A Hearing for All: Safe Storage

It was a day I will never forget. I’ve had days like that before. I was nervous, but that was nothing new. I used to play tennis and captained a team, before gun safety consumed my life. I knew that tennis and nerves go hand-in-hand. It didn’t matter how many lessons or how much coaching I got; I was never able to completely overcome my nerves. So when I woke up one morning with the same jitters, I decided to treat the day like I did when I played tennis.

There are rules that help. First, it’s important to find the right outfit. I chose business casual and pinned my Be SMART button to my sweater. Next, hydration: I drank my vitamin infused smoothie and added an extra water bottle to my purse. Having the right gear can make or break a player. I packed, too: 10 sandwich size zip-lock bags each filled with a cable gun lock and postcard about the Be SMART program.

Finally, I needed to do something about the nerves. In the car, I put on my favorite go-to music. Over the years I’ve become a superstitious tennis player, and in times of severe anxiety I listened to the same song over and over again. On my first morning of my next step, I was having trouble finding that song. I took it as a bad sign—plus the butterflies in my stomach wouldn’t stop doing loop-de-loops.

So, I gulped a big breath of air before I entered the Texas State Capitol building. I was testifying that day for the first time. It was early, around 9. I stood in the security line and put my purse on the conveyor belt. I walked through the scanner and waited for the officer to ask me about the zip-lock baggies in my purse. Sure enough he said, “Ma’am can you open your purse?”

His straight-face turned to an expression of curiosity as he asked me to explain the contents of the bag. I smiled and said, “Those are gun locks. I have 10 of them. They’re for the committee members who are holding the hearing about safe storage.” He nodded. I felt a need to add, “I volunteer for an educational gun safety program, BeSMART. I teach safe storage to parents and I hand these out to anyone wanting to keep kids safe.” I laughed nervously.

He just nodded again, and cleared me through security. I grabbed my purse and stopped in the center of this historic building. I couldn’t remember where I was supposed to go. I re-read the email on my phone: Room E2.112, Criminal Jurisprudence hearing room.

As I scrambled to the elevator, fear rose again. I read over my talking notes for the hundredth time, and then popped a breath mint. All the while I wondered why I agreed to testify. Jitters are a part of every good match.

It was a long walk to the hearing room, with people in front of me and people behind. I saw several wearing the red Moms Demand Action t-shirts. No one I knew, though.  Inside the committee room are even more people for the hearing: Texas Guns Sense, media, committee members, and people openly carrying knives and long guns. Was I scared? My heart raced, not for fear of being shot, but because I was about to play my first singles match in like 20 years. Back then, I lost.

The room was a swirl of beige, green and gold. I needed to find a seat and my doubles partner. I sat next to Jen from the local Be SMART group, perched in a chair that reminded me of an old-time movie theatre. I stared at the table I would soon be sitting at. It had two mics and four chairs. That table faced the house committee. I was going to be playing on center court. Everyone would be watching this match. It would be recorded and placed in the archives. Instead of having one line chair umpire, this court had more than eight—all sitting high up in their chairs, waiting to overrule a mistake a player might make.

I turned to Jen. She’s been playing this game longer than me. She’s the lead for local Be SMART program. She’s my doubles partner in a lot of the work we do, but today would be a singles match. The best she could do is wish me luck.

The meeting started late. I watched for hours as each person tried to win points. Some were eager for their spot on center court. What they had to say made them feel better, but it didn’t stand a chance of changing anything.

A club with no more members

Like lots of women, I love Nancy Drew’s stories. She’s an investigator, something I admire. I like Diane Sawyer too, and solving mysteries. How the NRA might be of any help to safer gun ownership may seem like an unsolvable mystery—but Nancy didn’t give up. Think of this as part of my investigative series on NRA, Everytown for Gun Safety and me.

I was in DC to complete a survivor fellowship program that’s led by Everytown for Gun Safety. We were 37 survivors from 21 states. We worked through two and half days of workshops. It’s been said many times by survivors “we are in a club where we don’t want any more members.”

In DC, my note-keeping started right away, at the ice breaker dinner. A mystery is only solved with clues and observations. I played fly on the wall while I balanced my beer, made small talk and listened to stories.

I wasn’t quite like anybody else I met at the Everytown Fellowship training. It was a place where I was meeting Katy face to face. Katy’s a volunteer and advocacy fellow and a New Jersey girl. Her sister was shot by her husband on a street in Maryland. Her sister survived, but the trauma from the brain injury has been a challenge. Katy advocates in her sister’s behalf, but she told me that she hopes one day her sister will be strong enough to tell the story herself.

After a long day of listening to speakers, slide presentations and practicing to be interviewed, we met up in the hotel restaurant/bar. We pushed tables together. It was noisy. We snacked on french fries and drank cocktails. Katy sat next me. She reminded me of girlfriend I knew in college. I like her. We chatted about our families, her sister, Jon and then my guns. How many do you have?

