For one mourning mother, February 14 will never be a simple, sweet holiday again. As Mary Kay Mace knows, the rising toll of American gun violence means the calendar is crowded by tragedies sharing the same dates. In fact, she has compiled a list.
When Valentine’s Day arrives, many people will think immediately about the high school students massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on that day five years ago. But Mary Kay Mace has been grieving the loss of her daughter, Ryanne, ever since February 14, 2008, when the college sophomore and four other students were fatally shot, and 21 others wounded, at Northern Illinois University (NIU).
Mace was with her husband and parents at a 10-year commemoration ceremony honoring her daughter and the other victims when she heard about Parkland. Her initial disbelief turned to horror, mixed with something else: She says she knew “in the public’s consciousness, higher body counts and younger victims are a lot more important…[but] I didn’t want NIU to fall away.”
Reminding people of that tragedy is one of her missions. And for the last 15 years, Mace has also been using her pain to advocate for meaningful changes in gun laws and more support for the growing fraternity of gun violence survivors.
Mace says it’s “only in America” that individual dates are becoming filled with multiple mass-casualty events. There are more than a dozen days marking multiple shootings. For her, no gun violence victims, no survivors and no tragedies should be forgotten or superseded in the public’s mind.
“What I want the survivor community to know is that they’re not alone,” she says.
Mace and her husband grew up in Peoria, Illinois, the heartland. But she was aware of violence well before her daughter was killed. The 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting at a college across the country filled her with foreboding. The deaths of other college students hit home especially hard.
Since her own loss, Mary Kay, who thinks of herself as shy, has been reaching out and speaking up. In the aftermath of Ryanne’s killing, the Maces returned to central Illinois, near family. Additionally, the Maces endowed a scholarship for graduate students in psychology, the discipline Ryanne planned to pursue.
Ryanne, she says, was the light of her life, someone who wrote poetry, spoke French, was a good listener and an “old soul” who she wishes more people could have known.. “Even though she’s not here anymore, she can contribute to the making of other good counselors that’ll make some difference in somebody else’s life — maybe steer them from a path of doing the same thing the gunman at NIU did.”
Although she and her husband are gun owners, Mace forcefully rejects the attempts by the NRA and other opponents of common-sense gun laws to shift the blame for violence to mental health problems and away from gun safety measures, she sees no reason one response should exclude the other. She knows firsthand the life-saving power of red flag laws, which prevent people considered a risk to themselves or others from possessing weapons.
Ryanne’s killer had been committed, as a minor, to a mental health facility by his worried parents. But his psychiatric commitment, and a general discharge from the U.S. Army because of his problems, did not prevent him from legally buying a gun. And when he reached 18, he was able to make his own choices, and those choices included not taking his medications because he didn’t like the way they made him feel. His sister, upon hearing of the NIU killings, said she was surprised he hadn’t killed her, too.
Mace testified about that and more before Illinois lawmakers when she lobbied for successful passage of the state's strong red flag law, the Firearm Restraining Order Act. She is thankful that the bill was enacted, and happy to have played some part.
Mace believes the general public needs more awareness and more resolve as guns have become the number one cause of death for children and teens in America. “Not accidents, not illness — gunfire,” she says. “Every other developed nation in the world has a handle on this. They’ve figured it out.” Even though other countries are not immune from mental illness, they are not awash in guns, Mace added.
Although she supports a ban on assault weapons, Mace knows that ordinary handguns account for most gun violence deaths. Therefore, she wants to see common-sense gun safety measures approved, including the reasonable regulation of concealed-carry licenses.
And what do survivors need? Mace believes they need both immediate support, such as that provided in the Survivors Empowered/Giffords toolkit, and long-term help from peers who can understand more profoundly than those who haven’t suffered the same scar. The nine hours she waited before being able to identify Ryanne’s body were the longest of her life. (She can barely contemplate the wait for DNA evidence Uvalde parents endured.) She wants people to know that others have survived the worst, and they can too. “What I want the survivor community to know is that they’re not alone,” she says.
Mace wants new survivors provided with information about some of the challenges they might expect. The morning after her daughter died as she was chipping ice from her front steps, Inside Edition called at 6:45 a.m., and she learned members of Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest at the funeral. Mace is forever grateful for the bank of snowplows that mysteriously appeared that day, preventing Westboro members from getting anywhere near the service.
And support shouldn’t end after a year, two years, or ten. The need doesn’t end. Mace ruefully reflects on how people may pull back, thinking that the mourning by survivors dissipates. But from her experience, and her sense of the future, she believes the hole in her heart is forever. ”Grief lasts a lot longer than support does.” That’s something she knows other survivors understand more than anyone else.
For now, the young people who survived the Parkland shooting share a connection with her that will never go away, and they are carrying on with advocacy that she admires. “They have strength and courage and energy,” she says.
She isn’t done yet, but she knows there are others who, with a tweet, can make a difference. And Mace will not rest until she sees meaningful change. In addition to all other measures, she wants to see an end to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which insulates gun manufacturers and sellers from general lawsuits while exposing the public to harm. She wants to see far less greed and far more respect for human life.
[As the calendar rolls on, at Northern Illinois University, there will be a continuing scholarship, honoring a brilliant young woman her mother wishes more people would have had the chance to know.]