A sea of orange flooded McLaughlin Norcross Memorial Dell earlier this month for the eighth annual Gun Violence Awareness Rally by Moms Demand Action and Camden County.
For two hours, local officials, activists and survivors of those who’ve died spoke about gun violence in America, its lasting impact and what can be done about it.
Shani Nuckols, co-leader of the New Jersey chapter of Moms Demand Action, explained that the color orange was chosen to represent a movement of friends in honor of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013.
“We are wearing orange to bear witness to what is a moral catastrophe,” Nuckols said. “Gun violence impacts people of all colors, incomes, genders and sexual orientations, but make no mistake, there are those among us who bear the brunt of this crisis.”
Gun violence impacts all areas, but Nuckols noted that Black and Latino communities account for more than half of firearm homicides, while white men are highly represented in firearm suicides.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 70 women are shot at and killed each month by intimate partners, and according to Politifact, gun violence is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 18.
“Anyone here tonight will tell you that when they have buried someone they love, particularly when it is a violent and sudden death, the grief is not ending when they are buried,” county Commissioner and Gold Star Mom Melinda Kane said at the rally.
“It is only beginning.”
The event included a moment of silence held for those killed by gun violence, and survivors were encouraged to say the victims’ names aloud so they could be remembered.
Kevin Miller was one of them. His mother, Carla Reyes-Miller, recalled her son’s June 2011 death at a hardware store where he worked, after he took a female friend out to dinner for her birthday.
“The young lady’s ex-boyfriend made a senseless decision to take Kevin’s life, shooting him with one bullet to his heart, even while his arms were raised up in surrender position,” Reyes-Miller recalled.
“Kevin was only 19,” she added. “I can’t even begin to share how this loss has changed our lives and our family dynamics, but I can relate to the breathtaking pain that many families are facing today who have lost their loved ones due to gun violence.”
Robin Cogan, a certified school nurse in the Camden school district, talked about how her father hid in a closet during a mass shooting in the city in 1949 that killed 13 people, including his mother, father and grandmother. It is widely considered the first mass shooting in America.
Charles Cohen was 12 that day in September when his neighbor, a disgruntled veteran named Howard Unruh, embarked on his casual rampage through the city, including three children among his victims. Almost 70 years later, his granddaughter, Cogan’s niece, hid in a closet during the Parkland school shooting in 2018.
“I promised that I would do everything in my power as a school nurse to work to stop the public health epidemic of gun violence,” Cogan said. “It is a public health crisis that has not been properly funded, researched or legislated.
“We have to reframe the conversation about gun control to one about gun safety,” she added. “We can find common ground reclaiming safe spaces and caring about other people’s children.”
In light of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the Camden County Police Department recently made the decision to increase its presence in city schools. Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez advised those in a school shooting situation to run, hide, and fight, in that order, and not to stop and call for help until getting to a safe place.
When police are called to the scene, he said, their primary job is to stop the shooter.
“Our officers know that if they hear shots fired, they are not waiting for backups or shields,” he noted. “They are going in to find and stop that threat … The reality is you’re going to pass people who are injured, who may be bleeding out, that may be begging for help, but your job is to continue to go past them to stop that threat, to stop the continued killing.”
Rodriguez said his force is open to working with the private sector to train people on what to do in the event of an active shooter.
Moms Demand Action is a national nonprofit under the umbrella of Every Town for Gun Safety that promotes common-sense gun laws, secure storage of firearms, working with community-based organizations and amplifying the voices of survivors.
To learn more about their cause, visit https://momsdemandaction.org/.