What a 4-Year-Old Saw at the Highland Park Mass Shooting

On Friday, July 1st, Liora, 4 1/2 years old, drew four crayon characters on black paper and smiled under a neon firework display. This was a picture of her family—Liora, her mother, her father, and her 2-year-old brother—at the Highland Park July 4th celebration and fireworks. After a massacre at the Highland Park July 4th celebration that left 7 dead and many others injured, the event was cancelled. In its place, an hours-long manhunt would spread terror through the Chicago suburb as residents sheltered in place and rumors about the suspect’s whereabouts raced across social media. When evening fell, instead of watching fireworks, Liora would be huddled in her parents’ room, asking about the “bad man that wants to shoot us” while her little brother kept repeating “scary part, run.”

She and her family didn’t know any of it on Friday. Like many others, they were excited to enjoy some COVID-safe holidays.

Liora was 6 months old when I met her. She was my neighbor at the time. The two of them played together on the playground. They also swam in baby pool, participated in story time, and created sensory bins. The sweet, bright-eyed child was shocked to see her family being gunned down in front of them on July 4.

“We were 20 feet from the shooter. Liora stood out in front of us waving to the participants. Three people who were sitting in chairs right in front of her on Monday are now confirmed dead,” says my friend Melissa, her mother. “Those people in those chairs took bullets for our children, who were ducking for cover right next to them. My thoughts were that my son was about to be taken from me and die in my arms. I thought I was going to watch my daughter die on the ground.”

The family ran to a gas station about half a mile away, where they were picked up by Melissa’s in-laws, who took them to a nearby suburb until the shooter had been apprehended and they felt safer going home.

Melissa asked me how she had figured out that the noise was coming from a gun when the majority of the audience, including her husband, believed it to be fireworks.

“There have already been over 300 mass shootings this year,” she says. “I’ve been thinking for a long time that it’s just a matter of time before one of us is in one. When I heard those shots, I knew, this is it, this is our time.”

Continue reading: Mass Shootings Are Only a Small Part of America’s Deadly Problem With Kids and Guns

Melissa and I planned this conversation around our children’s schedules. Liora was in school and my son went to camp. It was up to us whether they wanted to go into bed or get out of bed. When children process trauma, routine provides stability. However, as parents we don’t have the luxury to dive back into our routines. We can’t just shake our heads and move on. We can’t just ignore what happened in Highland Park. It happens too often to too many Americans. Every mass shooting is followed by a series of Instagram Stories, text messages, questions, and responses. What did you hear? Our government spouts platitudes. We cross our fingers we’ll be spared.

I am telling you now that we won’t be. If things don’t change—if we don’t fight for more than the barebones Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—everyone in America will soon be or know someone directly impacted by a preventable mass shooting. Gun-violence victims aren’t only the wounded and the dead. They are Melissa, who hustled her small children out of harm’s way; Liora, who has talked about guts falling out of someone’s stomach and keeps wanting to check on her brother; the parade attendees who thought they heard fireworks, then fled when told otherwise; the kids in schools running through active-shooter drills; the movie theatergoers eyeing the exits just in case; the folks who jump when a car backfires.

Continue reading: In 2020, Guns were the leading cause of death for American children and teens

This is how we can live. Melissa says she’ll never attend a large gathering again. Her husband and she have talked about leaving the country. Friends talk about how they avoid crowds, miss religious events, order online to avoid shopping malls, and skipping sports stadiums in order to see the games on television. This isn’t freedom. Because our leadership chose guns over life, our days are dictated and controlled by fear.

Melissa says they’re lucky to be alive, which speaks to our idea of what luck now means. Others are less fortunate. The evidence of a life cut short is evident when they return to their homes with rumpled beds or half-eaten yogurts. They grieve and they burrow. And unless we choose our children’s futures over a distorted interpretation of a centuries-old document, they can and will be you.

“That picture,” says Melissa of Liora’s crayon drawing. “When I took it out of her locker, I just started crying because I was like, oh my god, what if I was coming to pick this up without her?”

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