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Gun reform advocates in Uptown Normal say 'Don’t Give Up'

Mass shootings like the ones in Buffalo and Uvalde have not generated any meaningful change in gun policy at the federal level in recent years. At a vigil Sunday in Uptown Normal for the 21 victims of the Texas school shooting and for all those impacted by gun violence, advocates urged the small crowd gathered not to give up.

QR codes were posted on trees, providing links to educational and other resources about gun violence, including templates for messages targeting federal legislators to push for common-sense gun laws such as requiring every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check, banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and passing federal red flag laws that provide police or loved ones a path to ask a judge to temporarily bar dangerous individuals from possessing or purchasing a firearm.

The vigil was planned in connection with the Not in Our School committee, an offshoot of the local and national Not in Our Town movement to stop hate, racism and bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities.

Highlights of Sunday's gun violence vigil in Uptown Normal.
Colleen Reynolds
Organizers Erica Rosenberger and Anusha Nadkarni speak at Sunday's vigil in Uptown Normal.

BHS student Anusha Nadkarni and University High School grad Erica Rosenberger organized the vigil. It began with an acknowledgment that there have been more mass shootings over the weekend and it seems there is no end in sight.

“Are we asked to mourn the lives of those we have already lost, or to honor those who will be lost next?” Nadkarni asked at the start of the vigil. “I am tired of grief and mourning, and wondering who this vigil will be for next.”

But Nadkarni quickly shifted gears, telling the small gathering around the Uptown Normal Circle that the event offered a space for healing, acknowledgement and care.

She also hoped it served as an opportunity for, in Nadkarni’s words, “Reflection, connection and action.”

Co-organizer Rosenberger read a letter from Jolie Ortiz, a soon-to-be senior at Bloomington High School, who shared that her forever dream of becoming a teacher has been shattered by the fear of becoming another victim of gun violence in schools, or of having to be more concerned about getting door bars or other protection rather than having enough school supplies every year.

University High School graduate Yvin Shin now attends Columbia College in New York and she’s a legal associate for March for Our Lives, the youth gun violence prevention organization that arose after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Shin said at first she didn’t think she was personally impacted gun violence but then began to recall the many ways she was impacted — seeing images from the Parkland shooting her first year of high school, the fact one of the women gunned down at an Atlanta spa in 2020 shared a last name with her grandmother, and when her writing professor came to class shaking because she was on the N train on the New York City subway when a gunman opened fire in one of its cars.

“I grieve for the lost lives in the 21 mass shootings that have happened since Uvalde, and I grieve for the millions of lives lost in gun violence in shootings that are not big enough to be deemed mass. I grieve for lost lives and lost childhoods,” she said.

Shin pointed out that grief is evidence the country is not willing to normalize gun violence and mass shootings. She believes the nation’s love of guns is bringing the country to a numbness about the damage and trauma that results.

“Our country’s love of guns has led us to forget that we have a right to life — that we have a constitutionally-protected right to not be shot. And they (the Uvalde students and teachers) did too.”

Bloomington City Council member Mollie Ward was among those in the crowd who laid candles or flowers under a poster with the names of the 19 students and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary in Texas. She and others shared a moment of silence, punctuated only by the trickling of water from nearby fountains.

Ward earlier this year requested the city create a gun violence commission and she did so on the fourth anniversary of the shootings in Parkland, Florida; a couple days after the second gun killing in Bloomington this year and as a trial began for the shooting death of 27 year-old Trevonte Kirkwood, a neighbor.

The commission has not yet been created, with two council members publicly commenting that groups in the community were already working on the issue.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense is one of those groups. Member Diane White says her grandchildren have grown up with fear and grief, and every Christmas and birthday celebration is marked with an acknowledgment of all the children who never made it to their next celebration

“I ask each one of you here not to give up … to keep contacting your legislators, to vote for people who have the same mindset of common-sense gun laws as we do. Don’t give up the fight.” White added, “We need each other.”

Retired teacher and Moms Demand Action co-leader Karen Irvin said as students move to their next level of schooling or graduation, the single most common label they can be given is “survivor.”

She told young people in the crowd, “Never did we think we would have to say, ‘You made it through the school year alive.’ That is our shame. That is our country’s shame.”

Irvin said more guns and arming teachers is not the answer but rather public pressure is needed to pass legislation supported by a majority of Americans.

Another young person, T. Bixby, said her older brother was among those in a class held hostage at Normal Community High School in 2012, when a student pulled a gun from his backpack at the end of class. Shots were fired into the ceiling and wall but no one was hurt. However, Bixby explained her brother and others remain mentally and emotionally impacted to this day.

“I know there are teachers and students from NCHS that day who jump at loud noises and note potential escape routes out of every room they enter. I fear for my mother who’s a 5th grade teacher and I still have nightmares about that day,” she shared as her voice cracked. “I keep my head on a swivel on campus every day and I wasn’t even in the building.”

For the Uvalde victims and their families, Bixby suggested many cannot share their story because it is so traumatizing. Instead, she urged vigil goers to be their voice.

“So it is our job to speak for the people who can’t relive those memories and we will stand as long as we need to. We will write to elected officials and ask them what they’re doing; ask what actions they’re taking, and if we don’t like what we hear we will vote them out!”

The League of Women Voters of McLean County had a table at the event, and President Faith Russell explained that while the league is a nonpartisan organization and doesn’t endorse candidates, it does take positions on important issues, including gun violence.

Russell promoted a new voter guide available on the front page of the league’s website and stressed it includes links to additional resources where voters can learn where candidates for the June 28 primary election in Illinois stand on gun violence-related issues, including gun reforms. Early voting for the election is already underway at the Government Center in downtown Bloomington, Eastland Mall and at the Illinois State University Bone Student Center.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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