Activists place powerful reminder of the victims of gun violence in front of Congress

The empty shoes represent kids who could be "running and jumping on this lawn."

Activists laid 7,000 pairs of empty shoes on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol building to represent 7,000 lives lost to gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)
Activists laid 7,000 pairs of empty shoes on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol building to represent 7,000 lives lost to gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following the deadly shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, organizers laid 7,000 pairs of shoes at the foot of the Capitol building Tuesday to memorialize the 7,000 children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

Volunteers with Avaaz— a civic activism campaigning group — began laying out the shoes at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, donated by people across the country, to honor children lost to gun violence. The empty shoes covered roughly 10,000 square feet on the southeast Capitol lawn and represented the empty souls (homonym: soles) lost who could otherwise be “running and jumping on this lawn,” Nell Greenberg, Avaaz campaign director, told ThinkProgress at the memorial.

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“Each of these shoes — these are kids’ shoes: there are red ruby slippers and Star Wars light up sneakers — and these should be kids running and jumping on this lawn and marching next week,” Greenberg said. “Instead, they’re empty soles. We’ve brought these shoes to Congress’ doorsteps to show them the vivid, heartbreaking reality of their inaction on gun reform.”

The memorial was meant to bring congressional members face to face with the enormity of an issue in the lead up to the March for Our Lives rally on March 24 to call for an end to mass school shootings. Since last month’s school shooting in Parkland, teenage survivors have called for congressional members and state legislators to take action on gun control. Oregon is the only state to have tightened gun control, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in federal background checks earlier this month. Florida legislators passed a measure last week to raise the minimum age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21 and require a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. That bill now awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) signature. Debate on gun control is unlikely any time soon on the Senate floor as senators work on a banking deregulation bill this week and will then take on sex trafficking.

“The way we’re thinking about it is there’s a march next week and this is for the kids who can’t march and so we’re marching next week because they can’t,” Greenberg explained.

Daniel Mauser's white shoes (center-front) are among the 7,000 shoes on display in a monument to the 7,000 children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Mauser was killed at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. His father wore the shoes to bring to the memorial. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)
Daniel Mauser's white shoes (center-front) are among the 7,000 shoes on display in a monument to the 7,000 children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Mauser was killed at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. His father wore the shoes to bring to the memorial. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)

Among the shoes on display include those once belonging to Daniel Mauser who was killed in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. His father Tom Mauser found the shoes while cleaning out his closet, Greenberg explained, and saw that the two had the same-sized feet. Tom has worn those shoes ever since. He wore the shoes one final time to Washington, D.C. where he donated his son’s shoes as part of the installation.

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“I think this kind of event with shoes offers a very powerful metaphor both for how we miss the victims who once filled those shoes, and also for how we see ourselves wanting to walk in their place seeking change, so that others don’t have to walk this painful journey,” Tom said, according to an Avaaz press release.

The installation was not only a powerful display of the empty shoes that could have been filled by living, breathing people. But it was also interesting to see how passerbys interacted with the massive display, which didn’t appear to have any kind of banner or poster noting its somber occasion.

Local D.C. residents with strollers took time to reflect on the installation and held close toddlers swaying in the chilly breeze. Other American passerbys crouched down to take photos and observed various pairs of shoes with archaeological precision. Nearby Chinese tourists said to one another in Mandarin, “This is a cool art installation. So many shoes!” before posing with the shoes and posting photos on a Chinese social media app. Away from the display, organizers stood around a table with sandwiches for volunteers, some holding press releases for curious onlookers. But given the lack of a poster or sign noting the memorial, the tourists may be forgiven for their cringe-inducing behavior seeing as how China — which arguably has its own issues — is not viscerally broken by gun violence in the same way Americans are intimately familiar.

“How? How is it that any human being can care more about losing the support of the gun manufacturers’ front group — the NRA –than losing the life of a child?” Greenberg asked. Noting that she became a new parent, Greenberg questioned whether live shooter drills could become a “regular normal part” of her daughter’s existence.

“I can’t deal with that,” Greenberg said. “As parents, we try to keep our kids safe from everything and there’s a lot we can’t control, but passing commonsense gun reform is something we can control. This is in our power and the cost of doing nothing, as you can see here, is simply unacceptable.”

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Greenberg is hopeful that Americans may help change the conversation about gun control given the overwhelming response to the campaign.

“We started this only two weeks ago and everyone said, ‘Are you going to get enough shoes?’ We’ve had so many shoes, we could barely lay them all out,” Greenberg said. “There have been shoes from every corner of the United States and I think that shows what a nerve this has touched and just what a culture change moment we’re in. People are tired of seeing Congress do nothing.”

On Monday, President Donald Trump conceded that there was “not much political support” to impose gun restrictions like raising the age limit from 18 to 21.