A Single Mother Loses Her Only Child — & Vows To Fight Back

Provided by Clare Senchyna.
Clare Senchyna and her son, Camilo, at Lake Tahoe in 2013. Camilo was shot and killed in December 2014.
For months after her only child was shot and killed by a stranger, Clare Senchyna wasn't sure she would survive. "For a long time, I wanted to die," Senchyna said. "I didn't walk past a bus without thinking, I could just throw myself in front of it. Or I didn't walk past a cliff without thinking, I could just throw myself down. That was constantly in my mind — just to end the pain." On Thursday morning, Senchyna sat in San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge Park as the clouds rolled in, holding a sign with two large photos of her son. In one, Camilo wears a tuxedo, hair slicked back. In the other, he smiles coyly and tips his San Francisco Giants hat. Like the hundreds of other people who gathered to march across the bridge as part of National Gun Violence Awareness Day, Senchyna wore a bright-orange shirt. Often used by hunters to safely identify themselves in the woods, the color has become a symbol of the anti-gun violence movement #WearOrange. Similar #WearOrange rallies were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities on Thursday.

I would think: 'Why is the sun still out?' I just couldn't understand. Why are people going to work? Don't they know the world is over? Because my world was over.

clare senchyna, everytown for gun safety
For Senchyna, the day was about marching for Camilo and the life they once planned to have together. The 26-year-old was still living with his mother — an arrangement she said both of them loved — but joked that he would move out by 30 "for his self-esteem." "He had his life all planned out," she said. "He was very gung-ho. We even talked about that he didn't want to get married or have kids until he had his career in line, but then he did. I told him he could have the house we lived in and I would move across the bay to my boyfriend. We made all these plans." But Camilo and Clare's plans were cut short on December 7, 2014. It was a week before his 27th birthday and Camilo had just finished his paramedic program, the latest step in his quest to become a San Francisco firefighter. Earlier that year, Senchyna said he had written her a heartfelt letter, telling her he wanted to follow in her footsteps. She had worked as a nurse practitioner for 25 years. Now, Camilo was well on his way to achieving his goal and he wanted to celebrate. "He came out of his room all dressed up and said, 'Mom, I'm going to go out for the night.' I wasn't worried at all, he was very responsible. When he didn't come home that night, I just thought, Oh, he met a girl!...I wasn't going to call him and I wasn't going to worry," Senchyna said.
Photographed by Kaelyn Forde.
Clare Senchyna before she marched across the Golden Gate Bridge with hundreds of others to demand an end to gun violence.
But when Camilo didn't return home the next day, she did start to worry. "We used to text each other all the time. No matter what he was doing or where he was, he would text me immediately back. He didn't," Senchyna said. "At that moment, the doorbell rang and I went downstairs. There were two men there in uniform...They said, 'We're medical examiners.'" Camilo had been shot in the chest by 21-year-old Taaron Bragg outside of a club. Bragg has pleaded not guilty and said he fired in self-defense, while other witnesses said Camilo had been trying to break up a fight. Camilo became one of 12,591 people killed by guns that year, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. In that instant, Senchyna felt she had lost everything. "It's senseless why he was shot, there was no reason that was given. But he [the gunman] was a 21-year-old kid who had very easy access to guns," she said. "He took away my son's life...He's my only child, so he took away any future with grandchildren." Senchyna remembers very little from the next three months. "For months, I would wake up, it was such a sunny winter, and I would think, Why is the sun still out? I just couldn't understand. Why are people going to work? Don't they know the world is over? Because my world was over," she said. "That's what it feels like to lose someone, to lose your child."

The family members who are left behind to be the voice of the victims are being ignored because of all these new laws that are being shot down and not passed.

gina liberto barnes, #wearorange
Eventually, Senchyna said she chose to live. She quit her job, devoting herself full-time to advocacy work with Everytown For Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, both nonprofit groups. She said she finds comfort and strength in taking action. She is far from alone in being touched personally by violence. According to an Everytown analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, an average of 91 people are killed with guns per day in the United States. Gina Liberto Barnes and her family were among those who marched across the bridge. Each wore an orange shirt with a different picture of her son, Phillip. He was murdered on July 27, 2015. He was only 23 years old. "He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The intended victim was somebody else and Phillip got shot in the head," Liberto Barnes said, wiping back tears. "He loved children, he didn't have any of his own, but wherever he went, people loved him. His smile could light up the darkest night." Liberto Barnes said she takes solace in the fact that Phillip was an organ donor; seven of his organs were donated to six people. But she said she struggles to help his siblings cope with his death. "It's a living nightmare for us. The pain of his brothers and sisters, I can't take that away. That's why everyone needs to take a stand," she said.
Photographed by Kaelyn Forde.
Gina Liberto Barnes, her husband Mark, and their children Brittney, 15, and Trevor, 12. Their son, Phillip, was shot in the head and killed when he was 23.
But Liberto Barnes said only when gun violence hits home do people feel pushed to take action. "I find so much in society now, everyone has a closed eye to any type of violence. They will just keep going and not speak out about it. That's wrong. Stand up for the one next to you, live your life with integrity," she said. "The family members who are left behind to be the voice of the victims are being ignored because of all these new laws that are being shot down and not passed." Indeed, advocates who want to see gun control measures become a central focus of the presidential campaign have so far been largely disappointed. Democratic rivals Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefly sparred over the issue in their last debate, when Clinton criticized Sanders for not supporting the Brady Bill, legislation that imposes background checks and a waiting period on those who want to buy guns.

The good guy with a gun is a myth, and we need to trust our law enforcement to keep us safe.

Louisa Basarrate, Moms Demand Action
On the Republican side, presumptive nominee Donald Trump has said he would eliminate gun-free zones on campuses and is against banning assault weapons. It's an idea that Louisa Basarrate, a stay-at-home mom involved with Moms Demand Action, finds troubling. "Generally in our country, we have a mindset that we will be safer if we have more guns, but that's clearly not the case. We have more guns then ever now and gun manufacturers are making money hand over fist at the expense of people's lives, and we are not safer," Basarrate said. "The good guy with a gun is a myth and we need to trust our law enforcement to keep us safe." While advocates struggle to make progress where they can, the death toll from guns continues to rise. So far this year, there have been more than 5,500 gun-related deaths, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Yet Senchyna said she refuses to give up. "Advocacy about guns is what I find my most relief from my grief in," she said. "It's not that it's ever going to change what happened to me. It's not that it's going to get rid of all the guns in this country, because there are millions and millions of them. It's not going to stop all homicides or suicides. But I think if one mother doesn't have to go through what I went through, it would be worth it. 20 years of speaking out — I think I have 20 more years of life and that's what I will do."

More from US News

R29 Original Series