Some of the most dedicated advocates of preventing gun violence whom I have met are those who have been personally affected by it.

Our epidemic of gun violence here in the United States has created a nation of survivors, and there are more of them every week.

If you identify as a gun violence survivor, you’ll find that San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention (SD4GVP) can point you to some gun violence resources like Everytown Survivor Network, BetterHelp and Survivors Empowered.

“Am I a gun violence survivor?”

If you have experienced gun violence or have cared for someone who has experienced gun violence, then you’re generally considered a gun violence survivor. But ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to identify as a gun violence survivor or not. Sometimes people do not identify as survivors until years later. 

I conduct our monthly New Volunteer Coffee meetings in San Diego, which we hold at different cafés around town. At almost every meeting, a survivor attends.

Of course, I don’t ask, “Is anybody here a survivor of gun violence?” Why not? Because the first important thing to know is that that can be a dealbreaker for people who are not ready to talk about surviving, and even for some who are ready to talk about it.

I do, however, acknowledge survivors in general so they know they’re welcome. I want them to see that our group is willing to meet them wherever they are on their journey.

We spend the rest of the meeting talking about opportunities for them to take part in SD4GVP’s efforts in education, advocacy and legislation. As the meeting breaks up, somebody almost always hangs back to talk to me privately about their experience with gun violence.

The second important thing to know is that there are many shades of grey among people who have:

  • Witnessed an act of gun violence
  • Been threatened with a gun
  • Been wounded with a gun
  • Had someone they cared for threatened, wounded or killed with a gun

The third important thing to know is that not all survivors are tied to mass shootings. Those events do indeed grab the headlines and traumatize a lot of people at once. But every month in America, thousands of gun-related deaths and injuries never get any press.

Think about the daily violence that goes on in many communities. Or domestic violence, where women are at vastly higher risk of death when a gun is in the home. Suicide rates are climbing, particularly among veterans, and attempts with firearms end in death in approximately 85% of cases. Family fire results in unintentional injuries or deaths of children and teens every day. 

“What if I’m not ready to talk about it?”

Just as there are many types of gun violence survival, there are different degrees of readiness to do something about it.

It’s hard enough to talk about surviving gun violence to a trained counselor, let alone to people you don’t know and who don’t know you. We get that, and we don’t expect any more from you than you’re ready to give.

You may be looking for other survivors. You’re not comfortable speaking in front of a camera or delivering comments at a city council meeting.

Or, maybe you’ve worked through it. You’ve gotten help, you’ve talked to somebody and you’ve dealt with the trauma. Your experience has made you want to help others avoid the pain. You’re more comfortable talking about what happened to you and identifying yourself as a survivor. That’s up to you; it’s not a label we impose on you.

“What does SD4GVP have for me?”

I’ll be honest: As I wrote at the top, often the people with the most drive to prevent gun violence are those who have survived it. We have an outlet for your drive and motivation to help keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. And we want your voice to be heard — when you’re ready.

At the same time, we recognize that you’re approaching the entire topic differently from those of us who haven’t been threatened, wounded or traumatized by a firearm.

At the New Volunteer Coffee meetings, I encourage survivors to attend our monthly SD4GVP meeting. When you see the faces of people who are fighting to prevent other people from having to go through what you did, you’ll find it encouraging.

Other things you’ll find encouraging about our monthly meetings:

  • We always ask, “Who’s here for the first time?” (You can raise your hand, or not.)
  • We never ask, “Are there any gun violence survivors here today?”
  • We review pending laws. (Usually confusing for a newbie, but useful over time.)
  • We announce upcoming events and appearances, then ask for volunteers.
  • We have a presentation on a topic ranging from safe storage of firearms in the home to the city’s success with red flag laws. Elected officials sometimes address our meetings.
  • We announce the topic of the presentation in advance so you know if we’ll be discussing something that may strike a raw nerve with you, like domestic violence or suicide prevention.

Whether you’re ready to start advocating or not, we make it easy for you to fit in.

Welcome to the movement.

Kasey Zahner, La Mesa

photo credit: Ted Eytan

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