I was confused when I opened up my laptop yesterday and saw the city where I grew up trending on Twitter. But the news was everywhere: There was a shooting at a gaming tournament taking place at the Jacksonville Landing, a prominent orange-roofed fixture of the downtown Jacksonville, Florida skyline.
The narrative that’s followed is what we’ve all come to see as morbidly “familiar” nowadays. The alleged shooter reportedly incurred some sort of loss during the tournament, but the media is focusing on the fact that he’s a “loner” or the bogus question of if violent video games are to blame — rather than the fact that we don’t teach men how to handle rejection or shame or loss in any capacity. (Republican) official after (Republican) official has had many prayers to offer, but not any solutions. And with the Florida primary beginning in less than 24 hours, I’m at my wit’s end.
I grew up in Jacksonville, a conservative-leaning and religious (i.e. mainly Christian) place that semi-jokingly received the title of Most Average City in America in 2013. And while the city does have a number of growing Democratic and progressive pockets, it’s probably unsurprising to anyone from the area that growing up as a liberal Jew who wore Obama/Biden buttons to school in 2008 and got called a “Muslim terrorist sympathizer” for it, I never really fit in — and counted down the days to leave as an adolescent.
Soon after the shooting, the city’s Republican mayor Lenny Curry made a statement where he used cookie-cutter remarks about the senseless tragedy being one too many in the city — but with no action steps. Around the same time, city councilman Reggie Gaffney told reporters, “We have to pray hard...My solution is we really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.” Because if we’ve learned anything from the mass shootings, it’s that more religion will somehow do the trick. Worse still, another shooting that took place in the city over the weekend at a high school football game is now but a minor blip on the radar, waved off with non-specific calls for more help curbing gang violence.
I have hope that Jacksonville can do better and be better — as can many other towns and cities in America.
Where does that start? The ballot box.
On Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours after the shooting at the Landing, polling places will open up across the city for the Florida primary. I hope the people of Jacksonville — and throughout the state — don’t just treat it as politics as usual. It’s time to start weeding out prospective officials who aren’t actually committed to ending gun violence through actions that curb gun ownership and gun use. And come November, the goal is the same: Vote in people who’ll make a meaningful difference when it comes to changing gun culture in America. Kick everybody else out.
That means keeping Democratic senator Bill Nelson in office while simultaneously making sure current Republican Florida governor Rick Scott — and his long history of doing nothing about gun violence — doesn’t get in. It means securing a win for someone like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who has taken action against gun lobbies in the past, at one point winning a case against two pro-guns groups that unsuccessfully tried to argue that long-time Tallahassee ordinances banning guns in public parks violated state law. And it means taking a second look at local folks like Jacksonville Mayor Curry and Councilman Gaffney, both of whom are up for re-election in the first half of 2019 and haven’t offered up any solutions for taking on the root cause of gun violence — cough, guns — and not just taking minimal action after a tragedy has taken place.
This doesn’t just go for Jacksonville or even the state of Florida; it goes for the hundreds of thousands of cities in America like Jacksonville that think shallow prayers and a fierce desire not to rock the boat politically — whatever that means — are enough.
Make no mistake about it: Gun violence will come to your town or city if it hasn’t already. It will arrive in many forms and take many people you know and love. Everyday moments like going to school or a movie theater or a shopping center are an actual gamble on your life. Subconsciously plotting out escape routes in your head will become more and more routine. And since it’s obvious that untold numbers of current public servants have no interest in stopping it, we have no choice this late summer and early fall but to vote like our lives depend on it. Because they do.
We can’t just focus on the big, splashy races at the federal level. The down-ballot races are critical to our literal survival. Electing people on the local and state levels who want to address the actual underlying causes of gun violence and solutions that solve them is key to staying alive. That also means coming to terms with the fact that there’ll be ruffled feathers and anger and a tug-o’-war for power. We have to be okay with that.
I’m not naive to believe we’ll see change overnight even if we’re able to get these horrific people out of office. But I sure as hell know that I spent yesterday staring at a city that hasn’t shifted one bit since I stepped off a plane for the first time 15 years ago. When it comes to its response to this tragedy, Jacksonville continues to be average — in its lack of credible gun violence solutions, in its bumbling administration, and in a plethora of other ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and like many towns and cities across the country, it has the opportunity to do so much more.
That push to do better starts when the polls open on Tuesday morning.