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Highland Park mayor reflects on mass shooting one year later

A white woman with shoulder length blonde hair, glasses, a pearl necklace and blue blazer sits on a bench looking somberly at the camera with her hands clasped
Manuel Martinez
/
WBEZ
Highland Park Nancy Rotering in front of City Hall in June 2023

Highland Park this week remembers an event that many residents never thought they’d have to remember: a mass shooting. A gunman, perched atop a downtown building dressed in a disguise, opened fire on the city’s Fourth of July parade in 2022, killing seven people and wounding 48.

It’s been a difficult yet galvanizing year for Highland Park and its mayor, Nancy Rotering. Illinois Public Radio's Alex Degman talked with Rotering about that traumatic day a year ago, its effect on her and the city, and how it sparked her gun control activism.

Nancy Rotering: I actually grew up in Highland Park, and was raised by parents who really felt strongly that it’s on all of us to speak out if there’s something that needs to be said, to take action if somebody needs help.

IPR: How did you advocate for causes early in your career?

Rotering: Planned Parenthood was part of my realm starting in 1983, the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But, generally, it was more about individuals and grassroots and not so much organizations, but just sort of helping people who needed help, whether it was peer counseling, academic advising — sort of being there for folks who maybe needed that extra hand.

Why politics? What made you decide that this was the way to continue your advocacy?

Rotering: Truthfully, it sort of started when my oldest son developed Type 1 diabetes, and we were advocating for stem cell research. He and I would meet with members of Congress, members of the Senate, state reps and so forth. When I realized that there was an opportunity to be had in terms of increasing dollars for medical research, that’s really how I got started.

And, frankly, it was [while] marching on city hall with my neighbors to get a stop sign in my neighborhood that I realized that the city council maybe needed some representation from folks who had kids in school. After doing some time on city commissions, getting my feet wet in that world, I ran for city council in 2009.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering speaks during a news conference with anti-gun violence advocates in Washington on July 20, 2022.
Amanda Rhoades
/
Associated Press
Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering speaks during a news conference with anti-gun violence advocates in Washington on July 20, 2022.

Gun-control activism

Rotering was elected mayor in 2011 and, two years later, Highland Park passed an assault weapons ban in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It withstood one legal challenge and is currently facing another.

Rotering: I’ve had the opportunity to speak about this, not just locally, but globally, and [had] that exposure to folks from other nations, who simply cannot understand why this country allows this to continue. This is too much firepower for civilian use, and our police cannot stand up against it.

It pierces Kevlar vests, it pierces helmets. Folks are not dressed in riot gear every single day, nor should they be.

By the same token, it’s also a violation of our human rights. We, as Americans, have every right like any other country, to live our lives and not be in constant fear of this threat of this horrible event that can happen anytime, anywhere, to anybody.

Do you think discussions of mental health treatment in tandem with gun violence takes attention away from the main crux of the issue, which you believe is the number of guns in circulation?

Rotering: I know we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We absolutely need to recognize that there’s a mental health crisis in this country. But we can’t use that as an excuse for people to be shooting up communities.

Every nation, every society in this world has folks working through mental health challenges, anger management, addiction, pick whatever one you want, and we recognize and need to address those issues.

They’ve been woefully underfunded for decades in this country. But to me, it’s not an excuse to ignore a true threat that is everywhere. This gun threat is pervasive. And it’s harming us as a society.

Abandoned chairs on a sidewalk in Highland Park after the mass shooting on July 4, 2022
Manuel Martinez
/
WBEZ
Abandoned chairs on a sidewalk in Highland Park after the mass shooting on July 4, 2022

It must be very difficult to see a community you love go through this kind of pain. But it also must have been very painful for you personally. Did you have any time to process your feelings?

Rotering: You know, throughout the year, there have been days where I’ve had that opportunity and a lot of days where we are just very much on task, very much doing what we can to ensure that the next of kin, the present and injured, the people who are still traumatized, are getting the services that they need.

I have talked to somebody. I have been present for my husband, my son, my family. But it’s important, I think, for all of us to recognize that we all are here for each other. When I was standing on the corner outside of the crime scene, hugging strangers, I got as much from that as they did. We were all comforting each other. It was important to me to be able to hear the thousands of stories because there are literally thousands of stories.

Some anti-gun violence groups are saying abolition of the 2nd Amendment is the only way to go — do you agree?

Rotering: I’m looking for common sense gun laws. And there is so much that everybody does agree on, but there are some craven politicians who are beholden to the NRA who aren’t even willing to take those steps. Let’s talk about safe storage. Let’s talk about federal red flag laws. Let’s talk about ages above which people may have access.

I think at this point, there’s so much in between that could be done that could bring safety and a sense of relief back to our communities. The fact that we had an assault-weapons ban passed in Illinois, and almost immediately, 80 out of 102 sheriffs and states attorneys from counties across Illinois stood up and said, “We’re not enforcing this law,” tells me that we have a much larger problem right now that needs to be addressed.

We need to get back to a place of common sense, we need to get back to a place where everybody agrees [that] everybody has a right to live free from this threat.

People at a memorial in Highland Park after the deadly shooting during the city's annual Fourth of July parade
Charles Rex Arbogast
/
Associated Press
People at a memorial in Highland Park after the deadly shooting during the city's annual Fourth of July parade

How does what happened on July 4th, 2022 and during the year that followed inform where Highland Park goes from here?

Rotering: [Highland Park] is where I am. This is where I love to be. This is where I plan to continue. But I’m also going to be talking about this very real need to end this gun violence epidemic in the United States.

So I’m thankful to the folks at the Illinois General Assembly and the governor for enacting the Protect Illinois Communities Act last January, but we need to do more. We’re not islands. And it’s important that each and every one of us has the opportunity to live free from gun violence. We need to make it harder for people with bad intentions to get their hands on combat weapons.

Right now, this country is a sieve, and we need to make sure that we go back to where we were when we were living free from this fear. Our kids don’t remember that time. But we do.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.