At Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, experts and witnesses testified about Gorsuch, his past decisions, and his potential to shape the law. The most moving testimony came from Sandy Phillips, a self-described Republican gun-owner whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessi, was killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater shooting. “My daughter went to a movie and was slaughtered,” Phillips said of the massacre, which took 12 lives and injured 70. She continued:
I use the word “slaughtered” because the killer chose to use a weapon designed for the battlefield by the military as part of his arsenal and ambushed people that could not escape. He was able to purchase 4,000 rounds of green-tip .223 high-velocity bullets over the internet without even showing his drivers’ license.
The night Jessi was murdered, I was texting with her. … The last thing she wrote to me was, “I can’t wait to see you. I need my mama.” I wrote back, “I need my baby girl.” Minutes after that text, my phone rang. What I heard on the other end of the phone changed our lives forever. …
Our little girl had been hit six times with the .223s that sprayed the theater in mere seconds. One bullet tore through her leg and entered into the other leg making it impossible to escape. Three more ripped through her abdomen. One hit her clavicle and shattered it. And one exploded through her left eye leaving a five-inch hole that blew her brains onto the theater seats, floor, and people. I live with that image every day of my life.
Phillips noted that she sued the dealer who sold the shooter these bullets, but her case was thrown out because of a federal law that protects gun dealers and manufacturers from civil liability. (Her family was forced to pay the ammo dealer hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.) She then turned her attention to the issue at hand, pointing out that gun-rights activists are currently pressing courts to strike down bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. “Cases pushing these radical views could make their way to the Supreme Court in the months and years to come,” she said. She continued:
This committee must know: Does this nominee believe the Second Amendment has limits? Does this nominee recognize that it does not override any other constitutional rights, like my daughter’s right to live in a safe community? Does this nominee understand that, as times change, laws must change, and responsible regulations to protect communities from gun violence have been recognized as, and are, constitutional and necessary? To be confirmed, any Supreme Court nominee must answer these questions clearly and convincingly. If not, the public safety is at risk.
It was then Jamil Jaffer’s turn to speak. Jaffer, a former Gorsuch clerk testifying in support of his one-time boss, began by awkwardly touching Phillips’ shoulder and saying, “Obviously a very a painful story from Mrs. Phillips and her daughter, Jessi.” He then proclaimed:
I think what I want to say to Mrs. Phillips and to members of this committee is that Judge Gorsuch—I’ve known him for 13 years. Judge Gorsuch is the kind of judge that Mrs. Phillips and that Jessie would want on the bench.
After that, Jaffer veered back into his prepared remarks, praising Gorsuch’s ability to apply the law “fairly and evenhandedly to all litigants before him.” He read his laundry list of cases in which Gorsuch “ruled for the little guy,” as if allowing a sexual-discrimination case to proceed or allowing a woman who had been sexually assaulted at work to bring a hostile-work-environment claim against a corporate employer are enough to cleanse Gorsuch’s own alleged troubling comments on women. Either way, nothing in this list demonstrated that Gorsuch has any commitment to realizing that the Second Amendment has limits, so it was particularly bizarre when he closed his argument by again asserting that Gorsuch was the kind of judge Sandy and Jessi deserve.
A few minutes later, when Phillips had another chance to speak, she took the opportunity to clarify something critical:
Phillips asked Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley “if he would please make note in the record that this gentleman next to me does not speak for me or my dead daughter.”
Even before this moment, the strength with which Phillips delivered her testimony was astounding. In speaking up again, she made it clear that her daughter may no longer have a voice, but she would be the one speaking on her behalf—and it would not be in support of Neil Gorsuch.