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Voices of the fight

In their grief, families come together to combat gun violence

Senior+Bryan+Payne+speaks+out+about+the+death+of+his+brother+at+the+March+for+Our+Lives+rally+in+downtown+Memphis+on+March%0A24.+Payne+was+one+of+many+who+spoke+about+how+gun+violence+has+affected+the+lives+of+those+who+live+in+the+Memphis+community.
Senior Bryan Payne speaks out about the death of his brother at the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Memphis on March
24. Payne was one of many who spoke about how gun violence has affected the lives of those who live in the Memphis community.

Senior Bryan Payne speaks out about the death of his brother at the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Memphis on March 24. Payne was one of many who spoke about how gun violence has affected the lives of those who live in the Memphis community.

Photo: Cary Robbins

Photo: Cary Robbins

Senior Bryan Payne speaks out about the death of his brother at the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Memphis on March 24. Payne was one of many who spoke about how gun violence has affected the lives of those who live in the Memphis community.

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“When my brother died, the moment that someone told me that he had been shot, I actually thought it was a dream,” senior Bryan Payne said. “I didn’t want to believe that it was true. Why did it have to be him?”

Cameron William Selmon, Payne’s older brother, was shot and killed when he was 19 years old on Oct. 22, 2015 at Tennessee State University. Payne was only a sophomore at the time.

Payne remembers playing football with his older brother in the backyard when they were kids. Like many sibling relationships, Payne was always following his brother around the house, wanting to spend time with him.

Mr. Bryan Payne, Payne’s father and Selmon’s step-father, knows that Payne does a lot of what he does because he wants to be like his older brother.

“He was lil’ Bryan’s best friend. [Bryan] loved his big brother. That’s the reason Bryan is playing football now, because Cameron played,” Mr. Payne said. “If Cameron played baseball, Bryan probably would be playing baseball.”

Payne remembers his brother as an inspirational person.

“Around Cameron, there was really no dull aspect of life,” Payne said. “He was always happy and lively. He made everybody else’s lives brighter and their day brighter. Regardless of what he was going through, he tried to make other people have a better day.”

Mrs. Stacie Payne, Payne and Selmon’s mom, loves to hear people say they knew her son. She says that Selmon had connections with people from around the Memphis community. People still come up to Mrs. Payne today and ask her if she is Selmon’s mom.

“He’d never met a stranger,” Mrs. Payne said. “I mean there were so many people that liked him. He was a good son. I loved him, and I know he loved me.”

***

It was around eleven o’clock at night, as the family was getting ready for bed, that Mrs. Payne and her family got the call that their son, who was visiting the Tennessee State University campus in Nashville at the time, had been shot.

“I could just remember screaming in my bathroom and waiting for everybody to get ready. I think we just threw clothes on and got in the car and just left,” Mrs. Payne said. “It was the worst night of my life. That was the worst news I have ever gotten in my life.”

They drove to the hospital in Nashville, still hoping that it might be a false report.

“That was the longest drive I’ve ever had,” Mr. Payne said. “It was only three hours, but it was like forever when you’re going up there with those emotions.”

When they arrived at the hospital, they had to identify Selmon from his picture. He had died on Tennessee State’s campus.

“I remember feeling like an elephant trampled on me. I feel like it was hurting that much to my heart,” Mrs. Payne said. “I felt how this was so unfair to me because I never imagined that I would have to bury my son. I always thought that my children would bury me.”

Several local news outlets reported that the shooting took place after a dispute between Selmon and two other men at the school. Selmon’s parents lost their child, and Payne lost his best friend and brother.

“I’m a mom who basically has no answers,” Mrs. Payne said. “Nobody is being held responsible for killing my son, so I would just like people to think, ‘what if I was your mom? What if your mom was in the same situation? Would you want her to feel this way?’ I don’t think they would.”

The Payne family is still haunted by Selmon’s death.

“When it first happened I was mad because I just didn’t know who would do this, and I was mad at whoever had done this. I started to get sad because it sunk in that I would never see my brother again. The last time I saw him was two months before he died,” Payne said. “It took me a while to actually be happy again.”

Mrs. Payne continues her same everyday routine, but some days are harder than others.

