When Lorena Thompson left her house the day after Halloween, she gave her young son and daughter each a kiss.
“She loved us, and we knew we were loved,” said her daughter, Deborah Kemper. “That was really key for me growing up because I was angry after she was murdered, and I could have taken a bad turn in life.”
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to measure the toll that gun violence has exacted on individuals and families in the United States. There are numbers and facts, of course.
And there’s Deborah Kemper.
She was only 7 years old and a second grader in 1965. On Halloween that year, she wore a homemade ghost costume for neighborhood trick-or-treating. The next day her mother was shot to death in a fit of rage by her stepfather with a stolen handgun.
“I was 45 before I could even talk about it,” Kemper, now 64, said recently in an interview in downtown Redwood City.
“It carries huge shame as a kid to try to explain what murder is to your friends. I probably had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Who knows?” she said, not asking as much as reflecting.
Today, Kemper channels her energy into promoting causes she believes reduce the risk that families will endure the trauma that occurred to hers.
She shared her experience to raise awareness about a December 3, 2022 gun buyback sponsored by the County of San Mateo and numerous local partners. The buyback will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1000 Skyway Road, San Carlos.
Anyone who turns in a firearm can receive cash: $50 for non-functioning firearms, $100 for handguns, shotguns and rifles and $200 for assault weapons and “ghost guns” as classified by the State of California. All exchanges are anonymous with no questions asked.
The December 3 buyback is the latest in a series of County-sponsored buybacks that have collected a total of 2,971 firearms since May 2018.
The United States has about 120 firearms in circulation for every 100 residents, or nearly 400 million firearms total, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group that tracks civilian gun ownership worldwide.
Those numbers are daunting, but Kemper sees every unwanted gun exchanged for cash at a gun buyback as one less that could be used in a crime, domestic violence or suicide.
(Gun violence is the leading cause of death among children in the United States. Of the 45,222 firearm deaths in the United States in 2020, more than half were firearm suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
Decades after her mother’s violent death, Kemper continues to wonder what could have been with one less gun in the world on that tragic Monday, Nov. 1, 1965.
Lorena Thompson was the second of seven children and grew up to marry and have two children. She and Kemper’s father divorced.
Thompson remarried and worked as a ticket agent at Los Angeles International Airport. The second marriage did not work out. Kemper said her stepfather, after the breakup, stalked and harassed her mother for months.
“I remember the whole day. My mother kissed us that morning goodbye because she said she needed to go by the unemployment office,” Kemper said. “He had been following her to work and stalking her and caused her to lose her job.”
“At some point the radio came on with the announcer – Brad Pye Jr. reporting, that’s how well I remember it – and he said a woman was shot in downtown Los Angeles and I started crying and my grandmother was like, ‘No, it’s not your mom, don’t worry don’t worry.’ “And sure enough the police came to the door about an hour later and informed us that it was her.”
Months earlier, a gun had been stolen* during the Watts Riots and it was now in the hands of her stepfather, a volatile and possessive man. Maybe without a gun he would have eventually moved on with his life. But he had a gun, and he was mad.
The outburst of violence robbed Kemper of her mother, her children of their grandmother and so much more. One less gun in circulation, Kemper knows, can make a difference.
“I couldn’t remember my mom’s voice by the time I got to high school," she said, pausing, "and her face started fading away too, which was really sad for me.”
Kemper lives in San Carlos with her husband, Cliff. She is a mother, grandmother and foster parent and the executive director of the San Mateo County Bar Association.
She is a member of Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.
San Mateo County Anonymous Gun Buyback
The County's next gun buyback is Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at 1000 Skyway Road, San Carlos.
Sponsors include the County of San Mateo, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Redwood City Police, Belmont Police, City of San Carlos and Citizens for a San Mateo County Gun Buyback. Questions? Call 650-363-4800.
Reducing gun violence is a top goal of the Board of Supervisors. In 2021, the Board pledged to hold gun buybacks through 2023 with funds from the voter-approved Measure K half-cent sales tax that provides local funds for local needs.
*A 2017 study by Harvard University researchers in the journal Injury Epidemiology estimated that about “380,000 guns are stolen each year” in the United States. As part of her advocacy, Kemper urges gun owners who do not securely store their firearms or have unwanted firearms – or both – to consider the potential consequences if the guns are stolen.
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