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‘You Hear Gunfire All The Time’: Moms Demand Action Seeks Change In Missouri

 A traveling exhibit created by Moms Demand Action's Missouri chapter uses T-shirts to embody the Missouri kids  lost to gun homicides in 2020.
Philip Deitch
A traveling exhibit created by Moms Demand Action's Missouri chapter uses T-shirts to embody the Missouri kids lost to gun homicides in 2020.

For Leslie Washington and Tonya McCaw, the fight for increased gun restrictions is personal.

Washington, a survivor of domestic violence, was threatened by her ex-husband with a firearm — one reason she fled St. Louis for Cape Girardeau, where she lives today. She also lost one relative to suicide and another to murder. In both cases, the weapon was a gun.

As for McCaw, her husband was speaking to his sister outside their mother’s home last year in north St. Louis when they were confronted with a hail of bullets. “All of a sudden, gunfire,” McCaw recalled on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “They don’t know where it came from, which direction, didn’t know what vehicle. All they heard was gunfire.”

The bullets grazed McCaw’s husband in seven different places. Her sister-in-law was killed. The family still doesn’t know the motive.

Washington and McCaw now serve in leadership roles for the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action, fighting for gun reforms in Missouri. It’s an uphill battle in a state where Second Amendment rights are sacrosanct; Governor Mike Parson recently signed into law a bill seeking to invalidate federal gun laws and penalizing law enforcement if they cooperate with federal authorities to enforce federal law here.

McCaw said she sees Missouri’s obsession with the right to bear arms playing out in her St. Louis neighborhood. “You hear gunfire all the time,” she said. “A lot of times, they’re shooting in the air, but the majority of the time, they’re shooting at each other.”

An Uphill Battle
Listen as Leslie Washington and Tonya McCaw discuss their efforts on St. Louis on the Air

As for Washington, she was among the Moms Demand Action members seeking to close the Missouri loophole that allows people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning a firearm. “Guns in the hands of a domestic abuser can turn domestic violence into murder,” she said. But Republican senators ultimately stripped that amendment out of the Second Amendment Preservation Act before sending it to Parson last month.

Washington said she and other advocates felt hamstrung by their inability to speak to lawmakers face to face during the pandemic. “We have been able to submit testimony for certain things, but just not being able to be there in person has been very difficult,” she said. “Like I tell people, ‘If I share my story, I want them to see my face and match the two together.’”

She plans to do just that as soon as the legislature reconvenes for a regular session. “They’re stuck with me,” she said.

 Tonya McCaw, left, and Leslie Washington are survivor leads for Moms Demand Action's Missouri chapter.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Tonya McCaw, left, and Leslie Washington are survivor leads for Moms Demand Action's Missouri chapter.

A traveling outdoor exhibit created by Moms Demand Action in Missouri calls attention to child firearm homicides in the state. The exhibit is in the St. Louis area through July 31, with new locations each week.

Each of the 46 slain children is represented by a T-shirt. The group decided against including self-inflicted fatalities and fatal accidents since that would result in too many T-shirts to assemble in new locations.

“There would be so many more than just the 46,” Washington said. Even so, she continued, “it’s still very staggering, and still very depressing, because there’s so many children that can have access to a gun and harm themselves and unintentionally harm someone else — another family member or another child. We see this all too often, and it’s sad. We have to do better.”

The exhibit will be on site at Congregation Shaare Emeth (11645 Ladue Road, Creve Coeur) through June 27. That day, it moves to Samuel United Church of Christ (320 N. Forsyth Blvd., Clayton), where it will be through July 5.

Help is available. TheNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support to people in distress. The number is 1-800-273-8255.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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