As the sun set in downtown Phoenix Sunday evening, at least 200 people crowded around the Release the Fear sculpture at the corner of Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue for an anti-gun violence demonstration.
From a distance, the group looked like a sea of orange shirts, headscarves, pom-poms, and banners — orange being the color hunters use to signify “don’t shoot” — though up close, the small green ribbons many pinned to their shirts and jackets were hard to miss.
“Behind each green ribbon is someone who never thought they’d be on the wrong side of a gun, or the wrong side of a phone call [telling them someone they knew had been],” one speaker said.
The vigil was organized by Arizonans for Gun Safety and the Arizona chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, intended to both mark the three-year anniversary today of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 children and educators dead, and to demand stronger gun control measures from elected officials.
Before the vigil, participants marched through the streets of downtown Phoenix to the site, carrying photographs or signs with the names of friends and family they’d lost to gun violence. Once there, many chalked those names onto the sidewalk around the sculpture.
“I’m mad that we’re still here doing this, that we keep coming back and saying we’re mad [and that] it’s going to be different,” Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego said to the crowd before addressing the role the National Rifle Association and gun lobby play in stopping what he and others call “common-sense gun legislation.”
He lamented the failure of a bill this week to prevent people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns and the failure of past bills to strengthen background checks.
“We’re not even allowed to do research about what’s causing a spike in gun violence — the NRA doesn’t allow us to ask that simple question,” he added.
“We’re not asking that guns be taken away . . . We’re not radicals, we’re the common sense of this country. The NRA is the radical who won’t let us keep our families safe from gun violence.”
He told New Times: “It’s frustrating to be surrounded by those in Washington who won’t enact sensible gun laws. We see all these mass shootings and nothing ever happens. They say mental health is the problem, then they cut funding to mental health . . . They won’t even approve legislation to let us do research.
“It feels hypocritical, like we’re just waiting for the next shooting to occur.”
Geraldine Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety and a “proud lifelong Republican” who sees the need for “sensible public policy,” was another speaker at the event. She talked about how her brother was murdered by a mentally ill man and said, as far as she’s concerned, the politics of gun control in the country has gotten to a point “where it has nothing to do with the Second Amendment anymore.”
She says she’s tired of hearing politicians say their thoughts and prayers are with the victims and survivors after each shooting occurs: “Thank you very much, but prayers and platitudes don’t cut it, and they haven’t for a very long time . . . We see these mass shootings, and we’ve had enough.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
State Senator Martín Quezada, another speaker at the event, decried what he sees as the nation’s “refusal to even have a conversation about how we can make this better” and spoke about his best friend was shot to death a decade ago when a gunman mistook him for a different person.
Quezada, who announced he was endorsing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president last week, told told New Times that while he doesn’t always agree with Sanders’ gun politics – Sanders has been criticized by anti-gun violence activists as weak on the subject — he knows his candidate “is rational enough to at least come to the table and listen to us.”
The vigil lasted about an hour, with speaker after speaking telling stories about how they personally had been affected by gun violence:
Jennifer Longdon, vice president of Arizonans for Gun Safety, talked about the day she and her fiancé were driving in their car and someone opened fire on them.
“Five bullets later, I was paralyzed,” she said, attempting to hold back tears. “In that minute, we became two of the 272 people that are shot in this country every day.”
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Longdon, like Hills, and many other speakers at the vigil, has devoted her life to stopping gun violence through awareness, education, and public policy.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the gun lobby and the marketing arm of the gun lobby sell us fear, because in order to sell guns, they need us to be afraid,” she told the crowd.
“I refuse to be afraid,” she said as the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. “I’m tired of seeing a sea of green.”