“As a mom, I’m heartbroken because I feel like I eat, I sleep, I wake, I breathe without my child,” Mrs. Payne said. “It’s just not fair for people to think they can play God. Who has a right to take a life? It’s not right. It’s just not right.”

***

Gun violence has been in the news recently after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Flor. and in Las Vegas, Nev. USA Today reported that in 2016, there were 14,415 homicides using guns in the United States.

NPR reports that the United States is the 31st country with the highest number of deaths of people who have died from gun violence. During 2016, there were 3.85 violent gun deaths per 100,000 people in America. Countries in South and Central America and in the Caribbean have the highest rates of gun deaths in the world.

Payne’s family is just one of many who have been affected by gun violence in the Memphis community. According to the Commercial Appeal, there were 200 homicides in Memphis in 2017, with 14 ruled justified. 129 homicides have been solved, but 71 still remain unsolved.

In 2018, Forbes reported that Memphis is the fourth most dangerous city in the United States, with a violent crime rate of 1,583 crimes per 100,000 residents. In 2017, The Commercial Appeal wrote that there were 28 fewer victims of gun violence in Memphis than in 2016. 2016, the year after Selmon’s death, was the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

***

After Selmon’s death, Mrs. Payne met mothers who had also lost children as a result of the gun violence epidemic in the Memphis community. Shortly after, she began working with Moms Demand Action, an organization that was started after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, in which 27 people were killed, including 20 children.

In 2017, the organization spawned “Angel Moms,” a smaller group of 12 moms who had lost their children to gun violence in Memphis. After becoming a part of Moms Demand Action and the “Angel Moms,” Mrs. Payne met a woman named Mrs. Tara Cash, who had lost her son to gun violence six months before Selmon died. Mrs. Cash reached out to Mrs. Payne after hearing of Selmon’s death.

Mrs. Cash’s son, Curtis Lloyd Johnson, was 18 years old. He had been accepted into college and knew he wanted to study computer engineering. Johnson died from an unintentional shooting on April 22, 2015, just two weeks before his graduation from Southwind High School.

“Of course when he passed, we got his phone, and we saw that one of the students had texted him about leaving school early one day, and he said ‘Nah, I’ve gotta go to school because I’ve gotta make my mom and dad proud, and I’ve got to walk across the stage,’” Mrs. Cash said. “So, when I think about him leaving, I know that he wanted to make us proud, and he wanted to graduate.”

Johnson had gone to a friend’s house after school, where another boy was showing off a gun that his father had given him for his 18th birthday. The gun went off and killed Johnson. According to the victim’s mother, the owner of the gun only served 90 days in jail.

“I was still walking around breathing on the outside,” Mrs. Cash said, “but inside, I felt dead.”

Mrs. Cash was shocked when she heard that her son had been shot and killed. She remembers the car ride going to the hospital and hearing that Johnson had died before she could say goodbye.

“People don’t understand, it could happen to anybody because I never would have thought in a million years that it would have happened to me,” Mrs. Cash said. “I see it on the news all the time. You see it reading the paper, or you hear about it online. But, you would never think that it would knock on your door, touch your family. I just want people to know that it doesn’t discriminate.”

Johnson’s cousin, Christopher Thomas, was also a victim of gun violence. Thomas was killed on February 8, 2015.

His mother, Mrs. Tara Thomas, is also an Angel Mom and member of Moms Demand Action. She recalls the moment she heard her son had been fatally shot by a driver who had hit his car.

“My son had gotten a call from somebody else through his girlfriend and said that Chris had been shot and that he was dead,” Mrs. Thomas said. “At that moment, I was in a state of shock. I was frozen. They say time heals all wounds. At this point, it’s been 1,143 days, and these wounds have not gotten better.”

Thomas was only 22 years old when he died. He had never been to jail, and he worked two jobs to support his family. At the time, he was father of a three-year-old little girl, and two weeks after he passed, his family found out that he was father again.

“I don’t put a time limit. I hate when people do say ‘Hey, it’s been three years.’ No, it’s been 1,143 days for me,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I count the days, and that’s all I can do. I don’t worry about anybody else or anybody’s time limit on how I should be, or how my family should be. Until you step in our shoes, you don’t know how you’re going to accept it or take it.”

