Gun violence isn’t something I talked about growing up—not because it didn’t happen, but because it happened so often. Turn on the news, there it was. Open social media, there it was. Throughout the neighborhood, there it was. Then one day, it was in my own family. It was at that moment that I became a gun violence survivor, although I wouldn’t realize it until years later.
My mother’s boyfriend was going through a difficult time. He was dealing with mental health issues while also abusing substances. There would always be a connection between him and our family because he is the father of my younger sister, but my mom decided it was time to end the relationship. He didn’t like that. After breaking off the relationship, my mother wanted to give him time to come to terms with what that meant. Things seemed to be okay—until that day.
It started with angry bangs at the front door; it was clear that someone was very upset. Questions were running through my head: Who was it? What did they want? It was him, and an argument ensued. Back and forth through the door, they continued to argue about him trying to come in the house until he said the words that would change my life forever: “I have a gun.”
As the oldest in the home, I knew immediately what this meant. I gathered my little sister, only 3 years old at the time, and instructed her to crawl under the bed in our room and lay flat. I wanted to make sure that when gunshots rang out we wouldn’t be struck. I prayed to God that He would pull me through.
He started to circle the house. At age 16, I already knew what a gun could do. I was scared and didn’t know who to turn to. I thought to myself: Should I call the police? As a young Black woman growing up in the wake of the police shootings of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and countless others who didn’t make national headlines, I worried how my story might end. What if they didn’t realize I was the one who needed help and that I wasn’t the aggressor?
Thankfully, gunshots were never fired that day, but just knowing that they easily could have been makes me a survivor.
I didn’t share my story until years later, after joining Students Demand Action and the Everytown Survivor Network. At one of my first meetings, everyone started asking questions around the group’s experience with guns and gun violence:
Who has experienced gun violence? Hands went up.
Who has had firearms in their homes? Hands went up.
Who has been affected by gun violence? Hands went up.
It was shocking to see the number of hands that were raised in response to each question. There were so many people who were dealing with the same thing, but no one had ever talked about it. Gun violence had become too normalized in our lives to even consider ourselves survivors. That’s why I am sharing my story today—during National Gun Violence Survivors Week and Black History Month—to say your story matters. Your voice matters and you are not alone.
We are a nation of survivors. Right now, 58% of adults in America, including 68% of Black and Latinx Americans, are survivors of gun violence, either experiencing gun violence themselves or caring for someone who has experienced gun violence in their lifetimes. Black people in the country are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, and Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by gun homicide than white children and teens. This is unacceptable. We can do better. We must do better.
Once I shared my story with the group, there were other people with similar stories who began to speak up. We, like so many others in this movement, felt like imposters about calling ourselves survivors, but we quickly realized that every experience with gun violence is valid and important.
As young Black people, it was important for us to know we have a community around us. Among survivors there is no judgement. Everyone understands the devastation gun violence can have on lives, families, and communities. We can speak up. We stand on the shoulders of decades of advocacy that has come from other Black survivors.
After that fateful day, I saw my mother’s ex-boyfriend one last time. He was unarmed, and I forgave him that day. And although my siblings were too young to hold on to the experience, I never forgot and never will.
Joining Students Demand Action has allowed me to channel my experience into advocacy. Now, I work in my community to pass common sense gun safety laws to make sure that no one else has to have an experience like mine.
Today I tell my story because I know the power of my words. When I shared my story for the first time, a boy from the group shared his story after. No one knew he was dealing with so much. When he finished he said, “Taina did it, so I felt I would, too.” Even though I never know who is in the room when I share, I always know that this story can make a difference.