Utah moms rally against gun violence, call for Congress to pass background checks

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hillary Hewitt broke into tears just thinking about her children Van, left, and daughter Elliott being subjected to gun violence. Members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America gathered at Washington Square Park to demand change in gun laws in reaction to the August mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, and the hundreds of Americans who are wounded and killed by gun violence every day.

Strong Reyes starts second grade next week and wonders how many intruder drills his class will have.

The 7-year-old looked down at his fingers to count but said he can’t remember exactly how many they did last year. “A few,” he noted before bragging, though, that he knows just what to do.

“We have a special spot where we hide and stay quiet,” Reyes said. “It’s in the back of the room. And we turn off all the lights and lock the doors.”

His mom, Emily Reyes, tried not to cry as her son explained what’s become commonplace at his Salt Lake City elementary. The two of them stood outside City Hall on Saturday and shouted, “No more!”

They were surrounded by more than 100 other moms and kids and students who rallied with them against gun violence at the Utah event that matched other protests taking place nationwide this weekend after the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, Calif. They mentioned, too, the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas.

Strong Reyes made his own poster with red and black markers that said, “Kids need backpacks not bulletproof vests,” and he tried to wave it, though it was taller than he is. His little brother, August, clung to their dad. Joseph and Emily Reyes said they’re worried about sending their boys back to school this month.

“Things need to change,” Emily said. “Our kids could be targeted, and there’s nothing we could do.”

The group hugged the shady spots around the building on the hot summer Saturday as they watched speakers line up before a podium on the steps. They wore red T-shirts and carried posters. They chanted, “Do something!” And they watched as their kids danced around in the grass.

Mary Ann Thompson, who leads the Utah branch of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, planned the “recess rally” and said the hope was to encourage Congress — when lawmakers come back in session soon — to take action on preventing gun deaths. The protesters called for background checks on all gun sales and a federal “red flag” law that would let courts temporarily strip firearms from a person in crisis. Utah’s federal lawmakers have expressed some support for red flag laws, not so much for enhanced background checks.

“We want to send a message that we’ve had enough,” she said.

Thompson said she doesn’t want to have to list cities that have been affected by gun violence and doesn’t want the list to keep growing longer. She doesn’t like that she feels she has to work harder than legislators to make change. And she wants people to be safe at malls, movie theaters and schools.

Bailey Golding, a sophomore at Brigham Young University, said her sister was at Columbine High School during the shooting there in April 1999. Her family moved from Littleton, Colo., afterward “because it just got too hard.”

Golding, 19, has started a student group in Utah and Salt Lake counties for young people to get involved and protest gun violence.

“This is the beginning of activism,” she said. “Students are angry.”

She raised her hand when the speaker asked who in the crowd had been impacted by gun violence. About 50 others did, too, including Carolyn Tuft.

Tuft was shot and her 15-year-old daughter killed at the February 2007 mass shooting at Trolley Square in downtown Salt Lake City. She told the crowd that they had gone to the shopping center to buy valentines. Three minutes into their trip, Kirsten was dead.

Next to to the podium was a photo of the teen that was displayed at her funeral. Tuft said since the slaying, her life has changed. She has 300 lead pellets still in her body from being shot, and they’ve poisoned her blood stream.

Every morning, she wakes up vomiting. Every day, she still tries to figure out how to pay the millions of dollars in debt she has from medical bills.

“I lost everything because of the actions of one and the inaction of Congress,” she said, watching a little girl swing on the railing below her. “We could’ve prevented this.”

The man who shot Tuft and her daughter was too young to get a gun and wasn’t caught by a background check. “How many more children need to be gunned down?” she asked. She begged Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to step up.

The Reyes family stood together at the front of the crowd, shaking their heads in agreement. Many of the speakers repeated the same statistics. In America, 100 people die each day by gunfire. In Utah, 410 were killed in 2017. Most of those Utah deaths are by suicide.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said: “It is not shameful to acknowledge that guns kill people.”

A family doctor talked about how some of her patients survived the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017. Ermiya Fanaeian, a sophomore studying at the University of Utah, described being at Fashion Place mall earlier this year when shots were fired by gang members and patrons hid in storage rooms.

More than a year ago, she and other students in Utah led a March for Our Lives protest at the state Capitol after 17 were killed at a Florida high school.

“Not a single thing has changed since then,” she said. “And that has to change."

A few moms said they’ll be sending their kindergarteners to school for the first time next week and are afraid of what might happen. State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, added that her son is a senior in college and she worries about him being targeted because of his brown skin. One little boy, Van Hewitt, 6, held a poster that said, “Protect me! Not guns!”

He played for a minute with Strong and August Reyes as they compared their signs and skipped on the sidewalk.

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