Waking up early to reserve a good spot along the Fourth of July parade route in downtown Highland Park is a holiday tradition for many families of the lakefront Chicago suburb.
But just 14 minutes after this year’s parade began, those families went from waving American flags at floats to running for their lives, after a gunman climbed to the rooftop of a local business and fired more than 80 rounds from an assault-style rifle that, authorities say, was legally purchased in Illinois.
In Highland Park that day, seven people were killed and more than 40 were injured. Across the country, it’s just the latest community to see a mass shooting with a legally purchased assault weapon.
According to reporting from The Associated Press, since 2012 – in cities spanning from Aurora, Colorado; to Newtown Connecticut; to Las Vegas, Nevada; to Orlando, Florida – 374 people have been killed in 22 different mass shootings.
In at least 15 of those incidents, gunmen either legally purchased, or had easy access to legally purchased assault rifles.
And, on May 24, just two months before the shooting in Highland Park, and just two weeks after a gunman opened fire in a Buffalo, New York grocery store, killing 10, a man – who had recently turned 18-years-old and legally purchased two assault rifles – walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 21 people.
Nineteen of them were third and fourth graders, in Rooms 111 and 112.
As shootings continue and guns are bought via loopholes or a lack of laws entirely, some who have watched from the sidelines are starting to jump into conversations around gun control and advocating for a federal assault weapons ban. And while achieving such a ban still feels like an uphill battle, they're hopeful it could pass.
“Unless there is a federal ban, this is going to continue being another story that visits another city,” Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said.
“Until we get to this large assault weapons ban, everyone is still at risk,” said Rotering. “For heaven's sake, get these weapons off the streets. If someone can shoot 83 rounds in less than a minute, how is anyone supposed to respond?”
In 1994, the country did see a large assault weapons ban: The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. It was signed into
But 10 years later, in 2004, that ban expired.
However, since the Fourth of July, and after visiting the White House and local governments across the state, Rotering, who led Highland Park in passing a municipal assault weapons ban in 2013, says there's a renewed push for a ban at the federal level.
“I think Americans are tired of living in fear,” Rotering said. “I don’t know if it's the poignancy of this occurring on the Fourth of July, and our desire to live freely. If we can have a more frequent federal conversation around guns, we all benefit. Case in point: The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” a gun bill that was signed into law in June that addresses various forms of gun violence through stronger background checks, more funding for state red flag laws, better support for school safety efforts and more.
Other people across the country, many of whom have never worked in politics, or advocated for gun control before, are getting involved now too, with their eyes also set on Washington D.C.
“This pushed me over the edge,” said Kitty Brandtner, a 35-year-old mother of three who works in sales and has never taken part in gun violence efforts before. “I want to go to the Capitol and scream until they listen.”
Brandtner was at a parade about five miles from Highland Park in nearby Winnetka on the Fourth of July when she got a call about a shooter just a few miles away. After that, she began posting basic questions about gun control on her Instagram.
“Shame on me for not getting involved before,” said Brandtner, who has now dedicated herself to advocating for a federal ban on assault weapons. "I had donated to Sandy Hook Promise, but I thought that was all you could do. And not to say that’s not a worthy thing. But as I posted questions, the overwhelming response I got was that I’m not alone here. I’m not alone in feeling this way.”
Why Local Loopholes Could Lead to Federal Legislation
According to the Giffords Law Center’s Annual Gun Score Card, Illinois has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. And, despite multiple, failed legal challenges from the National Rifle Association, Highland Park’s 2013 assault weapons ban was deemed constitutional by an Illinois court.
However, neither of those – nor a Clear and Present Danger Report submitted in 2019 by local police – were enough to prevent the shooting suspect from legally obtaining a Firearm Owners Identification Card with the help of his father, and then subsequently purchasing multiple firearms, including the high-powered rifle used on the Fourth of July.
“Highland Park has an assault weapons ban,” Brandtner said. “What did that do?”
Shortly after the mass shooting in Highland Park, Brandtner woke up to hundreds of messages from people across the country responding to and in support of her posts. From there, she informally started a grassroots organization called March Fourth, with the intention of holding a march in Washington calling for gun action.