***

Organizations such as Moms Demand Action and the March for Our Lives, a campaign started in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, are trying to help stop the problem of gun violence by teaching people about the consequences of gun violence, especially in their community.

Today, Mrs. Payne commemorates Selmon’s name by teaching youth how gun violence has affected her life and other families through a rally that she started in 2016 called “Silence the Violence, Stop Gun Violence Rally,” which she began in order to bring awareness to gun violence and to help cope with her son’s death.

“I always say, I never want Cameron to have died in vain,” Mrs. Payne said, “so until I take my last breath, I’m going to always campaign.”

This is the third year Mrs. Payne has done this campaign, whose mission of this campaign is to become advocates for families in the community who have lost loved ones due to gun violence.

“If we can help one person, if there’s one young kid that comes to the event that hears something that we’re doing or hears the speaker or sees a heartbroken mom, even if one child could take something away, then I feel like we’ve helped somebody,” Mrs. Payne said. “I know we can’t save the world. I know gun violence is not going to end, just being realistic. But if you can help somebody, I think that, not that we’ve done our job, but I feel like Cameron didn’t die in vain.”

This rally has speakers from different organizations around Memphis discussing gun violence, as well as recipients of the Cameron William Selmon Scholarship. The nonprofit organization hopes to grow nationwide.

“It is my hope that we can travel because gun violence is not just here in our city,” Mrs. Payne said.“What I’ve come to see is that it’s widespread, so I would love to be able to do an event like this somewhere else.”

The Payne family said they were committed to fighting against gun violence for the long term in an effort to help their community and those who have lost their loved ones.

“Say this happened to another family 20 years down the road, I want me and my mom to go and help them rally, like people have helped us at this time,” Payne said. “I don’t want this to stop after we find justice because I don’t think it’s fair.”

Like the Paynes, Mrs. Thomas wants people to understand the seriousness of shooting someone. Her advice is to always think.

“Think twice before you pull that trigger, it just may save a life,” Mrs. Thomas said. “When you pull that trigger, not only are you killing that person, you’re killing families. You’re killing dreams.”

Mrs. Cash thinks that there should be more of a limit on the accessibility of guns.

“People don’t know how to resolve conflict, and they think that guns are so easy to get now,” Mrs. Cash said. “They know where to find guns on the street, so everyone wants to carry a gun around because they think it’s cool.”

Mrs. Cash stresses the importance of making people understand the emotional consequences of gun violence, how her son’s death has affected her family as well as the person who killed her son. This is why she wants to educate people about the impact that gun violence has on all of the people involved.

“One bad decision can completely change a person’s life,” Mrs. Cash said. “It’s changed my
life, and you can bet it changed the boy’s life that killed my son too because he’s a felon now. He will always be a felon, and he’s killed somebody, so can you imagine how he sleeps at night?”

***

Payne presented a speech at the March for Our Lives in downtown Memphis on March 24 near the Civil Rights Museum, talking about the death of his brother.

“Some bystanders might ask questions such as, ‘Why do they continue to fight? How have they been persistent for so long? And what is their goal in doing this?’” Payne said. “As I think of these questions, the thought that comes to our mind is, ‘We fight against gun violence everyday so others will not have to go through what we have been through.’”

Payne does not want this to be the last time he and his family stand up to talk out about gun violence because he wants all people to know how it has affected him and his community.

“I guess every time things like this happen, people try to rally and stand forth for it, but I feel like it happens for a couple months and then it kind of dies down,” Payne said. “I feel like they should do [it] year round, regardless of what happens. They should always do it just to make sure that everybody knows that this isn’t the right idea and that this shouldn’t be happening.”

Payne and his family will continue to be advocates for others who have lost loved ones, and they will continue to try and bring education of gun violence to the youth. Payne says that Selmon is why he does all of this.

“I know that he’d be proud of me right now, and I just keep doing things to make him proud because I don’t want to let him down,” Payne said. “I just want to make him proud all the time.”

Full Disclosure: Cary Robbins and Bryan Payne are in a relationship. The Lodge staff has taken significant steps to ensure that this article remains unbiased.

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