Katy had lots of questions about my NRA membership. She brought up my membership under the guise of asking about my gun ownership. She said she wanted to carry my NRA story back to Moms Demand Action. I explained how our family can own guns while I want to make ownership safer. Like everybody, later on I thought of more to say.

Me, Katy—none of us wanted to join the club of survivors. The club is people injured or killed by a gun, as well as those of us who loved those casualties. We like the benefits of friendships and understanding, but we don’t want any more members in the club.

The story from Everytown is tucked into slick folders with color letterhead on each release. My story is out on a Facebook page. It includes a picture of my son Lance’s dead deer he killed on a hunt. One advocate was stunned. “Take that off your Facebook page,” she advised me. I think it was advice.

Some pictures of our stories were created during the training. I painted (add picture) with Stephanie. I sat in small group with Robert and Katy and shared our stories.

From her question I realized Katy didn’t own any guns and has probably never shot one. She told me her parents and some grandparents owned guns. Those are members of the club too. None of us can ever leave the club, but we were in DC to try to keep others from having to register.

Why can’t I be member of NRA and Mom’s Demand Action?

Do you remember the peacock story from my last blog?

Did you know that only males are actually peacocks? They’re not born with fancy feathers, they grow them as they get older. They can fly. I knew the last one because I’ve seen that peacock on the rooftop of a neighbor’s house. The only way to get up was to fly. But why does he scream?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately. I first started thinking about it on my way home from that DC trip, and then this weekend the NRA had its national convention in Dallas. I read dozens of comments on the private Facebook page for Moms Demand Action. Most were bashing the NRA. Moms staged protests in Dallas.

I’m a gun-safe mom. I bought a big safe for my son to store his gun in. And the Everytown staff (the woman who prepped me for senator) member heard my ownership story with enthusiasm. “You tell that story,” she said, getting me ready for my five minutes with a US senator.

I can understand the anger and blame I hear from Moms Demand Action. The NRA doesn’t seem to care about safety. They just keep promoting more guns. This year’s convention was huge—80,000 people attended. President Trump and VP Pence spoke, along with other elected officials from Texas. I was not going. But all the hoopla has put me in place of soul-searching. I am thinking that once again can I really stand on middle ground.

I am just a mustard seed to the NRA. Not a long standing member. I joined after Jon’s death. I joined because like a wise friend once told me, “you can help to make handguns safer.” The NRA is the largest gun organization in the world. I’m speaking at schools—heck, speaking to anyone—and saying I’m an NRA member who supports gun regulations, and hopefully can show the world a new face. Not everyone is an extremist. Change from within is more powerful than change from the outside.

I’ll admit I’m slightly conservative—in the middle of the right. My family owns guns, my friends own guns, and I have customers who come to our car dealership who own guns.  I hear the other gun owners mutter, “yeah, some proud member of the NRA you are.” There are preconceived notions about NRA people, but many are lovely, sophisticated, and intelligent. They are just as set in their beliefs as those on the other side.

I joined Moms Demand Action a few weeks before joining the NRA.  My first experience with them was with an extremist. I wrote about her in an earlier blog. I could have easily walked away then. But I had filled out the Join Us page on Everytown for Gun Safety website. I received a call from someone in Dallas. She listened to my concerns and said, “My family owns guns, too.”

Safety was my way of wrapping my arms around Jon. I didn’t store our firearms. The BB guns sat loaded and in the garage. The handgun and shotgun was on a shelf in the closet of our master bedroom. The only safety I thought about was hiding the bullets separately.  Moms was my way of getting experience with Be SMART. In my survivor’s story I say, “I was a PTA mom, a sports team mom, and a homeroom mom.”

I’m still the homeroom mom, protecting Jon, helping other boys and girls be safe. I believe to have an impact on the NRA I must have a program to promote. The Eddie Eagle program is not going to be enough for the NRA to make guns safer.

It’s not practical to take guns away from everyone, either. A program that comes from the heart and the soul of who Americans are, different but not divided, will do the job. The peacock isn’t born with his feathers, either. We’re old enough now grow into something I’d call beautiful safety.

As a peacock I took my first steps in finding some mates at our DC training. I believe I can be in both camps. Actually, to be in the middle, where differences don’t have to divide us.

A peacock, safety, and the NRA

With the news of another school shooting, my heart is heavy again. It is horrific that these acts of violence continue to plague our children. I know for me I will take better aim on my gun safety advocacy. I’m doing what I can for another group of victims, the ones we’ve lost because of gun negligence. There’s much talk about control. I have been adding my voice about safety. Gun tragedies, like the accident that killed my son, claim many lives, too. I have a story to share and safety to teach. Gun owners must make changes, too.

I believe I can support Moms Demand Action without being anti-gun ownership. I’m anti-gun negligence, a position that makes a place for gun owners to support my work teaching gun safety. I’m inside of gun safety organizations like Moms Demand Action, and Everytown for Gun Safety—but I sometimes feel like I’m a peacock.

