with contributions by Caroline Wilkerson, a former student at Pepperdine University
Caroline: No one can warn you about what a mass shooting feels like. Nothing can prepare you for the sudden emptiness, or the random hugs, or the tears running down everyone’s faces.
On Nov. 7, 2018, someone tried to shoot my friends. They were line dancing at Borderline Bar and Grill, living life, enjoying their first semester of college at Pepperdine University. Though I was invited, I couldn’t go because I had a stomach bug. These people that I shared so many connections with (my resident advisor, a sorority sister, a girl from my speech class) were about to be inextricably bound together by a trauma that no one wants to have. My best friend at school lived next to the girl who didn’t come home. Her name was Alaina Housley. She smiled at me one day when I was feeling down, and I’ll never forget the warmth she kindled in my heart. I didn’t know her personally, but we sang in choir together, until a random act of violence suddenly stopped the music. The next song I sang was at her memorial service. Her mom, dad, and little brother were sitting in front of me. I’ll never forget that empty feeling in my heart. Everyone said the right words about how kindness matters, and about how Alaina loved coffee bean ice-blended mochas, but really we were just gritting our teeth to make it through this somehow. Alaina lived vivaciously: she loved to play soccer, and read, and play ukulele, and sing. She was on the mock trial team, and she loved Ben and Jerry’s “The Tonight Dough” ice cream. She should have been able to keep on loving those things, but one person with a gun changed all of that forever.
Natalie: It was only when I was about to get on the treadmill at Yates that I heard Caroline call—screw the “No Cell Phones Allowed” sign. I sat down next to a pile of gym bags, and we took a minute to just cry together because there were no words to express what was going on around us. A mass shooting in your town is oftentimes not just about the people who were lost, but the survivors that were left behind. As my friend told me about the cuts on her friends’ arms from when they tried to smash the windows to get out, the nightmares her friends were having because of their PTSD, the pain she felt every time she had to hear about another mass shooting, another destroyed city, another lost friend—I just wanted to hug her a little longer.
Caroline: Then we were just supposed to move on with life. Well, actually, the Woolsey fire came to our school the next day, and we all slept on the cafeteria floor while smoke came under the door. I don’t remember the fire as vividly as I do the aftermath of the shooting. I saw people wrapped up in bandages. These were people I knew—the faces I recognized on campus. I wanted to say something, anything that could mean a little bit of hope for anyone. But instead, I just winced when someone started playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the piano, and we sang the line “pulled the trigger now he’s dead.” It was too soon.
I opened the choir attendance log and flipped to Alaina’s name. “Sorry I was late, I was helping a teacher,” she wrote in her pretty bubbly handwriting. I died a little on the inside. Somehow the pen, binder, and empty chair were still here, but Alaina wasn’t anymore.
Natalie: The mall where the El Paso shooting took place is where my family and I used to go Christmas shopping. Some families at my school attended the country music festival in Las Vegas. The toddler shot in Odessa was taken to the hospital where my parents work. Gun violence doesn’t care where you live, how old you are, what your take on gun violence prevention is.
I also need to emphasize, because it is so often forgotten, gun violence is more than just mass shootings. So many people die every day, and it does not make national headlines. Whether it’s gun violence on the street, which primarily affects low-income people of color, or suicide, which is one of the leading causes of death for young adults, gun violence is pervasive and not specific to mass shootings.
Yet, gun violence is preventable.
My friends often ask me, “If nothing happened after Newtown, why do you think something will happen after any of these other mass shootings?” I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t know why the country did nothing after young children lost their lives. But that doesn’t mean we are somehow bound to complacency or inaction.
Roughly 85 percent of this country believes in universal background checks. The majority of this country would get behind Center for Disease Control research on gun violence. The majority of this country supported banning bump stocks. The majority of this country can agree that we do not need military assault rifles for hunting. The majority of this country is tired of mass shootings, gun violence on the street, and gun violence as a result of unaddressed mental health issues.
But action hasn’t been taken. Gun lobbies still have influence in politics. Politicians worried about their re-election chances and their image still refuse to take action. The politicians who blame gun violence on mental health have done very little to support mental health programs themselves. Since guns are the more preventable piece of this epidemic, the focus should be on changing gun violence legislation.
I was lucky that my best friend didn’t go to the bar that day. There are so many other best friends who did. But if we don’t take action this time, there’s going to be a next time. We can’t avoid the music festival, the nightclub, the concert, the movie theater, the Walmart. All we can do is try to prevent another empty chair.
Caroline: We have a great responsibility to those who were robbed of their voices. Every time I hear of a new shooting in America, I think of the families, and the friends, and the friends of the families. I think about how it’s someone’s daughter, someone’s mom, someone’s best friend. It’s not fair that my mom got to pick me up from my freshman year of college, and Alaina’s mom had to sign a death certificate instead.
You should tell the people in your life that you love them. Alaina’s parents made a bookmark that they gave out to her friends. She really loved the musical Rent, so her parents printed the quote “No day but today” above a picture of her. That always stays with me. Those were supposed to be her senior pictures, not the ones on the bulletin for her funeral. I put that quote on my door so that it’s the last thing I see when I walk out into the world every morning. It reminds me that each new day could be my last but also emboldens me to seize every opportunity the world offers to enact change for the better.
Natalie: During high school, like many others in our generation, I participated in the walkouts and marches that took place after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. When I got to college, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a space on campus for gun violence prevention advocacy, but since I was focused on other first semester freshman worries at the time, I hadn’t given it much thought.
Thousand Oaks reminded me that enough was enough.
“Hey,” I messaged a friend. “Were you the one whose roommate was starting a March For Our Lives chapter at Georgetown?”
That one text changed the rest of my freshman year. With four other freshmen, I helped start the March For Our Lives chapter at Georgetown, going through new club development until we finally had access to benefits from the university. One movement will not be enough to make the necessary changes for gun violence in America. But maybe we’ll get closer.