For Joey Suarez, the Sutherland Springs shooting hit close to home. On Nov. 5, 2017, when Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and fatally shot 26 parishioners with a semi-automatic rifle, Suarez was less than 50 miles away at his parents’ house in neighboring Bulverde.
“It was in our backyard,” Suarez recounts weeks later, sitting on a mid-century style sofa in a friend’s West Hollywood living room. “So much in our backyard that I didn’t look at the news for 24 hours, because I could go into [local supermarket] H-E-B and every person in there was talking about what just happened, and I could see the panic on people’s faces. It was almost too real.”
The 24-year-old Suarez straddles two diametrically opposite worlds. The openly gay pop musician is deeply enmeshed in LGBT culture, spending his summers performing at various Pride festivals, including New York, Orlando and his hometown of San Antonio. His EP Candy Kid plays like a soundtrack to millennial party existentialism. Songs like “Party Monster” and “Dancing With Myself” tell the tale of an optimistic young musician searching for identity in the late-night lotusland of hedonism and high BPM. And Suarez’s artistry is bolstered by his social media savvy. More than 66,000 Instagram followers are treated to kinetically choreographed live performances and the underwear-clad selfies of a quintessential twink.
But Suarez is also a good ol’ Texas boy, one of 12 kids who’d been trained to shoot a gun since he was 6 years old. He was a vocal, unwavering defender of the Second Amendment, which often put him at odds with his progressive queer contemporaries. But unlike most gun rights advocates, Suarez’s opinions changed after that fateful November day.
“We’re not fixing the fucking issue,” Joey Suarez says with conviction. “We’re once again caught up on stupid debates that are irrelevant to the problem and that are not going to produce results right now.”
Mass shootings in the United States almost always elicit the same formulaic reactions. The left uses the most recent shooting — 26 parishioners in a church, 49 patrons in an Orlando gay bar, 20 children in a Connecticut elementary school — as justification for increased gun control. The right immediately pushes back, claiming the Second Amendment ensures their right to own as many firearms as they please, and that responsible gun owners shouldn’t be punished for the actions of a few rotten apples.
Donald Trump, the man who the National Rifle Association spent over $21 million to help place in the White House, shrugged off any need for increased gun control following the Sutherland Springs massacre.
“This isn’t a guns situation,” he deflected during a November news conference. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event. A very, very sad event, but that’s the way I view it.”
For Joey Suarez, the Sutherland Springs shooting was more than just a sad event. It was a tipping point.
These deaths aren’t faceless statistics to Suarez. They are neighbors, parents of his friends, friends of his parents. They were his community. Something needed to change, starting with himself.
“My response was, I’m sick of feeling uneducated on the subject,” Suarez says. “Although I can handle firearms with ease, I don’t feel like politically I was as familiar as I am now. So I took the initiative. Fine, what are people misunderstanding? I looked up every fact, all the statistics. Then I read up on what the liberal side was saying about conservatives. Then I talked to my conservative friends and argued with them for hours. Because, in the end, I want to know what they think.”
Pro-gun conservatives traditionally argue individuals need firearms to defend themselves from attackers, a thesis somewhat bolstered by the events immediately following the Sutherland Springs shooting. As assailant Devin Patrick Kelley exited the church, he was confronted by local resident Stephen Willeford. Armed with an AR-15 pattern semi-automatic rifle, Willeford fired two shots at Kelley, disarming him as he fled from the scene. For gun rights advocates, Willeford’s actions seem to justify the necessity of the Second Amendment.
“For a lot of Texans, reactions were ‘someone with a gun took care of it.’ In our minds, we protected each other. In a self-defense situation, someone was able to save everybody,” Suarez says before quickly remembering the 26 lives not saved before Willeford’s intervention. “Well, not everybody.”
While Willeford’s cowboy vigilantism seems to reinforce the NRA’s long-held insistence that allowing Americans to carry firearms makes communities safer, the statistics beg to differ. According to John Donohue, a Stanford Law professor who analyzed crime data from 1977–2014, not only is there no evidence that areas where more Americans carry guns had higher public safety or less crime, he in fact discovered the opposite. According to Donohue’s analysis, violent crime in ‘right to carry’ states was estimated to be 13–15% higher than in states without ‘right to carry’ laws.
“Although I am absolutely comfortable with guns, and I do believe it should be a right, I also understand there’s a fine line between good gun ownership and bad gun ownership,” says Joey Suarez. “There are people who should own guns, and people who shouldn’t. On top of that, there should be better ways to keep people who shouldn’t have guns from getting those guns. That’s the conversation we need to be having. How do we work towards better statewide regulation? And we need better education so we can have a better conversation about it.”
Suarez’s gun education began when he was 6, first with pellet and paintball guns. By the time he was 10, he had graduated to rifles.
“We started to go to gun ranges as a family,” he says. “Each gun we were required to shoot. We had to learn how to properly shoot a handgun, a rifle and an AR-15. By 13 years old, I knew how to shoot every gun we had in the house.”
In Suarez’s opinion, the inability of the left to sway the right on gun control is rooted in liberals’ general lack of first-hand gun knowledge.
“For the longest time I wouldn’t talk to someone about the gun debate unless I knew they knew how to shoot a gun properly,” Suarez says. “In my mind, why would I ever have a conversation about a firearm with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about it?”
The pop singer proposes the best way to bridge this cultural schism is to educate children about guns at a young age.
“Gun education — not shooting a gun or bringing a gun into school, but what to do when a gun is involved — should be taught [just like] sex ed,” says Suarez. “It’s something no kid should be lied to about. As an adult, they can make a decision whether they want to be involved with a gun. But at least it establishes a baseline to the conversation that needs to happen, which is gun etiquette.”
And conversation is paramount to effecting change, right? But to successfully communicate, both the left and the right need to understand each other, or else they’ll keep doubling down on their beliefs. That’s why its important to have people like Joey Suarez — people who bridge the chasm between both sides and invite the possibility of sensible gun control compromises. Otherwise the debate remains the same, which almost certainly guarantees more civilian casualties in churches and elementary schools and gay bars.