In my neighborhood lives a peacock. I don’t see him year round. He disappears in the winter. I don’t know where he goes. But every Spring he returns. I usually hear his screeches start in late March—early in the mornings and late in afternoons.

I was out walking the dogs when I heard his familiar cry. I’d been hearing them for weeks, but for some reason on this day I decided to find him. He was in a neighbor’s yard— feathers down, standing in the driveway.

As I got closer I snapped a picture, then watched as he trotted toward the shrubs to hide near my neighbor’s garage. My bulldog and golden were oblivious, too busy sniffing the familiar spots in the grass with deer droppings. I stared at the peacock for a few more minutes, then walked away. I looked over my shoulder one last time and noticed him coming out of the bushes. I slowed my pace long enough to see what he’s curious about.

Peacocks seem like one of a kind birds. There’s only one in my neighborhood, and I’ve read that they call out looking for another peacock. That’s me right now, calling out, and calling in places like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.

I went to Washington DC last month to call on a Senator. It was part of the fellowship training Everytown gave me to be an advocate. I was lucky to be chosen. Well, not that lucky, because those chosen all have lost a loved one.

The group of fellow survivors I met in DC is still with me in my heart. After our work together, Diana and Katy sent texts wishing me safe travels home. The trip was fellowship training, but turned out to be much more. We bonded, forming a family.

But while I am one of these survivors, along with 37 other people who have survived gun injuries or deaths, I know I am different. I’m an advocate who is working for safer gun ownership, to make owners responsible and accountable if they’re negligent. Accidents can kill, like the one that killed my son.

Inside of Everytown, or Moms Demand Action, I feel that family bond around our losses. I stand for a common ground, though. Before we can make changes about ownership of guns, and availability, we have to start with awareness of guns in our lives. We’re all at close range.

I didn’t feel close to the Senator who we were supposed to be meeting, because Sen. Tillis wasn’t in the room. Like a lot of lobbying meetings, a few staff members listened to my story, and stories of other survivors of gun tragedy.

I call them tragedies because that’s what every fatality and injury has in common — crime, mass shootings, or negligence causing fatalities. The first two subjects are getting lots of attention now. The negligence, though, kills far more people than the other tragedies.

In a way I feel like I am in the right place, talking about guns and safety. I have something different to say. Everytown and Moms want diversity in their ranks. Not just racial diversity, but political, too. “Let’s get Republicans out for the Wear Orange meeting,” one volunteer suggested. Good idea.

My idea is to get gun owners, responsible ones, into the Wear Orange meetings. Their homes and cars and offices are where the guns are. They can take the first steps to making our world safer.

I told the senator’s staff I belong to the NRA. I told them I was a gun owner, and that my son owned a silencer for his gun. The bill we lobbied against will make it easier to buy a silencer. It doesn’t need to be easier. My son Lance says it’s not hard to buy one.

Our fellowship trainer Aimee said, “You’ll be met your lobbyist in the Dirksen Senate Building hallway. He’ll give a brief explanation to the senator’s aide about who you are and why you’re there.”

We met as planned—me, two other gun violence survivors, plus a lobbyist. When I walked into the senator’s boardroom with three other survivors, the lobbyist sat quietly. I told my story right away as I introduced myself, even before the lobbyist had a chance to explain why we were there. After all of these years, my story is still at the surface of my life, ready to bubble over. I was nervous, too.

John, a middle aged man from Henderson, North Carolina who had been shot while entering a Detroit television station, told his story first after the introductions and the lobbyist’s explanation about our position on the bill.

Then Susan spoke. A sweet grandmotherly woman from Winston. Her daughter had been killed by an abusive husband. Now it was my turn. I rubbed a stone in my pocket, the one from my training welcome bag that said, “Courage.”

First I forgot to introduce myself. Shit. Then I blurted out, “I lived in Boone. We have a business there, a car dealership. And my son died while he was in college.” I pulled Jon’s picture from my purse, and pushed it toward the aide. I wanted him to get a good look at my son.

He nodded, along with a colleague, but neither touched Jon’s picture. The younger aide took notes. The older one talked about parts of North Carolina with each of us. He talked to me about Boone and Appalachian State College. He then asked, “Was the owner of the gun was over the age of 21?”

“Yes.”

“Was the gun purchased legally?”

“Yes.”

I knew from my briefing with the Everytown staff woman that at some point I needed to reveal my gun ownership and my NRA membership. Everytown’s trainers saw that as a powerful part of my story. This particular senator receives money from the NRA and votes in favor of less gun regulation.

I waited for my moment. And boom! I started talking. “My son owns a silencer. He purchased it through the current law. He passed a background check and did the waiting period. Why change? Let’s keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. I’m a gun owner and an NRA member. We need to find common ground.”

The aide looked at me and agreed. He was closing the meeting and said, “Yes, we need to find common ground.”

