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Right To Safety Essay

JaJuan had a smile that would light up a room. If you were having a bad day, you could just look at him and he would make you smile. He had these big, beautiful, and loving eyes. Every time he would stretch them wide—ooh!—they would give you little chills.

He was the baby of our family, only 14 years old. Even though he and his brother were four years apart, they were very close. They shared an unbreakable bond. His father is in the military, so we do a lot of moving and traveling—we did a lot together as family: creating traditions, going on vacations, everything was close-knit. JaJuan was shy at times, at your first meeting, but once you got to know him, he would open up. JaJuan was full of love and life. He loved to share, and share himself with others. He was very active in our youth ministry at church, where he would pack food for the elderly members and our disabled members. He’d be the first to run to do it because he always liked to help—no matter what you were doing, he would stop what he was doing just to help someone. He would tell his peers that it was okay to be different; you didn’t always have to fit in. JaJuan made a loving impact on everyone he met.

JaJuan loved everything about nature. He loved to be in the yard on the weekends looking for lizards; that was his thing, to find lizards and insects and bugs. His room was almost like a petting zoo. He had lizards, hermit crabs, a hamster, a turtle, and a pet snake. All of them were living in his room, one tank stacked on top of another. He had to change the tanks on Saturdays because I told him we weren’t going to have those smells in the house. When we would go on a family vacation, we’d almost always have to go to a zoo. He would be our tour guide and tell us all about the habitats of the animals. He would often say that his biggest dream was to become a veterinarian.

On April 3, 2016, JaJuan and his brother headed down to Savannah to spend spring break with my family. I would call every day just to check on them. On April 7, I talked to JaJuan at 12:30 p.m. He told me he was at my brother’s house but that he was going to a movie with his grandma that night. I told him to be safe.

“Okay, Mom, I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too, son.”

I was sitting on the couch in the living room when, at around 4:30 p.m., my oldest son called and said, “Mom, you have to get to Savannah really quick.” And I was like, “What?” But I could hear the urgency in his voice. Then he told me JaJuan had been shot, and my whole world just stopped. There’s no way, I thought.

I just remember screaming, and my husband asking, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And I told him, and he just froze. I couldn’t make it up the stairs. I screamed until no sounds could be heard. We began to pray with tears in our eyes. “Lord, let our baby be alive!”

I don’t know if you know about traffic in Atlanta, but it’s horrible, especially about 4:30 in the afternoon. With every mile marker we passed, it seemed like Savannah got farther and farther away. I remember trying to call everyone and no one was answering. I tried calling JaJuan’s phone and it kept going to his voicemail. I decided to go online. I pulled up the local news channel and read, “14-year-old shot in chest in critical condition.” It felt like it was impossible that it could be him.

When we pulled into the hospital parking lot, I could see my family and friends. I started running to the hospital door and someone, I don’t remember who, grabbed me and said, “He didn’t make it.” At that moment, it felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest, every beat was squeezed out. I was numb.

I couldn’t understand . . . how does this happen?

When the detective came to my mother’s home to speak to me, the first question he asked was “Was JaJuan right-handed or left-handed?” I was confused because the story I heard, when we first got there, was that it was a drive-by. Then the story changed to somebody coming to the door of my brother’s house. Then the story changed again. The detective told me that my son JaJuan and my brother’s 13-year-old stepson were the only two in the house, and the little boy was saying that JaJuan did it himself.

The autopsy ruled it a homicide. The medical examiner said there was no way JaJuan could have done it himself. It wasn’t at close range. The little boy may have been mishandling the firearm and it accidentally discharged and the bullet hit JaJuan in the chest. They charged the little boy with involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded guilty and served three months in juvenile and was given two years’ probation. I guess he came up with the different stories to try to get himself out of trouble. I can imagine, as a 13-year-old, he was scared, but even in fear one should tell the truth. An innocent life was taken. JaJuan’s life was tragically taken by someone he trusted, by someone he called family. I believe he never fully disclosed what happened that day. So today and every day on this journey, we have so many unanswered questions. This was 100 percent preventable. Our faith is what keeps us going. I often read letters written by JaJuan’s peers that put a smile on my face, even through the tears that often come without warning.

My relationship with my brother is still strained. We don’t really talk as much as we used to. I think it’s because if we did talk, I would only have more questions.

Instead of subjecting myself to that pain all over again, I’ll wait until it gets to a place where there is peace that surpasses all understanding. I can’t imagine what his family is going through, which makes this even more difficult. At times I so badly want to pick up the phone and ask what happened to my baby. But I know I may never get the answers I’m looking for.

We are putting our pain into purpose. We organized a Fun Run and 5K in JaJuan’s memory on Earth Day 2017. It was a good turnout and we helped bring awareness to the Be SMART Campaign. Be SMART: Secure your firearms in your home and vehicles; Model responsible behavior; Ask about unsecured firearms in other homes; Recognize the risk of teenage suicide; Tell others to Be SMART. Personally, we’re not against the Second Amendment. I believe in the right to bear arms. But we just want there to be gun sense. We’re not trying to control, just use gun sense: Where are you securing your firearms? You’re not just laying them around, and you’re not being careless, cleaning your loaded firearm with your kids in the room. Bullets don’t have brains, and they don’t have names, and they don’t have eyes.

Every day, more than 90 Americans are killed by gun violence and hundreds more are injured. In 2016, there were at least 264 shootings where a person age 17 or under unintentionally killed or injured someone with a gun. We shouldn’t accept it as being normal, because it is not normal to have to bury your child under these circumstances, where children get a hold of unsecured firearms.

JaJuan wasn’t exposed to guns growing up, and we didn’t talk about guns. Not that we thought we were invincible, but we just never thought of it. It’s a conversation that you don’t have until something happens, and I want to help prevent that.

No one wants to join a club like this. But when you are personally affected by the senseless gun violence in this country and you don’t want another mother, another parent, to have to go on this journey, joining Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America can help. It’s been good for me to share my voice, to speak out about the experiences and the pain that gun violence has inflicted on our family. Together we can stand and say not one more, not one more parent or one more child’s life taken by gun violence.

The more we ignore the problem, the more it will grow. We can’t sit back and be silent. Being silent is not the solution to gun violence, because it’s taking a devastating toll on our communities. I’ve never seen so many children have to attend funerals for their friends. Our tears matter. Our voices have to be heard. We have to continue this fight.

Gun Safety is a series about gun violence in America, with a new essay appearing each day until National Gun Violence Awareness Day, on June 2. To learn more about what you can do to prevent gun violence, and to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, go to WearOrange.org.


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