JaJuan had such a sense of style. From the time he hit middle school, my youngest had a swagger, a flair that brought a smile to everyone’s faces. His joy was simply contagious. He often dressed from head to toe in a single color, capping it off with a perfectly-matched bowtie. In fact, he had just bought a new blue and yellow bowtie for his collection when he was unintentionally shot and killed by another teen playing with a gun he found in a dresser drawer.
From the time he was a baby, JaJuan was my rosebud. As he grew to be a teenager, it became “bud” for short. That’s the name I called him the last time we spoke. He told me he was going to the movies with his grandma as a spring break treat, and I told him that I loved him. “I love you too, Mama,” he replied before hanging up the phone. A bullet would end his life before we could ever speak again.
JaJuan was only 14—taken from us before he even learned to tie his own bowtie. After a four hour drive, I was greeted in the hospital parking lot by my family. They told me the five words no mother ever wants to hear: “He did not make it.” I didn’t arrive in time to say goodbye. In that moment at the hospital, every part of my being left my body. My grief washed over me, forceful and so blindingly painful. There are simply no words to describe the pain of burying your child. But knowing that JaJuan’s death was preventable etches that pain even deeper into my heart.
The worry that other mothers will have to live with this pain keeps me up at night. A least 4.6 million American children live in homes with an unsecured gun, and most children know exactly where that gun is kept. The gun that killed my son was tossed into a dresser drawer under a t-shirt—it was loaded and unlocked.
I worry the risk of unintentional shootings and firearm suicide is greater than ever right now. Gun sales have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic; 3.7 million background checks were performed in March alone, according to the FBI, the most ever conducted in one month and 1 million more than this time last year. And under our country’s lax laws, not every gun sale even requires a background check, so firearm sales are likely higher. This surge in gun purchases comes at a time when kids are home from school and many parents are distracted by trying to work from home. Curious kids can and will play with unsecured firearms. That’s a fact I know all too well.
Even during “normal” times, when kids aren’t stuck at home, nearly 350 children and teens unintentionally shoot themselves or others with unsecured guns in an average year, and more than three quarters of those shootings happen inside a home. Gun suicide claims the lives of more than 600 American children and teens every year, and more than 80 percent of the guns used in those suicides belong to family members. It’s up to the adults in a household to properly store guns locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition to prevent senseless tragedies. Storing guns securely is literally a matter of life and death.
That people are stocking up on guns and ammunition alongside toilet paper and hand sanitizer is a dangerous reaction to the fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. It could end in tragedy if children and teens get their hands on an unsecured gun. That’s why I’ve channeled my pain and grief into advocacy like thousands of other Moms Demand Action volunteers. More than 10,000 of us are teaching parents how to securely store guns through local Be SMART campaigns, and together with our more than 150 community partners, we’ve reached more than 1 million families with kids in the five years Moms Demand Action has been spreading the Be SMART message. We’ve been urging gun owners to securely store their firearms for years, but with kids and teens home from school, the risks of unintentional shootings are higher than ever. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to raise awareness of the urgent need for secure storage, including running a new PSA targeting new gun owners.
As my family and I know too well, one bullet shatters far more than one life. The trajectory of my entire family’s future changed when our JaJuan was taken from us. I stay strong for my older son, but not a moment goes by that I don’t think of JaJuan and what his future may have held.
Every spring, as the flowers bloom and the sun comes out, I’m reminded that another year has passed since the loss of my baby. He would be 18 now, and I think of all of the things he could have experienced, the graduation, prom and college applications that are never to be. If I can spare one other family this grief by raising my voice, then I must. And I will, until every child in America can grow up in a home free of gun violence.