Shared that kind of story with a senator’s aide is different from the stories I shared with other Everytown advocates. Most of them don’t own guns, and I’ve met nobody who’s in the NRA.

That’s my diversity. Gun owner. NRA member. Mom who wants guns to be safer by stopping the negilgence.

I know I can be an NRA member and a Moms Demand Action Member. I don’t know yet if I’ll find another peacock while I’m calling out. Calling in DC. Calling in Texas, at local meetings.

In the meantime I’m still speaking up, teaching gun safety to PTA moms and dads as often as they’ll have me. When I tell them my family owns guns, they nod, understand, and respect that.

Peacocks are a unique bird, but they’re not one of a kind. They seem that way, because you don’t seem them together much. Maybe I’m a peacock who wants other birds around.

I think I got my message across. I need more practice. More Be SMART presentations. And what does a peacock have to do with all this? Another thing I learned is why peacocks screech. They’re looking for a mate. Me, being an NRA member and a Moms member, I’m looking for mates. Kindred spirits, middle-of-the-road sensible thinkers. Am I the only one out there? My trip to DC made me wonder, but it didn’t stop my searching.

My memoir At Close Range includes an idea about making our world safer with a basic talk with kids about gun responsibility. I want to hear from my gun-owning friends about how you can teach more safety. Leave me a comment.

My first Official Sweepstakes Entry from the NRA

The NRA wants to give me guns as sweepstakes prize. They do have a prize in the sweepstakes I would like to have, but it’s probably not for the reasons they think.

Last week in my mail was a sweepstakes envelope from the NRA. I stared at the glossy emblazoned mailer that included an early entry bonus prize. I could win a 36-Gun Grand Prize! I stared at the envelope from Fairfax, Virginia, and turned it over in my hands. I know I’m a new NRA member, but a gun giveaway? How many school shootings have there been since the start of the new year? I read it’s now 10. My skin crawls, and I refuse to look inside of the envelope. I hadn’t thought of guns as a prize. For the last nine years I’ve thought about them being safer in our world.

After Jon’s death, my son Lance started collecting guns. He asked for one for Christmas, and I told him I’d never buy one. But I needed to play a role in his gun life. So for his 25th birthday, a birthday that Jon never lived to see, I bought Lance a gun safe.

Days went by, and that thick NRA envelope sat on the corner of my office desk. I wasn’t sure what to think. After all, the school shootings continue. Last month’s ceremonies to commemorate gun violence at Sandy Hook are so fresh. I can hear the names of those dead children being called out at the Central Presbyterian Church. All of us walked up to light a candle. I offered my prayer for safety.

I finally broke down and opened the envelope. Then I realized this might make for a good blog. Let me show you my staged photo of the enclosures.

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Some lucky person gets to win 36 guns.

I say it out loud, “36 frickin guns! Who the hell needs 36 guns?” I choke swallowing some of my own spit.

After spending 10 minutes staring at the selection of AR’s, rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, I decide to search the flyers for any evidence of compassion—a sharp-shooter’s eye seeking proof the NRA will do anything about safety.

I read the official rules page, looking for keywords like: background checks, safe storage, and NRA accountability. But guess what? Not a single mention was made. The only sign of safety came in a small blurb about an early entry bonus prize—a Winchester Silverado 51 Gun Safe.

Needless to say I will not enter the sweepstakes. It’s a fundraiser to promote the part of the political arm of the NRA. But I did find the perfect use for that NRA envelope. I was at a Starbucks, sitting across from my writing coach. We were talking about this blog, and every time I leaned in to take notes the table wobbled. Ron went to grab some sugar packets to stuff under one of the legs. But I said, “No, I think this will work.” He laughed.

Really glad he told me to take this picture.

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Before I got my chance to post this there was another school shooting. Two dead and 19 wounded. Chills run up and down my body. I know people are tired of hearing about the gun violence. I’m having a hard time myself looking at my Facebook and Twitter feeds. More and more gun deaths. Some of my friends probably quit following me, it seems all I post about is tragedy. But there was a gun safe at the very top of the NRA’s sweepstakes. Just one prize, one that I consider the grand prize. Safety.

Public Speaking 101: a lesson about saving lives

I knew at some point along my journey of gun safety that I’d be speaking publicly. That petrified me, even though I recently took a workshop to prepare for speaking. The class was giving me platform-building tools, something writers need. Oh, did I mention that I tanked when it was my turn to stand up in front of the class and deliver an impromptu speech? Yeah, I literally said, “I pass.” And no bit of encouragement from the instructor could change my mind.

Of course, since I backed away from that challenge, I got another. I was contacted by the leader of Mom’s Demand Action here in Austin. Would I speak at the Fifth Anniversary of Sandy Hook ceremony? I was honored, but it still scared the bejesus out of me. The meeting was at a downtown church. I hoped I wasn’t expected to preach.

