A year ago on the Fourth of July, like many of us, I was happily sitting at a parade in my hometown of Highland Park, Illinois with my family, including two of my young sons, watching the procession begin. What I thought was fireworks turned out to be a maelstrom of bullets from an AR-15 assault weapon, fired by a 21-year-old on a rooftop above. I was shot twice. The bullets ripped through my skin, and I could feel them burning. I was fortunate to survive one of the worst shootings in Illinois history — but seven others lost their lives.
A year has passed — and I still think about the shooting every day. How can I not? Each day, my body reminds me of the trauma it experienced, and it is not clear that the physical pain will ever subside completely. The mental toll will likely last for years. But I am far from alone; I’m one of roughly 76,000 people shot and wounded each year who face a long and difficult journey of healing. As I read the headlines of shooting after shooting—from a mall in Allen, TX, to a bank in Louisville, KY, to a school in Nashville, TN — I am now able to appreciate the loss and suffering in a way that I had not before.
What happens to us survivors and our families after the news coverage ends? What about the shootings that never make headlines? How can we cope with the physical, psychological, and financial costs of our injuries? How can we achieve a sense of justice and accountability from those responsible for the suffering? These are the questions I have been asking for the last year.
One thing I realized during this process is that I now feel responsible to help change the status quo. I used to hold back when asked about that day because I thought people would feel too uncomfortable hearing about the pain from the bullets ripping through my body and how our family is struggling to adapt to our new normal. But I quickly realized that telling the whole story allowed me to become more than a statistic. People began to connect a real person to the tally reported by each headline — as well as the shootings that never made the news at all.
I also sought to learn about the weapon that is alleged to have been used that day — a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 — which has been used in multiple mass shootings, including in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, San Bernardino, California in 2015, and Parkland, Florida in 2018. To me, it became clear that these shootings are not the result of an isolated decision by a shooter; instead, they are the result of a series of deliberate decisions beginning with the way assault weapons are marketed.
Like other industries, the gun industry works hard to make its products appear “cool” through adrenaline-fueled marketing. Smith & Wesson, for example, appears to have modeled its M&P 15 (M&P stands for “Military and Police”) advertisements after first-person shooter video games and uses military and law enforcement imagery to civilians to seemingly suggest offensive and combative uses. This messaging is working too. The Parkland shooter brought his M&P 15 because it was “cool looking.” The alleged Highland Park shooter appears to have felt the same: he regularly posted videos playing Call of Duty that looked alarmingly similar to Smith & Wesson advertisements, and violent music videos — including one showing a heavily armed shooter opening fire in a school.
That is why I, along with others from Highland Park, decided to file lawsuits against those who we believe caused the tragedy at Highland Park. With the help of our counsel at Everytown Law, Romanucci & Blandin, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, we are seeking to hold Smith & Wesson accountable for its role in the chain of events leading up to the parade, including intentionally targeting young people prone to risk-taking behavior and touting the use of its M&P firearms in combat-like situations. We are not alone in doing this. Some survivors — including certain families of Sandy Hook victims — are starting to see success with similar legal strategies.
Even though we have a long way to go in our lawsuit, it is already having a positive impact. In March, President Biden issued an executive order encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to issue a public report analyzing how gun manufacturers market firearms to civilians. This lawsuit will not heal the scars — both mental and physical — from that day in Highland Park. But we are in this fight for the long haul because this suit is about saving lives. By filing the lawsuit, by telling my story and by advocating for change, I’m working to ensure that future Fourth of July celebrations can be free of tragedy.
Lauren Bennett survived the July 4, 2022 shooting in Highland Park, Illinois.
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