Devastated. That’s the word UNC Charlotte anthropology instructor Adam Patrick Johnson used early Wednesday morning in a tweet describing how he felt after a shooting had taken place in his classroom at Kennedy Hall just hours earlier. Two people, 19-year-old Ellis Parlier and 21-year-old Riley Howell, were killed, and four others were injured. A lone suspect is now in custody.
Devastated. That’s how a lot of us — both near and far — feel today.
UNC Charlotte was my second home for three years (from 2009-2012) as I worked on my graduate degree. When I think back to that short period in my life, I remember it fondly.
I can see myself walking quickly to Fretwell, checking my watch to see if I have enough time to stop by the cafe on the bottom floor for coffee before class. I reminisce about the late nights in the library, submerging myself in books on the sixth floor — it was so quiet there.
I never felt unsafe at UNCC. I know not everyone has that experience, but college campuses are supposed to feel insulated from the rest of the world. No matter how involved a student may be out in the community, all of that gets pushed aside this time of year for project presentations and final exams.
That glass bubble is shattered now. As I searched for the latest updates on Twitter and various news websites late into the night Tuesday, I found myself crying and heartbroken. A friend posted online that her stepdaughter, a UNCC freshman, wasn’t on campus at the time. Another former classmate who now works there marked herself “safe” on Facebook.
I know gun violence pervades our society — I follow the news enough to know Tuesday’s event is not unique. The UNCC shooting isn’t even all that newsworthy, if you look at the limited national coverage dedicated to the incident.
You just never think it’ll be your school, your workplace, your friends.
Long after they’ve graduated and moved on, those directly impacted by the UNCC shooting will never forget April 30. When students think back to their time at this institution later in life, the first thing they’ll recall won’t be getting lost in the library, the parties or even the lasting friendships they made there.
Instead, they’ll look at UNCC as the place they faced unspeakable terror at the hands of a 22-year-old with a handgun.
They’ve now crossed the threshold into a new community no one ever wants to be a member of: a community of people who’ve been touched by gun violence. Their lives will be changed forever.
It’s something other survivors have talked about grimly. Last year, I spoke with Carly Novell, a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, for a story. In February 2018, Novell spent two hours hiding in a closet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as a gunman armed with an AR-15 shot and killed 17 people.
“I have a first-hand experience of how gun violence can change someone’s whole entire life. We cannot live normally right now,” Novell told me then. “As much as speaking about gun reform from a logical standpoint makes sense, you don’t see the emotion of someone that has been impacted by gun violence. You don’t see how much it hurts, how scared we are to go anywhere. I know a lot of my friends, we look for places to hide in every room we walk into.”
This community of survivors grows every day. According to statistics compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, 100 Americans are killed by guns every day, and hundreds more are shot and injured. More than half of adults in the United States have experienced or know someone who’s experienced gun-related violence in their lifetime.
Before the first shots rang out in Kennedy Hall, most UNCC students and staff were consumed with the end of spring semester and all that comes with it. Today, they have to think about how to move past the cloud of terror and grief that’s settled over their campus and their lives.
As someone who used to walk that campus daily, I feel that cloud of terror and grief, too. Many of us who once called themselves a 49er do. We stand with Niner Nation.