In 1948, just at the end of World War II, the newly formed United Nations passed a Declaration of 30 Universal Human Rights. The committee that created these rights was led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Read her words that explain the mission of Universal Human Rights:
Where Do Universal Rights Begin?
“In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Chair of the United Nations Commission that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948
Seventy-three years have passed since this declaration was first introduced. You can read the 30 Human Rights here: United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The one I am focused on today, and most days, is number three because safety is a basic human right. We are failing miserably. While I will never stop working in the space of gun violence prevention, today I am pausing to write about the long-term impact of mass shootings. Community gun violence can be described as slow-moving mass shootings.
My intimate knowledge of the impact of mass shootings comes from a tragic family history that spans more than seventy years. My father was orphaned at age 12 when a crisp September morning in 1949 turned deadly. A neighbor, filled with rage and access to weapons, opened fire on a city block in Camden, New Jersey. My father hid in a closet as his mother, father and grandmother were gunned down along with 10 others, another 3 injured. Unbelievably, 70 years later, my niece would survive the Parkland shooting, where 17 students and staff were killed and another 17 injured. We are just one family, experiencing the aftermath of two mass murders with 70 years in between the events. The generational trauma continues to wreak havoc on my family and so many others.
Waking up to the news of the 2nd mass shooting in America in less than a week sent me into a tailspin this morning. 10 people killed in a Boulder, Colorado supermarket was today’s headline. This comes on the heels of 7 people killed in Atlanta earlier in the week. And so, I keep coming back to safety as a basic human right, but we are not, and have not been safe.
Every time I hear about another shooting in America, my thoughts go back to my dad. As the victim/survivor of one of the first mass shootings in this country, he became the unwanted expert in how to survive a tragedy. For most of his life, he kept his pain and trauma inside, only to be released during his many night terrors. He suffered in silence for most of his life, which was cut short at age 71 by a hemorrhagic stroke that I know was a result of his internal suffering. Ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, he was buried on the 60th anniversary of the murders. My dad had survivor’s guilt for exactly 60 years.
Every time another mass shooting would occur, the first call I would get would be from my dad. No matter where the shooting happened, he would check in to be sure I was safe. He would say, “Rob, did you hear? Are you ok? Be safe, know where you are going, and make sure you check your surroundings.” We would chat about the events, he would minimally acknowledge his pain, but it was not until his death that I truly understood the depth of his wounds.
What is safety in an unsafe world? Where do we find safety for ourselves, our children, our school communities? The pandemic brought how fleeting safety is to light. Mass shootings remind us over and over again how unsafe public spaces can suddenly become. The collision of COVID-19 and gun violence is unfolding before our eyes, pay attention. Remember my father’s message; “Be safe and make sure you check your surroundings.” Life can change in an instant, embrace your loved ones today and every day. Safety is one of 30 basic human rights. We must find a way to rebuild a society that values the message from Eleanor Roosevelt more than 73 years ago.