I thought guns were fun. Then my loved ones became victims

They'll wash the blood away, but won't forget
They'll wash the blood away, but won't forget

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They'll wash the blood away, but won't forget 04:42

Story highlights

  • Zoe Chance: Acts of gun violence mar the lives of not only first-hand victims, but also loved ones and entire communities
  • There is guilt in merely thinking, "Thank God my loved one survived," she writes

Zoë Chance is an assistant professor at Yale School of Management and was a 2015 Yale Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Follow her @zoebchance. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)If gun violence hasn't yet touched you or someone you love, you might think of it as someone else's problem: a red state problem, an inner-city problem or a mental illness problem.

I might have thought that way. I'm a college professor and mom living in the safest neighborhood in a college town in a blue state. Statistically, I am less likely than most Americans to encounter guns. Yet gun violence and mass shootings have been touching my life and hurting those I love, repeatedly, for decades.
My Uncle was working at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 when a gunman opened fire there. While his coworkers were massacred at their desks, he happened to be downstairs and survived by random chance.
    He was physically safe, but couldn't return to work -- and of course, for a long time, he was not okay. And he wasn't the only one. My whole family suffered with him, and felt guilty for our relief: Thank God it wasn't him.
    Newtown, Connecticut, is about an hour from my house. In 2012, I got a call from my nanny Ashley, whose cousin was a first-grader there at Sandy Hook Elementary. There was an active shooter situation at her cousin's school, and she asked if I could please come home so she could be with her family as they waited for her cousin to come out. But he never came out.
    At midnight, Ashley had to be the one to identify his body, shot at close range in the face. I cried my eyes out, hugging my own little daughter while she slept. So shamefully grateful. Thank God it wasn't her.
    That same day my friend Deb, who lives in Newtown, was teaching first grade in New Haven. Deb's own children had been first-graders in the same school and room where Ashley's cousin and 19 other children were murdered, along with their teacher. Deb could have easily been teaching in that classroom. Like my uncle, she struggled to cope with the tragedy and ended up leaving her job. And even now -- five years later -- the aftermath is painful for the Newtown community. The last time I drove through, "for sale" signs were everywhere.
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    Back in 1999 when Columbine High School students were being gunned down by their classmates, I was teaching some of their close friends just a couple of miles away. We heard there was a shooting happening and that Columbine was on lockdown, but no one had cell phones then and we couldn't reach out or get any news. I didn't know what to do, I was 24 years old. How do you comfort and teach kids while their friends are dying? I remember trying to be funny to cheer them up. I shudder at myself.
    My sister, my mom, and my dad, in different cities, have all been personally threatened by muggers with guns, or who said they had guns. My sister, mom, dad, step-mom, and daughter had to shelter in place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the gunfight between police and the Boston marathon bomber in 2013. My daughter was three.
    I mentioned that I live in the safest neighborhood of a college town. Yet a man was shot in my neighbors' front yard. Those neighbors were my good friends, and they moved away. On the nearby park trail where I run, three college students were mugged at gunpoint at 10 a.m. on a Sunday. I stopped running for six months. I felt awful. I started running again. I still feel awful.
    And less than a fortnight ago, I was in Las Vegas for three days. I met a lot of people. Were they some of the nearly 500 who were shot three days later, near where I had stayed? I don't know. I was relieved to have left, but the bile of survivor guilt plagued me again. Thank God it wasn't me.
    I used to think guns were fun. I shot rifles at summer camp, and handguns with my dad and Uncle Danny. When I worked as a brand manager at Mattel, the toy manufacturing company, I wasn't surprised to learn girls enjoyed "the projectile play pattern" as much as boys did. It's exciting to shoot things. I could never judge anyone's desire to own a gun. For Christ's sake, when I was pregnant and getting married in Vegas, we went to shoot semi-automatics in full bridal attire. (We thought the "shotgun wedding" thing was clever.)
    But I don't think guns are fun or funny at all anymore. If you're a gun owner thinking, "You moron, I don't own a gun for fun, I own it for safety," I hear you. And I'm worried about safety too.
    It's not just the gun casualties and injuries that make headlines that are bleeding us dry, but the devastating indirect effects of violence too. All the people threatened and terrorized, the ongoing health and mental health problems, the cost of those problems and the lost work, the fear, the anxiety, the lost relationships, the PTSD, the self-doubt, the survivor guilt...
    We don't all agree on the best ways to keep our families and communities safe, but the majority of us agree on a lot of things. Like that weapons designed for mass killing don't belong in civilian hands. And that background-check laws need to be better enforced. And that, for heaven's sake, victims need health care. Let us move forward with love and certainty that we can prevent gun violence -- and we will.