Faced with grief over empty seats in light of mass shootings in 2022


I teach a class at a local university, and one of the first lessons I teach is one I wish I’d learned as a journalism student: how to interview people who’ve experienced trauma.

If you’re in college and considering reporting as a career, it’s natural to focus on where you want your career to go. Maybe you want to investigate the misdeeds of government agencies, write features about high-profile personalities, or cover a national beat that focuses on technology, health, or politics. And maybe one day you will get there.

But first, you’ll probably be sitting across from or on the phone with a person who has suddenly lost someone at gunpoint.

Families of victims of the Chesapeake Walmart shooting mourn their losses

They’re likely to find themselves at least once, if not more than once, I tell my students as I speak to one person about the space that’s just been vacated at their table.

The empty seat. It almost seems like a cliché. But when you talk to people who have experienced an unexpected loss, they will tell you about the very real pain that comes from seeing that tangible reminder of a space once occupied.

In a column last spring, I shared with you the trauma my middle school classmates and I suffered after gang members (who had the wrong address) stormed into a teenage birthday party and began throwing handgun and shotgun bullets at it spray. They injured several students at my school and killed my 14-year-old classmate, Blanca Garcia.

I was a kid when a classmate was shot. This trauma remains.

I have forgotten many details from that time in my life; I can’t even tell you what posters were on my bedroom walls. But the sight of her empty desk in our classroom remains an etched memory. Back then it hurt to look at it and it hurt to ignore it. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. When I spoke to a former classmate of mine who had become an educator after the Uvalde shooting, Describing his empathy turning into numbness, he said: “It went away when we got to school on Monday morning and saw her empty desk. That was when the innocence of my childhood faded.”

Empty desk. Empty office cubicle. empty chair. Between domestic shootings, street shootings and mass shootings, we are a country full of empty seats.

Each year, journalists write stories detailing the annual homicides at the regional and national levels. You will see some of these published pieces soon. Many of these numbers come from local and state law enforcement censuses. But as trauma seeps in messy, far-reaching ways, affecting not just the victims but everyone who cares for them, there’s no way of knowing how many people are actually affected by gun violence. In this way, the true toll of empty seats is unpredictable.

What we do know is that those numbers are rising at worrying rates across the country, including horribly in two shootings this month in Virginia.

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On November 13, three University of Virginia student-athletes — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry — were shot dead and two other students were injured on a bus returning from a field in Washington, DC, to Charlottesville . The suspected shooter and other students had watched a play about Emmett Till and eaten Ethiopian food.

Then, on Tuesday, an employee at a Chesapeake Walmart shot dead six co-workers before turning the gun on himself. He took the lives of Kellie Pyle, Lorenzo Gamble, Brian Pendleton, Randall Blevins, Tyneka Johnson, and Fernando Chavez-Barron in his killing spree. Chavez-Barron, whose name was initially withheld due to his age, was just 16 years old.

On Friday, authorities released a note found on the gunman’s phone, whose name I am not naming here to minimize the attention he receives. It was captioned “Death Note” and ended with the line, “God forgive me what I will do.”

Youngkin is right: U-Va. Shooting is ‘Moment for Us to Get Together’

Authorities also announced on Friday that he had purchased the 9mm handgun he used in the shooting that same morning. It was that easy for him. He was able to go to a place carrying thoughts that would make him want to kill his associates and walk out with the ability to carry out that destruction.

After that shooting, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was asked if he was open to legislative solutions to prevent gun violence, and he deferred an answer. He told reporters now is not the time to discuss it.

“We’re going to talk about it,” Youngkin reportedly said. “We’ll talk about it. Today is not the day. It’s not the day. But it will be. And we will talk about it.”

Right now we need to talk about implementing more arms control measures. Too many families know it’s high time to talk about it. Postponing those talks means delaying action, which means more shootings, more deaths, and more empty seats.

When I decided to become a journalist, I never expected to write about shootings. But over the course of my career, I’ve written on the subject time and time again—and time and time again. I can’t tell you how many times because I can’t bring myself to count all those pieces.

I interviewed college students on the Virginia Tech campus after the mass shooting there because I knew that even as they spoke about their hopes for a bright future, they would carry some of the darkness of that day with them.

I sat across from a mother, as she spoke about why she wanted lawmakers to see her 16-year-old daughter’s post-shooting autopsy photos, to a girl who used to text her: “I liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiss-i-liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieesee-ein -be-a-du-mama-you-me-liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-de-du-mami-me-liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-de-du-mama.

This mother wants you to see a disturbing photo of her daughter who was fatally shot. Maybe it’s time we checked.

I listened as one woman described going on a date with her husband, a Peace Corps worker, and then repeatedly telling him, “We love you,” while he lay dying after being hit by a stray bullet had been.

I’ve seen parents break down and sob over me as they talk about the children they’ve lost to gun violence, and I’ve watched children try to look brave and untouched as they talk about adults going through their lives having lost gun violence. I’m tired of writing these plays. I also feel compelled to continue writing these pieces.

As journalists, we can only tell you these stories. We cannot pass laws that make it more difficult for people who want to kill to get guns, or enforce the laws that already exist to protect people from gun violence.

We can just talk to people about the empty seats at their table – and, until things change, prepare future journalists to do the same.