“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.