Heaven was going to Disney World.
Summer was in full bloom, and the family’s Disney World trip planned for early July was growing nearer. The eager and joyful 7-year-old had her hair styled for the upcoming trip.
That same afternoon, Heaven and her brothers went outside to the front of their home, where many neighborhood children often gathered. Ashake Banks, Heaven’s mother, ran a “candy store” for the neighborhood in front of the building where they lived to keep them out of trouble.
Heaven, full of energy and dressed in a fashionable ensemble in her favorite color pink, was selling lemonade and candy. A colorful array of candies, cookies and summery sweets covered the table behind her.
Heaven never made it Disney World.
A young man walked towards the building, an alleged local gang member, and fired shots into the small crowd. Heaven began to run away, but was caught in the stream of bullets. Her mother watched helplessly as her daughter was gunned down.
Heaven Sutton was one of the 435 people killed by guns in Chicago in 2012.
Four years later, news stories of gun-related incidents continue to plague the nation’s news pages every morning. Two hundred ninety-seven Americans are shot daily in murders, assaults, suicides and suicides attempts, unintentional shootings and police interventions.
“Our gun deaths and the number of guns we have here far outweigh any situation in Europe … there are more guns per capita, more deaths from guns,” said Dolores Phillips, legislative director of Ceasefire-NJ, a statewide anti-violence campaign.
Over 108,000 people in America are shot each year, and 32,514 die from gun violence.
The large numbers of victims may be difficult to conceptualize, but the work of a recently launched campaign, Ghost Vote, aims to make sure that the stories of those lost, like Heaven, are not forgotten.
Ghost Vote, a collaboration between States United to Prevent Gun Violence Action and the Newtown Action Alliance, seeks to put common-sense gun laws at the top of the political agenda leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
The campaign includes GhostVote.com, where supporters are encouraged to declare that they are “Ghost Voters” in honor of those killed by gun violence. The website gives a symbolic “ghost vote” to a deceased victim of gun violence and includes informative videos about gun violence. The website also provides information and assistance for sending a message to legislators about gun laws in the name of a deceased person.
The campaign hopes to engage citizens with the real cost of gun violence.
“We are looking for a reaction that says, ‘wait a minute, this person isn’t here today because of gun violence. I wonder what they would have to say about the state of gun violence in our society if they were in a position to do so now,’” said Julia Wyman, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence. “We want viewers to say, ‘I get it – this is important – I need to get involved.’”
The Ghost Vote campaign launched in March in Washington D.C. with a symbolic demonstration: organizers drew body outlines in chalk featuring a #GhostVote ballot placed around the District.
In conjunction with aims to impact the presidential election, the campaign’s strategy is to generate awareness, and make the loss of life visible and real.
And that it is. The website features victims from all walks of life, including Heaven Sutton.
The webpage is filled with these kind of stories. A boy walking home from school, a girl waiting for her brother in a car. An unintentional shooting, a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a gang murder; the list of violent gun deaths is exhaustive.
The estimated 10 million close family and friends left behind after incidents of gun violence allude to the prevalence of this issue among many Americans.
Ghost Vote hopes to give those who lost their lives a voice by encouraging political action among the living. The campaign provides ways to make small, impactful actions without being swept up in the larger, hyper-politicized gun violence debate.
“We are seeking to educate and provoke the ‘undecideds’ to consider the data on both sides of the debate and then to ultimately take a stand,” Wyman said.
As the presidential election grows closer, media outlets and organizations are working to inform the “undecideds” in the public about gun violence prevention. Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy and health and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the researchers involved with SP2 Penn Top 10, a multimedia project addressing the most pressing social justice and policy issues leading up to the November election.
Sorenson’s expertise lead to collaboration with David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, on a piece about the gun violence debate in America
“People need to decide the degree to which they want to bring their knowledge, beliefs and values about gun violence into the voting booth, because that’s where individual voters can make a difference,” Sorensen said.
Despite the message to inform, not all are pleased with the Ghost Vote initiative. A recent article featured on the website Ammoland.com called the campaign “ghoulish propaganda.”
Regardless of any negative reactions the campaign remains steady in its mission to generate a greater conversation about gun violence within the 2016 presidential election and beyond.
“There are two schools of thought that many of the candidates squarely fit into,” Wyman said. “One – no regulation of guns, disbelief that guns are a problem in American society, despite staggering numbers that demonstrate otherwise; and two – recognition that we need basic common sense gun laws to try to keep guns out of hands of prohibited and dangerously motivated persons.”
“We want all candidates to recognize the latter.”
Currently, the gun violence conversation is often sensational and tense.
Sorenson notes the drastic difference in how differently gun violence has been discussed among candidates from both parties over the course of the rapidly closing presidential primary season.
“It’s not just that the GOP candidates [were] not talking about guns,” Sorenson said.
“In the debates the people who are posing the questions don’t even raise the questions. It’s as if gun violence is not relevant in the GOP race, which is a very puzzling position.”
The call for greater mobilization surrounding gun violence prevention stems from a looming disconnect between gun violence and its 33,000 yearly fatalities.
With more mass shootings than days of the year in America, people often act unsurprised as the news of another shooting flashes across a television screen; it almost seems commonplace.
President Obama’s remarks after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October reflected the growing weary sentiment.
“The reporting is routine,” he said. “My response here at this podium ends up being routine; the conversation and the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”
Psychologists have long noted that a repeated experience of anything can diminish reaction to it. This phenomenon is known as habituation.
The Ghost Vote campaign aims to changes that.
Devon Ziminski, Master in Social Policy candidate, attended The College of New Jersey. Her policy areas of interest include education, gun violence, and consumer behavior/business practices. Devon has been published in the Journal of Service Learning and Community-Based Research and most recently presented her research on distracted driving at the 2015 Marketing and Public Policy Conference.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.