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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Sandy: Everyone finds their own path. I don’t agree with their choice. But that’s my issue. I’m sure they question me. And that’s OK.

Andrew: Virginia Tech was this huge thing that came out of left field. I thought, wow, this will change something. There were so many people killed. A lot of rich white kids, basically.

It was a shock to me when people told me at the time that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pacing yourself is very difficult. I have a cycle. There are times when another shooting happens, and I can take it. It helps me, in a sense, it reminds me that’s what we’re doing this for. Other times, a daily shooting, I can’t take it. It depends where I am in my cycle whether it will lift me up or push me down.


My wife noticed I was getting bitter. It’s because the other side uses language they shouldn’t use, arguments with no logic to them. I like to argue logically.

There are times I’ve said, I can’t do this anymore, we’re not getting anywhere. And then a couple of weeks later I’ll look back and think, I was having a bad time then. What was I thinking?

Tom Mauser: Columbine happened in a very Republican district. I was the only parent who was very vocal on the gun issue. One mom spoke at the Million Mom March in 2000, but by and large, others didn’t speak out. I know a number were sympathetic. But they didn’t want to get involved.

Those people were really important to us in the first few years, the other parents. We had different views, but we got along. And when I took to them the petition to close the gun show loophole in Colorado, they all signed it. I think that’s very typical of America, that when you get away from the rhetoric and clichés, and present something logical, people say, ‘oh, really, right now someone can go to a gun show and buy a gun without a background check? That’s not right—where do I sign?’ Even parents, who were pro-gun, they signed the petition.

Lonnie: Tom, they’ll sign the petition, but how do we get them to vote? They’ve got to vote.

Slate: I wanted to ask you about state versus national legislation. You have seen some movement in the states, but also the tremendous push and failure, last year, on the federal level. What lesson do you draw from that?

Lonnie: We have to go to the state level. That’s where the action is. It’s how the NRA and their lobbyists got laws passed—one state at a time. We came close on a federal level. We won by a majority. But in this democracy, you have to have 60 percent.

Sandy: Because of the filibuster rule in the Senate.

Andrew: I play more defense than offense, in Virginia.

Tom Mauser: Yes, but in a lot of states, you can put something on the ballot and have a vote of the people. As we did in Colorado and Oregon to close the gun show loophole. I think that frightens them. Certainly in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia they’ll win, but in a number of states they’ll lose the vote of the people.

Slate: How do you all think about the mental health aspect of gun violence? In some ways this debate offers an opportunity to get more mental health services. On the other hand, it can feel like an excuse for not dealing with the weapons.

Sandy: I’m so glad you said that. We’ve met with senators who will say, “I’m all about getting a mental health bill.” Yet they’re the very ones who cut the funding. So they’re speaking out of both sides of their mouths. And they know they can’t even get the mental health community to agree on what needs to be done. So they use that as excuse not to pass background checks.

Andrew: It’s the squirrel they throw out for us to run after.

Thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil on Virginia Tech campus on April 17, 2007.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Slate: What do you mean?

Andrew: The idea that all gun violence is perpetrated by mentally ill people, and if we could get a hold of treating them … actually, when people are honest, they’re often not talking about treatment. They’re talking about locking people up.

Look, we’ve had a mental health problem in this country, of poor financing, poor controls, for decades. Or centuries. Now, in some of the mass shootings, there’s this little tiny confluence between that huge mental health problem and gun violence. It’s something people latch on to. Like violent video games.

We need to be doing something about mental health for the 99.9 percent of people with mental illness who are not getting proper treatment. Not because of the 0.1 percent who are dangerous.

Lonnie: To put this in perspective: All the other industrialized countries have the same problems we do, except one. They have video games. They have mentally ill people, probably in the same proportion. They don’t have a proliferation of 300 million guns.

Tom Mauser: We have to call the mental health issue the smokescreen that it is. In most states a mentally disturbed person—a person who has been adjudicated as mentally disturbed—can still go to a gun show and buy a gun without a background check.

Sandy: On the Internet, there is one site with more than 70,000 guns for you to buy with no background check whatsoever.

Slate: Gun violence cuts across class and race. But it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color. I wonder, as people who are white and affluent, or middle class, if you feel some sense of responsibility about that. If we didn’t have mass shootings, in places that seem like they should be safe, would anyone care?

Eddie: I have the privilege to go into minority communities in D.C. that have been affected by gun violence, and they’re disheartened. I know a gentleman who was three years old when his mother was killed, in very similar circumstances to my mother. He’s African-American. Our grief is the same. But he says, your story comes across louder. That breaks my heart.

Slate: Could each of you say one thing about how you keep going? How do you do that?

Lonnie: You’re probably going to get the same answer from all of us.

Slate: Which is what?

Lonnie: I keep going because of my daughter.

Andrew: I didn’t lose my son, so I keep going because of what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met. I’ve said many times, I don’t think I could do this, if I had gone down the road you have. Because I’d be so busy looking to my own survival.

Sandy: It’s funny, because we look to people like Andy who didn’t lose anyone, and you look at people who haven’t lost anyone, who are still involved for 20 or 25 years, who are still involved and passionate. Those are our heroes. Now he turns around and says we’re his heroes. There is a very tangible love you feel in this movement that also keeps you going.

Lonnie: Tom, you’re senior here. Why are you still here?

Tom Mauser: To me, it’s to honor my son. And to not have other people lose a child like my son.

You know, unfortunately, people don’t really want to see victims. And usually they don’t. A lot of people who have been victimized are so traumatized, and they don’t seek out a lot [of attention]. But I’ve had so many young people write to me and say, “I didn’t know about Columbine, I want to read about the victims.” And there’s not a lot you can read about, other than the real basic stories.

I try to take it a little deeper, to help them understand how senseless it is. We want to put a face to this. We want people to understand that it could be them. You don’t think it ever could happen to you, but it can.

Sandy: Anyone. Anytime. Anyplace.

Andrew: You can’t insulate yourself. There are certain risks in life you can take steps, you can be fairly sure you won’t be involved. But gun violence comes looking for you.

Slate: Tom Sullivan, that sounds like where you started us off.

Tom Sullivan: I was caught unaware. I thought I had been doing things right, as I said at the beginning. I thought I had put my family in safe situations. The wolf wasn’t at the door. They didn’t have wants for things. Even though I did all of that, I send my son out for a birthday, and he can’t come home from that. I’m not blaming anybody. I’m not blaming myself. But I need to understand how this kind of stuff can happen and why this happens, and what I can do to see that it doesn’t happen to someone else.

You have to do something every single day. If that only means reading a magazine article, making a phone call, talking to a friend, then that’s what you do. I’ll continue to do that.

I’ve said to our legislators in Colorado: I’m not going to be able to see my son age another day, but by God, I’ll come down here every year and watch you people age. Year after year. I’ll be here.

Sandy: Amen.

Update, June 19, 2014: Due to a mistranscription, in one instance this article misquoted Tom Sullivan as referring to his son Alex as his daughter.