But the effort quickly turned into $250,000 raised for hundreds of members, along with mass shooting survivors and families of victims from Uvalde and Highland Park to fly to D.C. and meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
There, they held meetings with elected officials and Senators, including Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and asked them to support House Bill 1808, a federal assault weapons ban sponsored in 2021 by Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
“It collected dust for months,” Brandtner said, of the bill. “It’s a divisive topic. But we now have families, unfortunately, from mass shootings, united. We had too many survivors to fit in these rooms. And these are not complicated political issues. As we went into these rooms, we were told by very well respected politicians and career politicians — saying there is very little chance it will make it to the floor of the House. Why? Why is this hard?”
Maureen Westphal, 39, a former congressional staffer and current political strategist and lobbyist for efforts outside of gun control who lives in and works in Washington D.C., has also joined the movement.
And though she's working on the effort simply as a citizen, Westphal says the climate around a federal assault weapons ban feels different, thanks to new voices in the conversation.
“What has changed this time?,” Westphal said. “The amount of people who weren’t previously committed. The general will of the population. The number of people who have never been involved before. Seeing that we actually can have an impact. These local laws are important, but they aren't working well enough,”
Westphal is now donating her time helping to educate those new supporters of the movement about topics like civics, the advocacy needed for a bill to pass through the legislative process, and how constituents across the country can best connect with their Senators.
“We understand that this is a complicated issue for those facing re-election,” Westphal said. “We are trying to give them the support they need to show that their communities are behind them.
I think it is motivating them to finally take the steps to protect our communities. I think we are all at the point where we want our kids to be safe in school and they are not. We believe we at least have to try.”
“The Time For Letting States Decide These Things is Over”
Kimberly Rubio, 33, a local journalist in Uvalde, was one of those in the room with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in July. One of Rubio’s five children, 10-year-old Lexi, was a fourth grader in Room 111 at Robb Elementary School when she was shot and killed on May 24.
None of Lexi’s other classmates survived.
“I feel lost,” said Rubio. “I feel not at all the person I was before.”
Rubio says her and her husband, who is in law enforcement, have always had conversations about why and how people get access to these weapons. “I regret that I didn’t do more other than having conversations and sharing posts,” she said. “The time for letting states decide these things is over. We’ve given everyone the chance. I want the ban on the federal level.”
One month before joining with members from the Highland Park community on The Hill, Rubio testified before Congress at a House Oversight Committee hearing on gun violence, and shared the devastating story of losing her daughter.
After attending meetings with other mass shooting survivors in July, Rubio feels more hopeful, as power in numbers is continuing to help the effort grow.
“I feel like everyone can kind of feel this time is different,” Rubio said. “There is strength in numbers. It doesn’t feel political. We’re seeing people demand this ban on both sides.”
“People are realizing we have people’s lives at stake,” Rubio continued. “It’s not just people in my community. They see our posts. They post that they are making calls. Same thing with Highland Park. It’s far reaching. We’re not going to let this conversation stop. Constituents want this change. That will be the one that will save the most lives. There are lives in other states. When I picture other moms in other states, this is for them.”
What Happens Next?
On July 20, 2022 — the 10th anniversary of the Aurora Theater Shooting, and amid a sentencing trial for a man who in 2018 killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida — House Bill 1808 was heard on the House floor.
Nine days later, it passed. It now heads to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
“We were told it couldn’t and it wouldn’t. Now, we’re activating people across the country to ensure that Senators hear what their constituents want,” Brandtner said, of the daily phone calls the March Fourth Instagram account is encouraging its nearly 20,000 followers to make. “We are flooding phone lines. If they don't do what their constituents want, we don't get to let them off the hook. This is what democracy is supposed to be.”
“We’re asking people who have lived through unspeakable trauma to rip the band aid-off again, and again, and again, and again, and they are willing to do it,” Brandtner continued.
For Rubio, the devastation and trauma set in early. But fighting for an assault weapons ban gives her some sense of direction.
“I think when you start the day, you hope to be as busy as possible,” Rubio said. “You never want to be alone with your thoughts. I have nothing but time, so this is what I want to devote my time to.”