If you were hiding under a rock when Sandy Hook happened, on a day in 2012 a mentally ill young man shot 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. That day fell three years after Jon’s death, and I can still feel the hairs on what I call my God bumps rising on my arms. I tried to fathom the horrors happening to them, but mostly I felt my own loss. I couldn’t block that image of those mothers and their pain, though. The next day I felt an urgency to do something. It was the first time I’ve ever written to a President. The letter I received back felt more like a reply to fan mail, and that official piece of letterhead ended up in the trashcan.

I was discouraged, but not enough to throw in the towel. Instead, I subscribed to some gun safety sites. That’s when I first looked into Mom’s Demand Action. But I wasn’t sure if I would fit in. I was worried about my gun-owning family, and what MDA might think. I just wanted to protect children.

Earlier this year I found the courage to go to an anti-gun rally, and then blog about it. Next, the MDA meetings, and now this candlelight vigil for gun violence. It would be my first public speech as a survivor. You only get to do something for the first time once. I wanted to make it count.

Gun violence didn’t kill my son. Everything out there today refers to gun violence, from Sandy Hook to Las Vegas and all of the world in between. I need a phrase that fits accidents that can be prevented. I need a phrase that calls attention to negligence and recklessness. I need a phrase that will save lives without needing to make guns illegal, because we need to change lots of lives.

I’d love to hear your ideas about that phrase. Right now it feels like gun negligence, because 164,000 people have died from gun accidents since Sandy Hook. Coming soon to my Twitter-verse: #gunnegligence.

What happened to Jon was a violent death, I know. It was also a moment that could have passed by without taking his life. I believe this strongly enough to say it in front of people who want to take guns from our lives. My message is kind of lost in translation, for now. I’m working on it, though, and one early step was giving my speech.

It was scary because I was afraid I’d make a mistake and people wouldn’t listen. I worried in the car with my go-to, ol’ faithful friend Susan. She let me lean on her in that first anti-gun rally and so I leaned on her in the wings while I waited to talk. I got shushed before I whispered with Susan during the opening song. I felt better when the songwriter said she was scared too. Like she was going to ask us to forgive her if she forgot the words and messed up a guitar chord. I was in a place where everybody was a little new at sharing their stories.

I made it to that podium with my speech in hand. The meeting leader asked if I’d let her stand beside me while I spoke. She might’ve known I was nervous, and I messed up my first line. Once I was speaking, though, my heart took over. I even improvised a little, sharing the names of a few books Jon loved to read. I heard the applause, I saw the tears. I hope I touched hearts in the room.

After my speech, two women running for Congress wanted to talk with me. It was the first conversation I’ve ever had with any candidate running for office. Kathi Thomas running for District 25 has a high-school daughter. Kathi’s already giving the New Talk, telling her little girl to ask questions about the guns that come into her life. She’s also asking her friends about gun safety in their homes—before her daughter is allowed to come visit. It was everything I wanted to hear.

If Kathi wins office and sees a chance to make a difference in safety, I’d like to believe my first speech helps her do the work to save our children. It’s all I can hope for, right now. I’ll speak anywhere people will listen and in the meantime, you’ll hear my voice here.

Peace on earth, and good will toward men, and women, and children.

Taking aim at a gun-friendly world

Clamp on your holsters, people. This is my new gun safety rant. It’s gonna be a little like target practice.

My hairstylist has a daughter who’s a high school senior, and like many parents of graduating students, they’re starting to visit college campuses. I was excited for her, so I listened while Molly (not her real name) talked and stirred the colors she’d be using to cover up my hideous gray. She said she’d already gone on one campus tour and liked the school because it’s close to some of her family.

That school, like her other prospects, was here in Texas. It’s fun to talk to your hairstylist while she applies color and foils. I call it free therapy. I shared the story about the latest accidental discharge of a handgun in a Texas A&M dorm. I had to reach for some dark humor.  “I wonder if they’re going to start putting safe gun storage boxes in the dorm rooms?” We laughed, but afterwards Molly replied, “I’m going to find out what they’re doing at my next school visit.”

Texas schools, like a lot of universities, have too little control over who carries a gun in the classrooms or the dorms. That sounds risky. While she’s applying those foils, Molly and I ramble on. That’s when I learn her lease agreement has a new clause. Molly shows it to me. “You’re not going to believe it, but I had to sign it yesterday,” she says. For the first time in the lease, there’s a clause to protect the landlord when a shooting happens in the salon building.

I am shocked. This is college and haircutting we’re talking about. Not places where we’re used to thinking about gunplay, or even accidents like the one that killed my son. When guns become our individual safety crisis, we’ve lost control over murders. Accidents happen, too. Fewer will happen once we protect our safety.

People start to call this gun control, but my family owns guns. We don’t think of it like control. We want the NRA to think of it like safety, too. I’m trying to figure out how we bring them to the table to talk about this—and use their big influence in politics to make everybody safer. Even gun owners.

