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Gun victim advocates wear orange to highlight 'real human cost of this epidemic'

Anne Thalheimer speaks at a gun victims awareness rally in Holyoke, Massachusetts, June 3, 2024. Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia is to her right. The group ROCA was also part of the event, wearing orange to highlight the loss of life from gun violence.
Jill Kaufman
Anne Thalheimer speaks at a gun victims awareness rally in Holyoke, Massachusetts, June 3, 2024. Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia is to her right. The group ROCA was also part of the event, wearing orange to highlight the loss of life from gun violence.

It was a deadly weekend in several western Massachusetts cities, with three homicides in Springfield and a fatal shooting in Holyoke on High Street.

The Holyoke shooting was just down the street from City Hall. That's where an annual event to bring awareness to the victims of gun violence was held Monday afternoon.

Holyoke resident Anne Thalheimer led the event. She survived a shooting 32 years ago on the campus of Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

"I was an 18-year-old student in 1992," Thalheimer told the small gathering outside Holyoke City Hall, "when a classmate of mine was able to legally purchase a cheap, Chinese SKS and brought it back to campus and started firing at everything that moved."

Her best friend and a beloved teacher were shot to death, Thalheimer said. Four others were wounded.

Telling stories like this is what people pay attention to, said Thalheimer, who became a gun victims' activist and is with the group Wear Orange. People should always be talking about ending gun violence, she said, but this week the focus is on the victims.

"We sort of flip it a little bit and start talking about the people we've lost, the real human cost of this epidemic," Thalheimer said.

Thalheimer and other survivors of the 1992 shooting sent a letter to the Boston Globe in 2019 when it published a feature about Greg Gibson and his conversations with the Simon's Rock shooter. Gibson is the father of Galen Gibson, who was killed at Simon's Rock.

"Greg Gibson’s public service video, featuring his visit with the man who murdered his son, is well-intentioned but irresponsible," the survivors wrote. "How can there be a positive impact from giving a murderer the spotlight?"

Thalheimer sent a similar letter of protest to NPR's StoryCorps in 2017.

A proclamation

Several people spoke at the Holyoke event, including Mayor Joshua Garcia. Before he read a proclamation declaring Monday June 3, 2024 National Gun Violence Awareness Day in the city, Garcia pointed a finger at Congress for only nibbling "at the edges of the problem."

"So here we are once again gathered for the annual gun violence awareness observance, and here we are once again gathered in the wake of a deadly shooting in Holyoke that just happened this Saturday morning, right down the street here on High Street," Garcia said.

Time and time again, Garcia said, we are horrified and heartbroken by gun violence in our city and in cities across the nation.

"We thought — I thought — our Congress would have acted in 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 26 people were gunned down, 20 of them were children. Little kids between the ages of six and seven," Garcia said.

He then mentioned the 2018 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff were killed. He mentioned the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, were 19 students and two teachers were killed in May 2022.

Many people point to him and ask, "'Mayor, what are you going to do about this problem?'" Garcia said.

"The best we can do locally is to invest in ideas and initiatives that we think, and that we hope can prevent, or at least minimize, gun violence. Often these initiatives spark debate and come across as controversial," Garcia said.

That's the last thing we want to do, Garcia said, mentioning ShotSpotter and the conversation around whether or not the city should invest in more police, metal detectors in the city's public schools.

"These are the things that have created divide in communities everywhere. Which, by the way, we do not have metal detectors in our schools," Garcia said, adding that the city has to do something until Congress faces "the gun lobby."

Other events to remember victims

Several gun violence awareness events are taking place around western Massachusetts over the next few days.

On June 4, the group Moms Demand Action has partnered with the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Resource Center in Springfield for the 5th annual Save Our Streets event.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."