School began again, my 19th year as a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey. Working in the same city where my father’s family and 10 others were murdered 70 years ago this week seems more ironic than ever.
The aftermath of gun violence sits at the intersection of my professional and personal life. Seventy years elapsed between two mass murders that impacted my family. My story begins in Camden, New Jersey, the year was 1949 and my father was a 12-year-old boy, living on what he described as Sesame Street. His world was forever shattered the morning of September 6, 1949, when a deranged neighbor, with access to a weapon, went on a “Walk of Death” (Berger, 1949), murdering 13 people, including my father’s mother, father, and grandmother. My father, Charles Cohen, survived because his mother hid him in a closet.
Fast forward almost seventy years and my niece, Carly, hid in a closet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida the afternoon of February 14, 2018. She quietly sent a text message to my sister telling her that there is an active shooter at school and she was hiding in a closet with her teacher and 17 classmates. Fourteen students and three teachers died that day, and another seventeen students were injured. In both instances, troubled young men with access to weapons wreaked havoc on victims, families, and communities that will reverberate for generations to come.
I work within blocks of the crime scene, but try not to venture on that block. When I do find myself there, I hold my breath as I pass by the entrance to my father’s home. In 1949 it was a pharmacy and my father lived above the store. Today it is a shoe store, the family entrance is no longer there, long ago walled off, but the step is still there as a chilling reminder.
Community gun violence in Camden is almost normalized as a residual effect of living in the city. I have spent nineteen years serving the students and families of the city with the hope that my professional role as a school nurse could somehow help heal my personal family history.
My decision to become a school nurse activist came from a promise I made to my sister and niece in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings. I vowed to do everything in my power to bring attention to the ever-growing public health emergency of gun violence. Prevention of firearm violence belongs in the healthcare arena and requires funding for research as any public health issue has been afforded.
Social media, specifically Twitter, is a world where healthcare professionals across all sectors specialties and disciplines united over this issue so emergent that barriers fell, silos ended and meaningful conversations ensued. The window to this world opened when Twitter erupted in outrage over a derogatory tweet from the National Rifle Association (NRA) calling for physicians to “stay in their lane.” The NRA tweet, in response to this position paper published by the American College of Physicians: Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths in the United States (Butkus et al, 2018) insinuated that physicians were not experts in firearms and were out of their league of expertise.
The hashtag #ThisIsOurLane began trending at a rapid pace as the call to action for healthcare professionals from all sectors to respond sounded on social media. Nursing is also heeding the call and welcomes the opportunity to stand side by side with our colleagues. Working towards evidence-based solutions to the public health emergency of gun violence clearly belongs in everyone’s lane.
The voice of nursing in the public health emergency of gun violence is amplifying. Social media platforms like Twitter have created a synergy where healthcare professionals are connecting and uniting in unprecedented numbers to explain why gun violence belongs in the healthcare sector. Outrage over the response to the NRA baseless accusation that physicians should “stay in their lane” has served as a bridge to connect multiple disciplines across all sectors, including nursing.
The public health emergency of gun violence is impacting the tone and tenor of what it means to live freely in our country. There is a heightened level of anxiety and tension that, like the canary in the coal mine, is showing up in the most vulnerable population, our children. A recent Pew Research study found that a majority of teens in the US fear that a school shooting could happen at their school (Graff, 2018). The research revealed that 57% of all teens surveyed shared this fear. It is important to note that 60% of African American teens and 73% of Hispanic teens surveyed cited an elevated fear of a school shooting at their schools.
Student deaths from gun violence have created a literal and metaphorical void in schools across our country that may impact students and staff for decades to come. The students are referred to as “Parkland kids,” “Sandy Hook students,” or “Columbine survivors.” These labels are sadly reflective of a new reality for American schools, as students, teachers, and staff no longer feel safe. America’s students feel vulnerable as the facade of schools as a safe place is no longer true.
The numbers are astounding, as 26,000 children and teens have been killed in gun violence between 1999 and 2016 (Ingraham, 2018). There are 26,000 desks that sit empty in schools across this country from deaths due to gun violence. A void that students feel. Students have not forgotten their friends, and nor must we, as they are America’s fallen students. This number is rising and an emerging public health crisis is unfolding before our eyes and we must have the courage of conviction to stop this through research-informed preventative strategies.
Data describes one perspective of the public health emergency we are grappling with whether in schools, communities, churches, synagogues, yoga studios, restaurants, or movie theatres. Data connected to stories describe the immeasurable loss that transcends generations. My family’s story is one example, there are too many others.
Butkus, Renee, et al. “Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths in the United States: A Position Paper From the American College of Physicians.” Annals of Internal Medicine, American College of Physicians, 30 Oct. 2018, annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2709820/reducing-firearm-injuries-deaths-united-states-position-paper-from-american.
Graf, Nikki. “Majority of Teens Worry about School Shootings, and so Do Most Parents.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 18 Apr. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/18/a-majority-of-u-s-teens-fear-a-shooting-could-happen-at-their-school-and-most-parents-share-their-concern/.
Ingraham, C. (2018). More than 26,000 Children and Teens Have Been Killed in Gun Violence Since 1999. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/23/more-than-26000-children-and-teens-have-been-killed-in-gun-violence-since-1999/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6cc2298493c0[Accessed 6 Sep. 2018].
The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2000, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/090749nj-shoot.html?mcubz=3.