Liora, 4, at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., where 7 people were killed in a mass shooting. Credit - Courtesy Melissa Cannata
At school on Friday, July 1, 4 1/2-year-old Liora drew four white crayon figures on black paper, smiling beneath 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. The event would be canceled, the community shaken after a mass shooting at the morning parade left seven dead and dozens injured. 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.”
On Friday, she and her family knew none of this. They, like so many of us, went into the long weekend excited for some COVID-safe holiday fun.
I first met Liora when she was our 6-month-old neighbor, around the same age as my son. They crawled together at the playground, swam in baby pools, went to story hour, and made messes of sensory bins. On July 4, this sweet, rosy-cheeked child saw people at a family parade gunned down directly in front of her.
“We were 20 feet from the shooter. Liora was standing out ahead of us, waving at the people in the parade. 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. I thought my son was going to 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.
I ask Melissa how she knew right away that the sound was a gun, when most of the crowd, including her husband, thought it was 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.”
Melissa and I planned this conversation around our children’s schedules. Liora had school, my son had camp, we had to get them into bed or out the door. Routine provides stability when children are processing trauma, but as their parents, we no longer have the luxury of diving back into our own routines. We can’t just shake our heads and move on. What happened in Highland Park is happening too often, to too many Americans. After every mass shooting, we post Instagram stories, respond to text threads, ask coworkers, 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 moviegoers eyeing the exits just in case; the folks who jump when a car backfires.
How can we live like this? Melissa says she’ll never attend a large gathering again. She and her husband have discussed leaving the country. Other friends talk about avoiding crowds, missing religious events, ordering online to avoid shopping malls, skipping stadiums to watch sports games on TV. This isn’t freedom. Our days are dictated by fear, because our leadership has chosen guns over our lives.
Melissa says they’re lucky to be alive, which speaks to our idea of what luck now means. Other families are not so lucky. They come home to rumpled beds and half-eaten yogurts, the evidence of lives cut short. They bury and they mourn. 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?”