As a communication strategist, I am continually mystified watching countless media images and soundbites focused on gun violence. On any given day in America you can turn on the TV and see coverage of a new mass shooting, the latest in a never-ending string of incidents. Hours later, our nation’s leaders are at the microphone, expressing our collective sorrow and condolences. And then the ephemeral pictures and words fade away, just in time for the next commercial break.
“What is happening to us?” begins the water-cooler conversation the next day. “Why can’t we confront this issue with strength and determination? Americans have faced other human tragedies before and found a way to make an impact.”
I would suggest that advocates working to prevent gun violence consider taking a page from the playbook of the HIV and AIDS awareness movement. That movement was born of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (The NAMES Project Foundation) and the powerful group, ACT UP, back in the 1980s. At a time when there was no government response or action to fight a disease which was ravaging the gay community, founder and activist Cleve Jones determined that the best way to combat HIV and AIDS and raise awareness was to memorialize each and every person who had died.
In essence, by naming the dead, it took away the very anonymity that had been fueling the lack of response. The people lost were no longer those “queers” from New York or San Francisco, but rather our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors. While HIV and AIDS have continued to take a toll 30 years into the epidemic, the AIDS Memorial Quilt sparked a movement that has led to making great strides in keeping the disease at bay, and has given rise to a plethora of other organizations that are researching treatments, helping the afflicted, and ultimately looking for a cure.
ACT UP, led by the force of Larry Kramer, demanded attention to the matter by drawing a line in the sand that put gay people's citizenry on either side of the divide. Whether you were with them or against them, Kramer made it clear: no one was going anywhere without confronting the truth about how our country was neglecting the human tragedy surrounding us.
Gun violence prevention activists need a galvanizing force like the quilt to ignite a movement. As with the quilt, they must name all the dead, celebrate their lives, and bring them out of anonymity. As with those lost to AIDS, victims of gun violence are also our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Perhaps it won’t be a quilt, but a mosaic in Washington D.C., or a traveling photography exhibit. Whatever the symbol, it should be grand and unifying and most importantly, it should activate change.
But let's take this a step further: We should not only end the anonymity of the victims of gun violence and celebrate their lives, but we can also follow the provocative nature of ACT UP by naming and shaming those who have created a climate that allows gun violence to flourish. It's time we take to task leaders at the National Rifle Association, gun manufacturers that produce assault weapons, and lawmakers who have failed, time and time again, to pass common-sense gun control measures. We must unmask the bullies and shout the names of those who are now shielded by anonymity.
When addressing the recent mass shooting that occurred in Oregon, President Obama, exasperated at yet another gun tragedy, said:
"My response here at this podium ends up being routine… We’ve become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun."
It is time to convene a national summit of all those who have been devastated by gun violence. It is time to begin strategizing a new “Quilt moment.” It is time to collectively produce a tool designed to wake up our world on this topic, shift public consciousness, and set in motion massive gun reform once and for all.
ANDRE GUTIERREZ leads a National Youth Outreach Campaign for The Last One, a documentary about the AIDS Memorial Quilt. He is director of brand strategy/partnerships at Red Thread Productions, the New York City-based company behind the film.