Over Memorial Day weekend, the city of Chicago endured one of its bloodiest stretches ever – with 69 people shot, 27 of whom were located in a single district. On Wednesday, the UCLA campus was on lockdown, after two people were killed in apparent murder-suicide. And yet, neither of these stories appear to have captured the public and press’s attention as much as another unfortunate tragedy, that nevertheless did not cost a single human life – the Cincinnati zoo’s decision to kill Harambe, a 400-lb gorilla who was seen as a legitimate threat to the safety of a toddler who had slipped into his enclosure.
Animal lovers and commentators across the country have obsessed over whether the zoo made the right decision, whether the mother of the child should be blamed or charged with a crime, and if security at the facility was sufficient enough to prevent the incident from happening. But what has been striking has been the relative lack of silence on social media about the senseless loss of human life on a massive scale that is occurring every day in the United States.
“I think that when it comes to shootings like the one in Chicago people are just numb to and they don’t focus on it,” Sam Fulwood, a former journalist and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress told MSNBC on Thursday. “The people who feel strongly about saving the gorilla make for the better story and they get more attention.”
“Shooting an endangered gorilla in a zoo is a much rarer occurrence,” he added. “That’s kind of sad.”
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It’s a sobering reality for activists who are commemorating National Gun Violence Awareness Day today, in the shadow of mass shootings and inner-city violence which have become almost an routine fact of life for many Americans.
“Obviously what happened was horrible, but we need to put it in perspective,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told MSNBC on Thursday. “Ninety-one people get killed everyday, two million children live in homes with unsecured guns in this country. That’s what keeps me up at night. Given the prevalence of gun violence, we’re all much more at risk of being shot than being trapped with a gorilla.”
While Watts is troubled by that apathy that many Americans seem to treat stories of gun violence (“This is just what happens in America,” is how she encapsulates the attitude), she is encouraged by the victories her organization helped achieve despite overwhelming opposition from gun lobbyists and inactivity from lawmakers in Washington. Since launching four years ago, Moms Demand Action has helped roll back background check loopholes in six states, bringing the national total to 18 and influenced corporate entities like Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Starbucks to become gun-free zones.
“[The gun industry] have an aging and dying sales demographic. They’re selling more guns to fewer people,” Watts said. “They have to broaden their sales demographic because women are not buying guns. You’re seeing the last gasps of power.”
Watts became active in the gun control movement after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which cost the lives of 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old. As the mother of five kids, she says that today it is the sole issue determining her vote in the 2016 election.
“You either sit on the sidelines or you risk having the same thing happen to your child,” she said. “The gun lobby was putting my family, my children, my community at risk – and that was unacceptable.”
Donald Trump, who is the first U.S. presidential candidate to be formally endorsed by the NRA, has established himself as both an ally of the gun lobby and a supporter of “some” teachers carrying firearms on school grounds, a position that particularly incenses Watts in the aftermath of the UCLA shooting, where the gunman is alleged to have killed a professor over poor grades.
“It’s like climate change. The science is on gun violence. The science is in what’s causing it and how to prevent it and there is not an argument on the other side besides fear,” Watts said. “When people see these laws actually work and they’re effective [lawmakers] can’t not put them in place.”
This is an especially personal issue for Chicago native Nza-Ari Khepra. Three years ago, her 15-year-old friend and schoolmate Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed while waiting in a city park with friends after taking an exam. She had performed with her school’s marching band at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural just a week earlier. In the wake of her friend’s tragic murder, Khepra co-founded Project Orange Tree to honor Pendleton and to raise awareness about the realities of gun violence.
“A lot of people are desensitized to the issue. They think there is a specific kind of person who is effected by gun violence but there are so many innocent people shot and killed by mistake,” the 19-year-old Columbia University junior told MSNBC on Thursday. “We need to broaden the image of what we think a victim of gun violence is because what happens in Chicago needs to become something that matters to the rest of the world.”
It was frustrating and disheartening for Khepra see so many Americans appear to show more sympathy and concern for a zoo animal than unarmed black youths who have been slain in controversial circumstances over the past few years.
“It can definitely be interpreted as a devaluing of someone’s life, particularly African-Americans’, but it’s also a separation,” she said. “It’s easy for other people to see themselves in that position. Everyone goes to the zoo. That’s not something that’s separated from you. People don’t feel the same way about the multiple incidents here [in Chicago].”
Khepra also attributes the lack of outrage to the perception some outsiders have that gun violence in her city is largely between young black male gang members who “choose” to embrace life of drugs and crime. “I don’t think anyone is particular should be a victim of gun violence. No one chooses necessarily to be shot by someone else,” she countered.
“There’s this idea that every school, city is an island,” said Watts. “The truth is you are only as safe as the state next to you with the safest gun laws.” For example, despite California’s strict gun laws (which are mocked by gun advocates) they are undermined by guns coming across the border from Nevada. Similarly, Illinois must contend with an influx from their more lax neighbor Indiana.
“It’s super painful for me to see that anywhere in general,” said Khepra. “To see that no one cares is even more painful to me.”
Khepra met Pendelton through a summer volleyball camp and remembers chatting with her just a couple hours before she was gunned down. While her name may no longer be in the national headlines, she remains very prominent in the hearts and minds of Khepra and her peers.
“Hadiya is a huge part of our lives now. Her spirit and just her being in the media in the first place changed a lot of things. She was a really a vibrant person,” she said prior to delivering a Project Orange speech in her hometown to commemorate Gun Violence Awareness Day. “Every single time that I speak, I feel like it’s hard to do without Hadiya in mind. Everything she did during her life seemed to be aimed at making sure there was that hope, the happiness of living in the moment.”
Although she believes the city of Chicago has hit rock bottom in terms of how disappointed they are with the status quo and she is fearful for what a potential Donald Trump presidency could mean for her movement, Khepra still clings to an optimism that America is ready to turn a corner on gun safety.
“Honestly, I’m dedicated to my goal of making America a safer place for everyone,” she said. “I’m hoping that all of the actions we take today and this point on makes a lot of people think about their choices.”