Kait Hinckley: If America had background checks for guns, my sister might still be alive

Sen. Mitt Romney should support this gun safety measure.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Carolyn Tuft holds a portrait of her daughter Kirsten Hinckley, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Tuft survived a 2007 mass shooting in Utah and said she has lead poisoning from shotgun pellets still in her body, leaving her with debilitating headaches, nausea and other serious health problems. Tuft, whose 15-year-old daughter died in the Trolley Square mall shooting in Salt Lake City, has been unable to work, resulting in the loss of her home and business, she told The Associated Press.

On Feb. 12, 2007, my sister Kirsten and I were fighting about what to wear to go shopping. She was always stealing my clothes — typical little sister — and hiding them in her backpack to put on at school, then sneaking them back into my closet.

Instead of going shopping for our planned mother-daughter Valentine’s Day activity, I received a call from work and needed to go in. My mom and sister dropped me off, and the two of them drove to Trolley Square Mall.

That was the last time I saw Kirsten alive. She was only 15.

Kirsten and I did everything together — from reading Harry Potter to having two-person dance parties in our kitchen. I was her confidant, and she was my shadow. I often wonder what our relationship would be like if she had been able to grow up. I’ll never know.

As soon as my mother and sister walked into the mall, they heard a distant “pop pop” and looked at each other. My mom dismissed the idea that it was gunfire. How could it be?

They headed to a card shop, full of pink neon lights and one-of-a-kind gifts. My sister picked up a gum packet with a picture that made her laugh. She told my mom I would love it. Another “pop.” This time it was loud — and close.

My mom went to see what was happening through the shop window. There was a bright flash, a loud bang, and shattered glass was falling on her.

Kirsten shouted “Get down, Mom!”

The shooter was underage and bought his gun without passing a background check. Current loopholes in our background check system allow for guns to be sold by unlicensed sellers to strangers with no background check and no questions asked.

My mom was shot twice that day and survived. My sister was shot and didn’t survive. The last words my mom said to Kirsten were, “I love you” as she watched a shotgun violently end her youngest child’s life. From the time they parked the car, to the time Kirsten was dead, was only three minutes.

And since then, I’ve learned that had there been a background check, my sister might still be alive.

Kirsten’s death changed my entire life. It was the first time I had experienced gun violence. But since then, I haven’t been able to escape it. I haven’t been able to feel safe or secure in my own life for the last 14 years.

The news of Boulder and Atlanta over the past few weeks have been hard. Every time another mass shooting happens I immediately think about when it happened to me. When I got that call. When I lost my best friend. When my life completely changed. The truth is, this happens every day in shootings that never make the headlines because every day, more than 100 people are shot and killed, and hundreds more are wounded. I’m exhausted by the inaction.

I was raised in Utah in a big, close-knit LDS family that valued family, service, and caring for our community above all else. Those principles help guide my advocacy, to serve others, and make sure no family or community ever has to experience what mine did.

Sen. Mitt Romney said last week that he’s unlikely to support new federal gun safety legislation because of a promise he made during his campaign, but even as recently as 2019, he’s expressed being open to background checks. Now is his chance to keep Utahns safe by putting his full support behind background checks. This is his chance to do what we elected him to do: To protect us.

The U.S. Senate must take action to save lives and that starts with passing background check legislation — which is supported by 93% of Americans, including 89% of Republicans, and 89% of gun owners. Background checks are common-sense, constitutional, and they work — more than 3.5 million illegal gun sales have been stopped by a background check since 1994.

Part of me feels like my innocence was robbed on Feb. 12, 2007. And I can’t help but worry the same is happening for my nieces and nephews who continue to grow up in the setting of our country’s gun violence epidemic.

As we have started to turn a corner on vaccinations and improvements in COVID-19 infections, I have started to feel unsafe again. I forgot how terrified I was to go out into the world. The past year has shown me something devastating: I feel more safe at home in a global pandemic than in public in this country with our gun violence public health crisis.

I want a world where we can feel safe to go to the mall. Or a grocery store. Or a spa. Or anywhere for that matter. I never want anyone to feel the way our family has felt for the past 14 years. It’s past time that we pass federal gun safety legislation. A vote from Romney in support of background checks legislation could be the difference between life and death. We need him to protect our families and support legislation that will keep Utahns safe.

Kait Hinckley

Kait Hinckley is a Utah native, gun violence survivor and a volunteer with the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action.

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