My son was killed in the UNC-Charlotte shooting. Can we stop this crisis?


Riley, my first child, died the way he lived – looking out for others. From an early age, it was clear he was one you could count on to have your back. He learned sign language when he was three years old, so he could talk to his deaf uncle. And when he and his friends went backpacking, he’d always volunteer to carry the heaviest pack, with the pots and pans digging into his back, to cook them a memorable meal at the day’s end. And when a shooter stormed into his UNC-Charlotte classroom on April 30, 2019 and started firing, he charged into danger to protect his classmates. He charged into danger – a decision and sacrifice he should have never had to make.

Riley was shot and killed that day, as he tackled the gunman. One other student was murdered, and four others were wounded. My life, our family, the victims’ families, and the whole UNC-Charlotte community will never be the same.

Change the setting, repeat. Change the motive, repeat. Change the people targeted, repeat. This crisis is the reality we are living in – gun violence happening anywhere, any time – with America leading the world among well-off countries in its own people being killed by fellow citizens armed with guns. To address this crisis, comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy is vital, and at the foundation of that strategy are background checks. Right now, Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have the opportunity to honor the lives of all those impacted by gun violence across our state and country by taking action on creating better background checks – a common-sense, prevention-oriented policy supported by vast, bipartisan majorities of North Carolinians, gun owners included.

Before Riley was murdered, I was a teacher; I taught middle school for 20 years in western North Carolina. I couldn’t go back to teaching, not after what happened. All the time, I cycle through my memories of Riley. I am grateful for the grace, resilience, and loving stubbornness he showed me as I learned what it meant to be a parent and he grew into the unique individual he was. We shared such perfect moments in the kitchen together – the kitchen certainly didn’t look perfect afterwards, but I smile when I think about how excited he was, trying a new recipe and getting it spot on. I remember when we (not just me, but cousins, aunts, uncles too) met his longtime girlfriend, Lauren, for the first time – on their first date, no less. They both handled the unexpected barrage with much, much more composure than I could ever imagine.

Riley lived his far-too-short life – he got to experience love, he was surrounded by beauty in nature and in his close friends whom he held dear, he gave and received steadfast companionship from the many beloved dogs in his life, he worked hard and played hard, and he knew the value of family. But like more than 100 people every day in the United States, his life was cut short by gun violence. And each of those people has left behind a whole universe. There’s a constellation of people in this country who have suffered this violent, abrupt trauma, not unlike the bullets that took our loved ones from us – a trauma that enters you, tears you up, and changes you in every way, that results in permanent devastation and unrelenting grief. And just over the past few days and weeks, that constellation – a constellation no one wants to be a part of – has grown in shocking, public fashion.

Like so many others before me, I’ve taken my trauma and turned it to advocacy. And right now, Sens. Burr and Tillis, and their colleagues in the U.S. Senate can protect lives and communities across our nation and honor those killed and wounded by gun violence by acting on strengthening our background checks laws to ensure that people who shouldn’t have guns can’t buy them at a gun show, from someone they meet on the internet, or from a total stranger with no background check and no questions asked. It’s a common-sense, constitutional policy that’s supported by 93% of Americans, including 89% of Republicans and 89% of gun owners. While there is no one law that can diminish or wipe out gun violence on its own, the collective effect of stronger gun laws can change what is happening in households, schools, and communities all over our country.

I share our story because no one else should have to live it. No more parents should have to say goodbye to their children forever. No more siblings should have to grow up without their brother, sister, mother, or father. No more.

In the moment when Riley knew that he was facing his last breaths, he chose to act to save lives. Our elected leaders, by working together and securing federal action on background checks to safeguard the well-being of our families and communities, can save lives as well. This isn’t about politics. It’s about protecting people. It’s about tightening the loopholes in our laws. It’s about our individual and collective safety. It’s about our elected officials owing us lifesaving action. It’s about creating an America free from gun violence.

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