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.

Roundtable Collage.
From top left: Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, Tom Sullivan, Richard Martinez, Carlos Soto, and Tom Mauser.

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images. Photo by Rod Lamkey/Getty Images. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.Photo courtesy ofThe Peacemaker Movement.

On Tuesday, a man with a gun killed a student and wounded a teacher at an Oregon high school. Two days earlier, a couple on an anti-government rampage shot two police officers and a man in a Walmart. And the week before that, Elliot Rodgers killed three people and wounded 13 in a shooting spree in the college town of Isla Vista, California. Those are just the recent fatal shootings that made headlines. At Slate, after the devastating mass shooting at Newtown, we tried to track each gun death for more than a year. The data were incomplete—and the total was still 12,042.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings, the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, spoke out in an effort to “make my son’s death mean something.” He has joined a brave, sad band of family members who have made preventing more gun violence their cause. At Slate, we wanted to know what it’s like to do this work, day in and day out. How does it feel to watch the shootings recur? How do you keep going?

On Monday, I sat down to talk with people who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They’d gathered in Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by the Brady Campaign. Tom Sullivan lost his son Alex, on his 27th birthday in Aurora two years ago (12 dead, 70 wounded). Sandy and Lonnie Phillips lost their daughter, Jessica, 24, also at Aurora. Carlos Soto, who is 16, lost his sister, Victoria, a 27-year-old teacher, at Newtown (26 dead, two wounded). Tom Mauser, who joined us by phone, lost his 15-year-old son, Daniel, at Columbine in 1999 (13 dead, 24 wounded). Eddie Weingart lost his mother when he was 2 years old; she was murdered by her ex-husband. Andrew Goddard’s son, Colin, then 21, was shot four times at Virginia Tech (32 dead, 17 wounded). Colin recovered and also works to prevent gun violence.

Roundtable Group.
From left to right: Andrew Goddard, Carlos Soto, Sandy Phillips, Lonnie Phillips, Tom Sullivan, and Eddie Weingart.

Photo by Yossi May.

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Here’s an edited version of our group conversation. We’ve embedded a few audio clips along the way.

Slate: Thank you all for coming. Tom Mauser, let’s start with you, since it has been 15 years since Columbine. What is the best thing and the hardest thing about doing this work?

Tom Mauser: I really love working at convincing people. It’s like I’ve taken my son’s place on the debate team at Columbine. An awful lot of people are with us, but you have to work through a lot of things that are in the way. I love working on that—taking on the clichés of the other side, and letting people see there are ways to answer the questions they have.

The worst part is the intransigence and lack of civility of the other side. I don’t consider my side to be anti-gun, by the way. It’s pro-gun safety, and the prevention of gun violence, not anti-gun.

Slate: As people who have lost family members, what do you bring that helps cut through some of the clichés Tom is talking about?

Tom Sullivan: The picture I try to put out there is that I’m every man. I went to high school, married at a young age, built a house, built a family. I was in the service. I went to college. We took our kids places on their birthdays. We went to the movies on Alex’s birthday. The first movie his sister remembers seeing was The Rocketeer, when Alex was 6. You try to tell that to people—I’m just everybody, it could be you.

I came to the conclusion: This is my cross to bear. I can carry this. You want to hate on someone, hate on me. And then, maybe we have a chance of changing this.

Now after UC–Santa Barbara, there is this father, Richard Martinez. And I see there’s a reaction [to him], of “I’ve seen this happen before, and then I’ve moved on.” I’m sorry, you can’t just move on. You see a father, a mother, you have to do something. Even if that only means you talk about it, with your kids, at church, at the PTA. You can no longer go, “it’s their problem.” No, it’s our problem.

Sandy Phillips: Lonnie and I were, I don’t know whether to say cursed or blessed, after Newtown happened, we were asked to go to Newtown. It was a week after the shooting. Those people remember our being there. They don’t remember us. They just remember somebody who had already gone through it was there.

We had the same experience in Isla Vista. The community may not ever remember Lonnie and myself on a personal level. But they will remember someone cared enough about them to show up, to wrap their arms around them.

Slate: Carlos, do you remember Sandy and Lonnie coming to Newtown?

Carlos Soto: I wasn’t there. That first week was a blur to me. I believe I lay in my bed for the whole week.

Slate: How did you come out of that?

Carlos: I came out of it when I took a trip to D.C. three months after it happened, to lobby and to speak out. I kind of just wanted to get away. I went down, and I met Sandy and Colin, and it really changed my life.

Slate: Did they give you any advice?

Carlos: At the first meeting I went to, a senator was against us. Sandy told me: Use your frustration as motivation. Tell your story. And I remember Colin telling me to go back to school.

Slate: How old are you?

Carlos: I’m 16.

Eddie Weingart: When I first became an activist on the gun issue, I was 15 years old. My [mother’s shooting] happened when I much younger. All those years of dealing with the grief and anger, at a young age, I really felt like I was the only one. I felt like nobody could understand that pain until I went to a vigil for my cousin’s best friend, who was killed in a drive-by shooting. There was a mother who lost two sons and a brother to gun violence.

It was a joy in a weird way to know other people I could turn to. That was the biggest blessing. Because we all know there are added elements, compared with ordinary grief, to what we’ve experienced.

Slate: How is your experience different from ordinary grief?

Sandy: It is excruciating because of the way your loved ones have been killed. Knowing the details. The Newtown families, their little babies were shot 11 times with a 223 that destroys so much tissue and bone. To know that information. To know the way Tom’s son was killed, and my daughter was killed, how many bullets, where they struck them, what their last moments were like. It’s very traumatizing.

Yet all of us have chosen to find our voice, to use our voice because these stories hopefully impact our fellow Americans to take corrective action. In time that will happen. Unfortunately, our numbers are growing every day.

Lonnie Phillips: With Richard Martinez, I had the pleasure of meeting him by phone and email. I feel like I’m connected to him, because of the emotion. We could tell him, “Look, you’re in shock right now.” It helps Sandy and me. It gives us as much as we give, or more.

You know, no one recovers at any given rate. You can’t say to someone that happened two years ago, why haven’t you moved on yet?

Sandy: You never recover.

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