Dr. Amanda Dickerson stood in front of her 4-year-old son's closet, putting her hand on each of his T-shirts, paralyzed by the thought of what she'd said she would do.
"Hand to God, I must have stood there for 45 minutes," she said.
The pediatrician and mother of two was shepherding a traveling exhibit through her hometown of Joplin, Missouri. It memorializes children killed in Missouri last year by gun homicide. Each slain child is represented by a shirt in their size. As the display traveled through the state and more children were shot dead, the volunteer hosting the display in each town would have to add another shirt.
Two more children were killed during the two weeks Dickerson had the exhibit. One of the victims was a teenager, the other a 6-year-old boy. She had mentioned to the organizer that she could use a T-shirt from her son's closet, which would be around the same size as the younger child's.
"I couldn't do it," she said. "The thought of taking one of his shirts and putting it on that stand, it just broke me."
She got in her car and cried all the way to Target, where she bought a small boy's shirt.
It hangs on a stand staked into the dirt, surrounded by other unworn kids' clothing -- a white onesie printed with colorful tiny animals, a Captain America tee, a shirt with rainbow-colored ice cream scoops. Gun homicides killed 46 children in Missouri last year. The youngest child was 6 months old.
This traveling memorial was put together by the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America -- mom volunteers advocating for better gun safety laws. It has been making its way around the state since October.
When it was in Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri, vandals tore down the banner that displayed the number of slain children.
"It was heartbreaking," said Lynda Stewart, deputy chapter lead for Moms Demand in Missouri, who lives nearby in Dexter. "But we weren't going to let them win."
The moms in her area handmade another sign to put up immediately, then collected the money to order a replacement.
What kind of people try to destroy a memorial for children who have died tragically? The callousness reveals how those opposed to gun reform want to erase any mention of the actual victims of gun violence.
Gun homicides killed 689 people in Missouri in 2020 -- among the state's deadliest years ever for gun violence. In 2019, the most recent year for which CDC data is available, Missouri's per capita rate of gun deaths was 20.5 per 100,000 people, while the national rate was 12 per 100,000.
Our state has the dubious distinction of being among those with the worst gun laws in the country, according to the Giffords Law Center. The state legislature has rolled back basic safety restrictions over the past decade, while gun violence in the state has worsened year after year.
The Kansas City Star noted that we don't know exactly how many Missourians, in total, died from guns in 2020, since no state or federal government agency has published that information yet. (The 689 figure cited above does not include suicides or accidents.) Just like the cowards who tore down a display with the number of murdered children, the gun lobby and GOP lawmakers fight to conceal the actual toll of gun violence.
More than 35,000 children ages 19 and under have died since 1999 due to firearms injuries, according to the CDC. How do you get people to care enough about the children dying and the families shattered by gun violence that they demand change?
Jean Knapp, a Moms Demand volunteer in Springfield, came up with the idea of the traveling memorial during the pandemic, when the group could no longer hold its in-person events. She took inspiration from the anti-abortion displays she's seen with crosses used to symbolize unborn babies.
Knapp said the memorial does not include children who died from gun-related suicides and accidents because it would have made the display too large and difficult to transport.
The exhibit, which will be displayed in the St. Louis area through the summer, has touched some who have seen it along the way.
One visitor left a candy necklace on the stand displaying the onesie.
Another person used a marker to write a personal message inside a heart on one of the T-shirts: "You mattered. You were loved."
And for Dickerson, there's the moment she looked through her son's T-shirts, forced to imagine the mother who lost her 6-year-old son doing the same.
That moment is forever seared in her mind.