Richmond’s post-graduation mass shooting reflects America’s gun violence epidemic

It is not enough to be angry or sad; these tragedies demand sensible gun control measures and action, not conjecture, by political leaders

June 7, 2023 5:21 pm

In response to a June 6 mass shooting outside a Richmond high school graduation that left two dead and several injured, a group of demonstrators held an anti-gun violence rally at the steps of the state capitol, Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Samantha Willis/The Virginia Mercury)

This morning, a Richmond mother woke up to the yawning absence of her teenage son and husband, men whose lives were snuffed out by bullets in a mass shooting right after Huguenot High School’s graduation ceremony in downtown Richmond Tuesday afternoon.

That son and brand-new graduate, Shawn Jackson, was just 18 years old when his life was snatched away from him. Shawn’s father, 36-year-old Renzo Smith, was also killed in the shootout. Five other people were shot and several others were injured in the mayhem. A 19-year-old suspected gunman was arraigned this morning on two counts of second-degree murder.

As I watched the police briefings on this tragedy last night and again this morning, a bitter anger burned in the pit of my belly. Here we are, not halfway through the year, and in the U.S. we have experienced our 279th mass shooting so far in 2023. 

Why is this acceptable to us? How many more youth have to die before we wake up and make some serious changes in our cities, states and nation? Why do we, the American people, keep accepting politicians who dispense thoughts and prayers like Pez candy after each bout of mass death born of bullets, but then go right back to their offices and their legislative agendas and do nothing to curb the violence? 

I was especially incensed to see Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears opening her uninformed mouth to speak at one of the briefings yesterday evening. She talked passionately of needing “true leadership” and “accountability” to prevent these shootings, not-so-subtly pointing fingers at Richmond’s elected leaders in the wake of the tragedy. 

“Who is in charge? Is that the mayor? Is that the chief? Who is that? I mean, let’s start naming names, because otherwise, if no one is accountable and if all we do is come in front of a camera or several cameras and keep talking about, ‘Well this shouldn’t happen and that shouldn’t happen,’ well, you’re the one in charge. You’re the one responsible,” Earle-Sears said. And then she had the temerity to say that yesterday’s shooting was “not about law-abiding gun owners. This is about gangs. This is about even if you took all the guns off the street from the law-abiding citizens, the others who mean harm, who mean to kill and maim, they’re going to have the guns.”

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Winsome Sears posed with a rifle in ads during the GOP nominating contest. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

This is the same woman who posed with a semi-automatic rifle on one of her campaign flyers. The type of weapon she so proudly brandished is a literal death machine, designed to “kill people quickly and in large numbers,” as noted by NPR. The same report found that assault rifles have been used in at least eight mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years, including, most recently, the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers. 

This is the same woman who consistently supports the National Rifle Association, whose powerful lobbying efforts have practically paralyzed meaningful gun control efforts in American politics for generations. Shortly after the Uvalde carnage, Sears spoke at a women’s luncheon at NRA’s national conference in Houston and blamed our gun violence epidemic on everything from “emasculated” men to the absence of prayer in schools — everything, that is, except guns, and the ease of access with which Americans can get their hands on them for hunting or homicide, whichever strikes their fancy. 

Here in Virginia, the NRA has donated $1,276,970 over the past 25 years to mostly Republican candidates and groups. But more so than the money, former Mercury reporter Mechelle Hankerson wrote in 2019, “analysts and people who work in Virginia politics say the power of the NRA comes from the sheer number of voters who align themselves with the organization and show up at the polls and in front of lawmakers, especially in solid red districts where politicians’ biggest fear is a primary challenge from the right.” Nationally, as Mercury columnist Roger Chesley so aptly pointed out, NRA “members and other pro-gun advocates hold vast influence with the GOP in Congress, thus ensuring gun-control bills rarely become law.” 

It is especially sickening to me to see another Black woman trot out right-wing tropes like “gangs” as one of the root causes of yesterday’s senseless shootings. At the time Sears made her statement, she could not have known with any certainty whether gang violence was involved or not, as it was an actively evolving investigation. Richmond police said Wednesday morning that there is no evidence that the shooting death of Shawn Jackson was precipitated by gang violence; rather, police said, an ongoing social media beef likely played a part. Saying “gangs” caused this deadly shooting of a young Black man by another young Black man, without proof, is one small step from blaming “thugs” for “Black on Black crime,” all stereotypes that racists, right wingers and Sears’ former pal former President Donald Trump espouse regularly. How can any Black person with even a shred of self-respect play into these blatantly racist falsehoods? Even if it turns out Jackson’s death was connected to gang violence, that is something a proper investigation will reveal and not something that an elected official should be spouting without proof so soon after the young man’s untimely death.

When he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, Shawn Jackson reached a milestone that I hope to see my three young sons accomplish one day. My boys are still here, but Shawn is gone, his whole life ahead of him; it’s not fair and it’s not right. 

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said he was shaken to see Jackson receive CPR while still in his graduation gown; without even seeing it myself, that image anguishes me. But in the midst of the heartache that we feel in the face of this and other tragedies, we cannot lose sight of the real root issue that paves the way for mass shootings to continue: the lack of meaningful gun control measures and the refusal of the highest lawmakers in the land to acknowledge and remedy that problem. Until that happens, we might as well keep our well-meaning but utterly useless thoughts and prayers handy for the next, inevitable gun violence tragedy.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.