When Julvonnia McDowell sent her 14-year-old son JaJuan off to spend his spring break with family, the thought never crossed her mind to ask if there were any unsecured guns in the home where he would be staying.
“I made sure he had his toothbrush, and everything else he needed,” Julvonnia tells Scary Mommy. “I asked if grown-ups were going to be there, but I didn’t think to ask that.”
Julvonnia took care to stay in good touch with her son while he was away, and checked multiple times to ensure that he would be supervised by grown-ups during his stay. That’s why the phone call she received on April 7, 2016 left her in complete shock.
It was the phone call no mother should ever have to take—the call that her son had been shot and she needed to come right away to the hospital to see him. “I was in total disbelief,” she recalls.
Julvonnia and her husband rushed to the hospital, which was four hours away, where they were given the devastating news that JaJuan didn’t make it. During those moments, Julvonnia remembers “screaming, hollering,” her mama-heart shattering into a million unfathomable pieces.
As she grieved and began to put the facts of that awful day together, Julvonnia realized just how preventable JaJuan’s death had been. Detectives told her that there was no outside suspect. JaJuan had been in the house with no adults present (they’d left just 10 minutes prior), when another boy around his age decided to show him an unsecured firearm.
“JaJuan asked if was loaded, and told him to put away,” Julvonnia shared with Scary Mommy. “The boy tried to show him it wasn’t loaded, but it was. He pulled the trigger, shooting him the chest.”
The months ahead were devastating, painful and traumatic. Grief counseling really helped, says Julvonnia, and connecting with other parents who had gone through similar tragedies was healing as well. But Julvonnia couldn’t help but look at the news, and notice—again and again—stories similar to JaJuan’s popping up almost daily.
Like many of us parents, Julvonnia had always felt heartbroken about the unconscionable number of gun deaths in America, but it wasn’t until it happened to her that she felt she had no other choice but to take action.
“As a non-gun owner, we never anticipated something like this happening to us,” she says. “‘I can’t keep quiet,’ I thought. ‘I have to join some campaign or something.’”
Soon after, Julvonnia became an active member of Moms Demand Action, and is currently a fellow with Everytown Survivor Network. She is particularly focused on spreading the word about the BE SMART program, which offers parents actionable tips for how to keep their kids safe from gun violence.
BE SMART is an acronym that can help us all remember the key points for gun safety.
S = Secure guns in homes and vehicles.
M = Model responsible behavior.
A = Ask about unsecured guns in other homes.
R = Recognize the risks of teen suicide.
T = Tell your peers to be SMART.
Julvonnia knows firsthand how important it is to ask everyone that your child visits if they have unsecured guns in their home. But don’t just ask about their home, says Julvonnia. You need to ask about any unfamiliar place your child might be, including a car, which is somewhere I would never have thought to ask about. Until now.
And never, ever assume that you know someone well and therefore can be confident that they won’t have guns in their home, Julvonnia emphasizes. After all, Julvonnia herself never thought her own family members would keep unsecured guns in their home.
“It could happen to anyone at any time. It’s not a particular group of people,” she says.
In addition to making sure to secure all your firearms if you are a gun owner (and asking everyone around you to do the same), Julvonnia says we all need to model responsible behavior around children.
For example, says Julvonnia, it’s not appropriate to clean guns around children; this has resulted in preventable tragedies as well, where gun owners mistakenly thought their guns were not loaded, but were. It’s also important to recognize the risk of teen suicide, and know that teens are more likely to take their life if unsecured guns are kept in the home.
She also stresses that gun safety is the responsibility of the parent, not the kid.
“Kids are impulsive by nature,” she says, adding that hiding loaded guns and hoping for the best just won’t cut it. “When we were younger and our parents hid our Christmas gifts, we found them. Kids are curious, they find things,” she says.
With the summer break coming up, Julvonnia wants parents to be even more aware of these issues, as summer is a time where kids are more likely to spend extended periods away from home, just as JaJuan was doing when he was killed.
What really struck me as I interviewed Julvonnia for this article is how incredibly strong she is. Here she was telling her heart-wrenching story—one that no mother should have to tell. But she wasted no time, and got down to the business of how we can all work together to prevent the unimaginable from happening to any more kids.
“Every day 96 Americans are killed, and hundreds impacted physically and emotionally,” she says. “This kind of fear that kids live with shouldn’t be normal.”
She’s right: It should not be normal, not for one second. But amazing mothers like her are working hard as hell to take back our world and make it a safer place for our children—and for the next generation of kids to come.
“The impact of having it happened to me put a personal touch on it,” says Julvonnia. “I couldn’t just sit back. While I couldn’t get the opportunity for JaJuan, I can impact others in my community.”
June 1st is Wear Orange Day for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and to honor those who have lost their lives to gun violence. Julvonnia encourages us all to participate in this day—for her lost son, and for all the babies, children, sons, and daughters who have been senselessly lost to gun violence.
For more information about how to participate in Wear Orange Day, and for events in your city, you can visit the Everytown’s Wear Orange Day website and event page. If you would like to connect to Julvonnia, you can reach her on her Facebook page.