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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Gun violence’s toll on one family

“Imagine the earth beneath you opening up and swallowing you whole. Imagine feeling everything good inside you – love, joy, kindness, trust, security, hope – burning and scorching to embers, giving way to fear, desperation, anguish and helplessness. Imagine being trapped in your worst nightmare, knowing that you will never wake from it. Imagine feeling truly abandoned – by God, by the universe, by humanity. Imagine all of that – and imagine it being far worse.” – “A Better Place,” by Pati Navalta Poblete

Sometimes, numbers don’t really tell the tale.

For instance, the FBI reports that in 2014, there were 8,124 gun murders in this country. And hearing that, you might feel that it gives you some grasp on the impact of gun violence.

Eight thousand, one hundred and twenty-four, you say. That’s a lot of people – 22 a day, one every 65 minutes. And you might think you get it, might think you comprehend the dimensions of the tragedy. But you don’t. After all, what is 8,124? How do you put your mind around that much loss?

The truth is, there is only one number that can help you understand gun violence. It is the number one.

In that sense, Pati Navalta Poblete, a former journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has given us a terrible gift with her new memoir, “A Better Place.” She has given us what we need to understand. She has given us one.

His name was Robby and he was her son. As described by his mom, he was a young man determined to drink all of life in one long pull. His list of interests was varied and long – archery, cooking, surfing, cycling, exotic fish, Buddhism and welding, to name a few – and he pursued them with a furious, all-in enthusiasm.

Then, on Sept. 21, 2014, he was shot to death at a busy intersection in Vallejo. Robby Poblete was 23 years old.

His mother’s book is not about “healing” or “closure” or any other pop-psychology buzzword by which we pretend grief can be managed and contained. No, this is a raw, intimate account of how it feels to be hollowed out by pain.

As such, it’s a difficult read. If you have kids, it will make you look around for them, thankful to hear them bicker, laugh and remind you that they are alive. In a video on the website of the Robby Poblete Foundation, Pati puts it like this: “You never understand how much love you’re capable of until you give birth to your child. And you never understand the pain that you’re capable of until you lose a child.”

But if that pain makes Poblete’s book difficult, it also makes it necessary, especially in a country that so often talks around gun violence. Reading it, it is all too easy to imagine yourself pulled out of a normal day in a normal life by the voicemail message that your child has been shot. It is all too easy to imagine yourself in the car, weaving through traffic, hope flickering inside, and then getting a call from your daughter – “Mom,” she wails. “Mom, mom” – and knowing. And it is all too easy to imagine days dragging into weeks into months into years as you struggle with pieces of the broken thing that used to be your life.

Eight thousand, one hundred and twenty-four Americans murdered by guns in 2014 alone. But Pati Poblete reminds us of the only number that ever really matters.


One life cut short.

One mother devastated.

One father wrecked.

One sister crushed.

One circle of friends and family bereft.

You really want to grasp the impact of gun violence? Put the statistics aside for a moment. Start with one. Feel the pain of one. Suffer unbearably with one.

Then realize you have 8,123 yet to go.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him via email at