Without that influence, my hairdresser probably has to start packing a weapon to cut my hair. Shit! That’s a trim that’s a little too close to the bulls eye. There are people who believe having a gun everywhere makes them feel safer, but isn’t that really a statement about fear? Inside of that thinking, everyone is a potential killer, so let’s all arm ourselves. What happened to love thy neighbor?

So, I have to ask…

NRA, WHAT’S IT GOING TO TAKE TO GET YOU WITHIN RANGE OF A CONVERSATION ABOUT SAFETY?

Because I don’t want to carry my own gun to a salon appointment.

After my salon visit, I learned the US military can’t do its job, at the moment, to track dangerous ex-soldiers so they can’t put everybody at risk. Everybody right down to people praying on a Sunday. In Texas.

In these days when the bad news for gun safety is everywhere, Molly and I came up with a list of questions she’s going to ask at her next campus visit. It’s such a good idea, I going to call my son Keaton’s campus and ask them, too. I hope you’ll take them to your legislator, mayor — and especially to your college campus administrators. Laws take a while to hammer out. The safety of students in a college community is something that can happen a lot faster.

  • If the military can fail to keep proper records, what guarantees do we have about college campuses?
  • What is the plan to prevent this from happening on our college campuses?
  • How are they keeping records of ownership, licenses and background checks?
  • Will dorms now be installing safe gun storage units?
  • What happens if a gun is stolen, or someone else holds it and it misfires?
  • Will enrollment forms need new language, like the lease Molly signed, so the colleges won’t be held liable when a shooting happens?

After all of that, I have to take a breath. My thoughts are with those who have been forever affected by the latest shootings. My prayers, though, are for better ways to make gun safety more permanent than a hair coloring. I think about the moment when a gun changed my family’s life. There’s a way to make all of our lives safer—whether in a college town in a rent house, or inside a classroom. We need to insist that our schools hit that target.

Safety demands more action from this mom

The bullet landed in a bed frame in the college dorm. I heard about that shot at close range during my first meeting with Moms Demand Action, another one of the ways I’m stretching myself to tell my story. Like the woman telling about the dorm accident, it was my story too.

But first I had to get to that meeting. I was running late. If you know me, that probably doesn’t surprise you. I was committed to the moms’ gun safety group, but I lingered before I left the house. Instead of casually flipping through a magazine and relaxing before leaving on time, I was cramming in as many to-do items as possible. I put those dirty glasses into the dishwasher, added food to dog bowls, and watered the wilting plants. You know, the important things in life that can’t wait.

Those last-minute tasks had me driving like a crazy woman to the meeting. I zipped through stoplights that just turned red, checking Google Maps and hoping to beat the start time. Google had me arriving a few minutes late. I remained optimistic about missing nothing, though. When does a meeting ever start on time? Google Maps was right about my ETA.

I have to park on a side street, but I’m relieved when I watch another woman cross the street, also arriving late. The Brentwood Social House is a pastry cafe. The front counter that usually displays croissants, muffins, and fresh baked breads is empty. The cafe is an old converted house, and the meeting is in one of the smaller rooms up front. A cheerful volunteer directs me to the sign-in table, points to an ice chest of cold sodas, and then tells me to take a free Moms Demand Action t-shirt and a wristband, too.

Meetings like this happen in public places. After sizing up the shirts I take in a chair in the middle of the room. All around me people are talking. The lady next to me is complaining about a bad smell. “Oh, its just a toilet backed up,” says her friend. I decide to ignore it by taking an interest in the artwork on the walls. It doesn’t exactly mask the smell, but the colorful, quirky paintings for sale are a distraction.

Finally a youthful mom with dark hair and eyes, wearing the bright red Moms Demand Action t-shirt, introduces herself and welcomes everyone. She then gives an update on the progress that’s been made. I’m listen but wondering how many of these people have suffered a loss like mine—or are they here because they’re passionate about changing a gun culture?

The guest speaker is dressed in purple. I notice she’s even wearing really cute purple pumps. She’s an attorney with the Texas Council on Family Violence, and her purple is for October’s Violence Awareness Month. She talks about how she got involved, her kids, and then shares statistics. Stuff I didn’t know, like 68 percent of violence perpetrators use a firearm to murder their female partner, 77 percent of perpetrators kill their partner in the home—and in Texas last year, 183 children lost their parent.

The statistics convince me I’m just a small fish in this big ocean of guns. I think about Jon’s death, and then the children who live in fear. The horror of losing a mom killed by a dad. I understand why some people don’t want any guns in the world. The attorney in her purple pumps confesses to being a gun owner. This is a match up for me. We both believe we can live in a world with guns, so long as there’s enough safety.

Moms Demand Action works to lobby for responsible ownership of guns in places where children, no matter how old they are, might be within range. They propose control, but we all know the group’s genuine goal is safety. We all have a desire for safety in common.

Finally, there’s a Q&A. I listen, but not really, because I’m jotting down notes for this blog. Suddenly the volunteer who checked me in speaks up. She says, “Did you all know there was a recent accidentally discharge of handgun at the Texas A&M campus?”

