By Ana Martinez-OrtizJoyce Penebaker, was a mom, a daughter, a wife and, a victim of gun violence. On Sep. 8, 1979, she took her own life with a gun she had been given for protection. Her son Khary Penebaker was just 20 months old.
Now, Penebaker is grown. He’s a father and a husband, and for the past five years, he’s been a vocal advocate for gun reform in America.
“For the majority of my life I didn’t know how to tell my story,” Penebaker said.
Now he travels across the US as a WI fellow for Everytown sharing his life journey with strangers and advocates alike in the hope that his words can prevent future gun-related deaths.
As a child, Penebaker and his family never talked about his mom’s suicide. Part of it was due to the pain associated with losing a loved one, but the other part, Penebaker said was due to the animosity between the two families.
They each blamed the other for Joyce’s death and refused to talk about her. Instead, they told him that Joyce died from an illness, without specifying that that illness was depression. So Penebaker grew up not knowing the sound of his mother’s voice, and without any memory of her to rely on.
The feelings of blame and embarrassment continued to grow, until one day, Penebaker decided to approach the conversation with his dad. Although the conversation was a long time coming, Penebaker struggled to broach the subject with his dad.
“I don’t want to look at my dad crying,” he said.
It’s different, he explained when he talks to other people about gun violence, although people cry, there’s a level of separation there. With his dad, Penebaker had to come to terms with the fact that while he lost his mother, his father had lost his wife.
Once, Penebaker began to understand the many levels surrounding his mother’s death, his approach to the matter shifted. He utilized his feelings of grief and sadness and transformed them into a story of understanding and survival.
“I share my pain with you so you don’t have to experience it,” Penebaker said.
He began talking about his story in public, he wrote op-eds and attended government hearings to give testimony on the matter. In doing so, he gave other survivors of gun violence the power and the courage to share their story.
“More and more people are being forced to have these conversations,” he said.
It’s a conversation that needs to happen. It’s become a topic of discussion that politicians are more willing to talk about or run on as evident in recent elections.
Although Penebaker identifies as anti-gun, he understands that not everyone feels the same way. Instead, in this new wave of open conversations, Penebaker isn’t afraid to tell gun owners how to handle their guns.
He reminds them that owning a gun is a responsibility and that they need to both understand and appreciate the risk of owning a weapon. It’s important to keep a gun safe and secure and to keep the gun and ammunition separated.
Penebaker added that with more conversations about gun control come more conversations about mental health, domestic violence and homicides. And that people should pay attention to those around them if they show suicidal thoughts or violent tendencies.
According to Penebaker, 70% of gun-related deaths in Wisconsin are ruled as suicide. It’s a number that shouldn’t exist, and one that Penebaker is hoping to change.
“If more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country on earth, and we’re not,” Penebaker said.
If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.