Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Isla Vista: Families of shooting victims talk about the struggle of lobbying for gun control.

Families of Shooting Victims on the Struggle to Stop the Madness of Gun Violence

Families of Shooting Victims on the Struggle to Stop the Madness of Gun Violence

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 12 2014 12:07 PM

“You Allow Your Heart to Be Broken Every Day”

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. Isla Vista. Families of shooting victims describe the struggle of lobbying for gun control, and how they keep going.

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Eddie: No, never.

Lonnie: Richard Martinez came out swinging, he came out angry. We didn’t even find a voice for two weeks, and here he is, on the day of, uttering phrases that are catching people’s hearts. “Not one more.”

His voice gets louder and louder, and it’s another addition to the movement. People are rallying behind him—tell us what to do.


Tom Sullivan: When this happened to Andy and Tom Mauser, seven years ago, 15 years ago, they didn’t get a phone call from another parent who had been through something similar. My family was on the front page of 97 newspapers. One of the first images that came out [of Aurora], other than the yellow tape, was my family, finding out. I didn’t get any phone calls then from another family member who had been through this. This is a new phenomenon.

Slate: Are you able to make these connections partly through social media?

Sandy: That’s part of it. It’s hard to approach new victims and survivors. You don’t know what they want. They don’t know. On social media, you can just reach out and say, “we’re here.”

Andrew Goddard: I’ve been quiet because my situation is different from others here. I didn’t lose someone. Colin’s alive. It was so close. I got the impetus to do something without having to pay the price. I got to look over the cliff, but not go over it.

I’m an engineer. I spent most of my life in developing countries doing disaster relief. You get parachuted into a war or a drought or a famine, you size it up, you make a plan. Here I am, my son is in a French classroom on a Monday morning in college, and he gets four bullets. Something is terribly wrong here. So, what went wrong? I looked at all the things that brought him and the bullets together. I realized, a lot is going on here that people don’t talk about.

First I went to the NRA page online, to find out what they have to say. Well, forget that. Then I called Brady, and they said, we’re really sorry. But they didn’t want to intrude. I think a lot of organizations felt they had to have kid gloves with the families. But now I think it’s quite common, you go to them, and they’re all over it. Even to the extent of initiating contact, respectfully and carefully.

Sandy: Absolutely.

Slate: Tom Mauser, in watching this unfold over a long time, what has the biggest shift been over time?

Tom Mauser: It’s a tough thing to work on. It really takes an investment of time, getting people over the tendencies of Americans to simplify issues to something very basic. For too many, it’s, “Well, it’s our right to have guns, and we’re trying to take their guns away from them.”

Also, there is the tendency to look for excuses. With each one, especially the mass shootings, people say: That happened because the shooter was mentally ill, or bullied, or something else. I think people hear the stories and think it’s the person, not the gun. But when you look at the totality—at all the individual shootings, the ones the media doesn’t cover—you see one thing behind all the stories is easy access to weapons.

Eddie: Newtown was a waking moment for everyone. These were 5- and 6-year-olds. The innocence, it’s overwhelming.

Lonnie: Richard Martinez paid reverence to Newtown by saying “those people only had their children for 6 years. I had at least 20 years with my son.”

Slate: Sandy, when we talked on the phone last week, you were worrying about Richard Martinez burning out. I wonder what you said when you talked to him?

Sandy: We said to Richard, “you can’t honor your son if you collapse. You have to take care of yourself.”

I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn here for any of us: When you get that news, you don’t want to live. Then somewhere along the course, somewhere, you go, “excuse me, crap, I’m going to live through this.”

Eddie: I have to.

Sandy: Yes, I have to live through this, and I have to make a change. You learn to roll with it. You sense when you’re going to hit a wall. I was just talking with Nicole Hockley, one of the mothers from Newtown, about how you can almost time it. When you’re in a situation like we’re all in, where you’re telling your personal story, at an event such as this, where you’re learning how to tell it better.

Isla Vista.
A makeshift memorial in front of the IV Deli Mart, in Isla Vista, California on May 25, 2014.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Slate: Which is a weird thing in itself.

Sandy: Yes. This is your life. You can’t rewrite the script. You can only tell the story and make it more impactful. That takes its toll every single time you do it. I had someone tell me one time, “Oh, it will become almost rote.” I said, “Oh my God, if that ever happens, then I need to leave the movement. Because if it doesn’t break my heart every single time I tell that story—”

Lonnie: Then you’re not authentic.

Sandy: Then I’m not authentic. And that’s not real. So you allow your heart to be broken every day you tell that story because you need someone else to understand the heartbreak that is part of this. You can’t walk away from it. You redefine yourself because you’ve had to redefine yourself. You’re no longer the person you were the moment before you learned—

Lonnie: We have a before Jessie life, and an after Jessie life.

Tom Mauser: Yes that’s the case. For me, 15 years later, when I speak to groups, I still break up. I let that happen. One thing we face, it’s always in my head, knowing that when you get emotional, when you feel that sorrow, there’s someone on the other side being dismissive. They’re saying, “Oh yes, we know it’s hard for you, and you’re so emotional, we understand why you blame guns.”

Because they don’t really want to face it. They want to just be able to say, “Oh they must be distraught. They’re not thinking straight.”

Andrew: You know, there’s a big fallacy out there about the idea that if you are emotionally motivated, then you are suspect. You tell me that the other side isn’t emotionally motivated? Of course they are. Their emotions are as important to them as ours are to us.

So many people say your emotion is clouding your judgment. You’re not looking at this thing from a balanced perspective. No, I do look at all sides of things. But I’m still driven by the same emotions to get something done.

Tom Sullivan: There are those who tell me, “You’re using your son’s death to further your agenda about guns.” I tell them, “Yes you’re absolutely right. For once, I’m using my son’s death. I know for a fact he would be proud of me.”Slate: Looking online, I found a few families of victims who are speaking up for the guns rights side. I imagine that on the one hand, you feel like you have to respect that, and on the other, it must be pretty hard.*