I hear a few gasps, and then someone who has a child at the school asks for details. It didn’t make national news, just the College Station Eagle newspaper. At this university, the second-biggest in Texas, a stray bullet from a Glock was shot through a dorm room. The owner, a licensed concealed carry holder, let another student hold his gun when it accidentally discharged. It eventually lodged in the bedframe of the room next door. It’s a miracle no one was hurt.

That’s the problem. Texas has campus carry laws and the guns can float through the dorm rooms. The university spokesperson said there was “minimal property damage.” Yeah that’s what we should be concerned about. I felt my blood boil.

Afterwards, I walked straight up to the volunteer of the group’s BeSmart program and linked my story with the one I just heard. People didn’t think that A&M gun was loaded. Like in Jon’s deadly accident, the guns can sit out in rooms with students who don’t know safety measures for guns. They know movies and first-person shooter games.

The lack of safety can be a trigger for gun owners. The practices and regulations from the school administration are full of holes, like the laws. My book helps my work as a safety advocate—a label I just started using because let’s face it, it fits so well with my mission to close up the holes. Every one of those holes might kill a son like mine, a boy who had the tragic misfortune to be in a room with college kids and an unsafe gun.

I told that volunteer to call me and tell me what she wanted me to do. I am willing and ready. I don’t have much experience in this yet. All I have is a family tragedy and a desire to keep other sons and daughters safer than my Jon was in that college town. A day with your friends who own guns is around every corner for every student. When that day comes, better education and the New Talk might keep tragedy out of range.

Do you have a story like this one? Something that happened with a handgun and a college student? Tell it, on Facebook or Twitter, or reply to me and I’ll forward the message. Hagtag your story #mystorytoo, so we can tell the world how much we need more safety.

 

 

Paying My Price of Discomfort

Have you ever signed up to learn something—and a day before you’re about to start the class you realize what a totally insane idea it was?

Yeah? My stroke of genius was the day I signed up for the public speaking workshop. I am super awkward on stage, in front of a crowd, or in a video. I get a knot in my belly, sweat all over, and usually laugh inappropriately.

But for some reason that I wasn’t quite sure of, I decided to take a two-and-a-half day workshop on public speaking. I think I was pumped up by the excitement I felt at the writer’s conference in July. Back on that day I looked in on a talk given by an ex-news reporter turned professional media consultant. Elli did this great presentation about how to handle an interview about your book. I loved her energy, her blue eyes, and the pocket phrases she gave us to use when answering hard questions about our stories.

Of course I felt intimidated, considering my gigantic fear of public speaking. But during that panel discussion we were invited to name our fear—mine was Wiz—and I began to own it. Afterwards my burst of adventure to learn more about overcoming panic stayed with me. I went up to Elli and gave her my card, vowing to take her workshop later in the year.

I’m a competitive tennis player, so why not face my fear head on? The day before the class I finally decide to get prepared. I start with reading all the emails that have been sent to me over the past few months. There’s the email congratulating me on taking the course, the one about how much fun we’re going to have, and finally the schedule for the next few days.

In that last email there’s the mention of the word “spotlight.” I dig a little deeper, curious about what this means exactly. All of sudden I realize I’m expected to be presenting a 30-minute talk about my book’s message. Holy shit!

That fear knot in my belly reappears and now it’s triple the size. I decide to call the one person who can help me quickly put together a speech—my writing coach. On a side note, if you don’t have one these people I highly recommend it. Email me and I’ll give you his name.

My coach seems excited, but then again he’s been a theatrical actor. He tries to calm my massive knot, but nothing’s making that thing go away. We form a plan. He reminds me of a recent conversation, the one I had with a spokeswoman from Everytown for gun safety. “Didn’t she suggest you speak at the next legislative session?”

Yes she did. I decide this will be my spotlight. I will prepare a speech about gun safety and practice on the people in this workshop. It takes several hours. I know it doesn’t have to be perfect because that’s what Elli does—fine-tunes your message.

But still I don’t want to come across as unable to express myself. I am supposed to be a writer. So I write and rewrite well into the night. Randy makes dinner, brings me a plate, and sets it down on the desk in our home office. Afterwards I ask him if I can read my speech before I’ll share it with the group in the morning. He’s so sweet. He listens intently, gives only one change to the language, and then adds an extra boost of confidence to push away my doubt.

Finally, the big day arrives. Elli is all smiles, even wearing an ice cream bar skirt to loosen us up. Maybe ice bars would’ve been better than a skirt with them, but she knows how nervous I am. She picks on me, asking questions I don’t remember. Yes, I did get up in front of the class, and I did see a few black spots of dizziness. But luckily I was able to talk while I sat in front of my computer, and so I could control my shaking legs.

Bolstered by my writing, I didn’t feel completely broken. I was able speak slowly, take a breath, and look into everyone’s eyes. And as I told my story of loss and gun safety I noticed a few tears. I also saw one of the ladies in the class grab a kleenex.

