown, and the heart of our city sparkles with the joy of its residents.
But on Monday, there were no smiles or laughter. Pain and horror have replaced any shred of joy that our community might have felt earlier that morning. For most of us, this was the worst day of our lives. For some of us, it was the last. And yet, we are far from the first who have experienced such gut-wrenching trauma. In fact, we are barely a drop in the bucket compared to the number and frequency of mass shootings happening in this country.
When is enough, enough? All around, we are surrounded by too much hate and violence. Our country is being torn apart by divisive opinions and beliefs. But the answer is not to spread violence on the streets. Getting angry and frustrated to the point of bitterness helps no one. The issues our nation is facing are far too great and numerous for any one of us to address on our own. We need each other, just as much as we need change in this country. We cannot simply continue to hate and argue with those who think differently from us. We must be able to listen and empathize with one another and remember the humanity of those we might hurt.
Because on the holiday, someone forgot our humanity, as well as their own. The crowd was full of daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers; each and every person precious to someone else. The crowd was full of dreams and goals that might go unfulfilled. Futures cut short. We all just wanted to watch a parade.
Our community is far from the first to be victimized by a mass shooting. In fact, so many have come before us that most people have become desensitized to such news. We should not have to live like this. The sad truth is, we do not have to. The violence and death we witnessed Monday was entirely preventable.
Many would argue that protecting our right to bear arms is protecting our freedom as American citizens. I would argue that there is no freedom when military-type weapons can be bought and sold to people planning to open fire on crowds of children. There is no freedom when gun companies cannot be held liable for the devastation and destruction their weapons are unleashing in our communities. And there is certainly no freedom when people are shot and killed by assault-style rifles at a celebration of America and everything it represents.
As long as our streets remain a war zone, there is no freedom in America. We need to come together as a community to fight this epidemic of gun violence and ban the sale and use of these weapons. We must fight for a future in which Monday’s mass shooting becomes the last. A future in which our children will never have to run from gunshots at a parade. A future in which smiles and laughter prevail, and the joy of a community survives.
I am willing to fight for that future. Are you?