After I finished everyone stood up and clapped. Of course, this was part of the support we all shared when someone was in the spotlight. I was then given the chance to ask questions. I needed to know if my story was compelling, and did my message need to be heard? How uncomfortable did it make you feel?

Elli said, “Leesa, of course you made us feel uncomfortable, but we need to feel that way. It’s your purpose. You want people to know what happened to you so they can prevent it from happening to their children.”

She was right. I love other moms’ children as much as I love my son. I didn’t write my book because it was something I was supposed to do. I wrote it because it was something I was called to do.

I love this line in an opinion piece I read by Michel Martin. “What might happen if, instead of demanding comfort for ourselves when we face our biggest problems, we accepted the discomfort as the price of living in a dynamic but complex world. What would that look like?”

My reason I took the class, and felt my awkward moments in the spotlight and that discomfort? I want things to change about gun safety. Discomfort gets the talk started that can change things for the better.

Empty Nester? 

I did it! I finally completed my memoir, At Close Range.

Days later I was in South Padre, visiting friends. The first day we all went down to the beach to catch some rays. As we walked toward the shoreline we noticed black tar in the sand. I could see it floating in patches in the water. Yuck! I decided then and there I’d be spending the rest of my vacation beside the pool. The rest of the group agreed. No one wanted to deal with the tar sticking to our bathing suits and bodies, or worry about using baby oil to remove it.

And so I found myself lounging by the pool instead. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I could smell the salty air and hear the caws of seagulls. I was alone, but Randy and our friends would be down shortly. They wanted to wait until the afternoon sun had disappeared behind the building. But not me. I wanted to feel the heat and dangle my feet in the water of the pool.

I brought my iPhone to keep me company as I sat under a big umbrella sipping on a bottle of water. (I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the vodka? It was a little early, so I was hydrating first.) I sat at the pool and read a post on WordPress about empty nesters. I felt my nest had been emptied, too. Besides having a case of the baby blues over completing my book, I was about to be an empty nester again. Let me explain.

After a year of living with us, my 23-year-old son Keaton decided to return to Boulder and finish his college degree. He’s only got 30 hours of school remaining, and I have a feeling he’s moved out for good this time. It feels like when his older brother Jon stayed behind in Boone, North Carolina. We sat at a table at Applebee’s that summer, all four of us—Jon, Lance, Keaton and me. Jon talked about how much he loved the mountains and how it was time he got on with his life. Funny, he was also 23. That was 10 years ago.

Then Lance moved out seven years ago. He was also 23. He’s been living and working at his “career job,” as he calls it, ever since. Keaton left while I was in Padre. I know I’m going to miss him, but there must be some magic in that number 23. Young men, like my Jon, Lance, and Keaton, all have a phenomenon researchers say is a maturing brain. Age 25 is the marker where frontal lobes are fully developed. My life as a mother has shown me young adults are reckless I’m not worried about Keaton, though. We’ve had the talks about drinking and driving, and the other one so close to my heart—gun safety. But seeing his room empty once again this month will feel strange.  I wonder what I’m going to write about now that I’ve finished my book.

I wrote 116 pages, 22 chapters and 54,982 words. I should feel happy, amazing even, but instead I feel sad. I know my writing coach would say, “Us writers, we are never finished with our books—they’re just completed.” Completed like in housework, I’d say. You can wash all the clothes in the laundry basket, but by the next day there will always be more to do. I know at some point my pages will look dirty, and I’ll need to clean them up. But for right now I’m done, and that has me sick with the baby blues.

I’m surprised I didn’t think about the emptiness. My book has been the child I’ve carried around with me everyday, and while I wrote it, I lived it. I’ve nurtured it and watched it grow. I realize it kept me connected to the memories of Jon. Now, I worry if this the beginning or the end of his story.

I hope it’s just the beginning. I’m waiting for one of the agents who I pitched at the Agents & Editors Conference to give me a new mission. I am pleased and surprised to say five of them asked for pages to consider representing my book. Of course, commercial publication is always a long shot, but my mother believes you can manifest anything. So, let’s all put our energy together and see me getting the perfect agent! I did meet a cute, bubbly blonde who told me I needed to “wow” her with my words. Well, that is my intention. But I don’t want to just wow her, I want to wow the world.

My nest looks empty today, but Jon has left me a kaleidoscope of memories— wearing homemade Halloween costumes, superheroes who ran through the backyard, and the deafening sounds of video games and music. As Lance and Keaton age I get a glimpse of what could have been for Jon. Sometimes I smile, and sometimes I cry. He gave me something as he left, though. I’m a storyteller thanks to my son, and I hope his story will save lives.

All I know for certain is that life will be different now. There is something new and different to create. I’m making a home in the world for my story of Jon, a place somewhere out there for the words that lived only on my laptop—and in my heart—until I came to complete my book.