Shooting massacre survivors: ‘Thoughts and prayers’ aren’t enough

September 21, 2013

The survivors took their places onstage from memory, because by now they knew exactly where to go. The shooting victims in wheelchairs entered first, rolling into the front row, wearing bracelets engraved with the words “Aurora,” “Oak Creek” or “Virginia Tech.” Behind them stood a dozen people in black T-shirts who held memorial photos of relatives killed in America’s most infamous mass shootings. In the far back were politicians holding copies of their speeches and gun-control activists waving signs, including one that read: “How many more victims does it take?”

Minutes before the rally began, two of the speakers walked across the lawn of the U.S. Capitol toward the stage. One of them, Stephen Barton, had been shot at a midnight movie premiere in Aurora, Colo., and he had deferred a teaching position in Russia so he could recover from having 16 shotgun pellets surgically removed from his arm, neck and face. The other, Carlee Soto, was taking a semester off from community college because the desks reminded her of the first-grade classroom in Newtown, Conn., where her sister had taught.

“We have to make people understand what it feels like,” Barton told her.

“It has to make their skin crawl,” she said. “It needs to physically hurt.”

“Make them uncomfortable,” he agreed.

Their event in Washington on Thursday was the final stop of a 100-day summer bus tour: 25 rallies in 25 states organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, involving more than a hundred survivors who told their stories and showed their scars, hoping to inflame a country that they fear has gone numb.

They traveled by bus to mark six months since Newtown and the first anniversaries of gunfire at a movie theater in Aurora and a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. They went to Ohio, where a gun rights counter-rally drew twice the crowd; and to Fargo, N.D., where the mayor told them guns didn’t present a problem.

Then, just last week, hours before the bus arrived in Washington, a dozen people were slain at the Washington Navy Yard.

Another Newtown. Another Aurora or Oak Creek.

Now Barton stepped up to the lectern in Washington and studied a crowd that included some of the latest survivors of a mass shooting. The 100-day bus tour had not been enough to change national gun laws. Trips to lobby in Washington had not been enough. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s money had not been enough. Neither had 20 first-graders, or 70 people killed or wounded in a Colorado theater, or 32 dead at Virginia Tech, or 13 at an immigration center, or the 35 people who are killed with guns in the United States on an average day.

“We should probably begin with another moment of silence,” Barton said.

Stephen Barton was wounded in the the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. He tells On Background’s Nia-Malika Henderson about overcoming his injuries and his journey into activism. (The Washington Post)

* * *

That silence was all around them now. It was a Senate that had no more plans to take up gun control, and the members of Congress who refused to meet with them, and the state lawmakers who had been voted out of office for supporting background checks, and President Obama’s apologies that he had already done what he could do, and a general public that sympathized and sent flowers and, yes, even mostly agreed with their positions on gun control but had lost its capacity for outrage nine months and more than 9,000 shooting deaths after Newtown.

In the hours before their rally in Washington, five survivors met near the Capitol to discuss strategies for breaking through the malaise. They had spent the morning in meetings with aides to lawmakers, who offered condolences and water.

“Thoughts and prayers and it ends there,” said Lori Haas, whose daughter was shot and injured at Virginia Tech. “I can’t do anything anymore with thoughts and prayers.”

“I’m learning that you have to be brutal with these people,” said Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away a magazine clip and disarmed the shooter at a 2011 event in Tucson where Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot. Maisch took out a picture she carried of the six people killed at that event and set it on the table. “Now I show this to people and start getting graphic,” she said. “This is not a pretty death like you see on ‘NCIS’ or ‘Law and Order.’ This is six people murdered on the sidewalk on a beautiful Arizona day.”

“Bloody and scared,” said Bill Badger, who was shot in the back of the head that day.

“Oh, and by the way, loved ones aren’t lost. They are killed,” Haas said.

“Murdered,” said Roxanna Green, whose 9-year-old daughter was murdered at the event in Arizona.

“I just want to shake people,” Badger said. “If this was some disease . . . we’d be in a national emergency.”

“You’d see planes dropping medicine,” Maisch said. “Instead, it’s another day. It’s nothing.”

Some of them remembered what it felt like to be oblivious, a part of the audience they were trying so desperately to reach. Barton learned about the 2009 killing spree at an immigration center in Binghamton, N.Y., only three years later, in 2012, after he was shot in Aurora and started to research mass shootings. “Thirteen dead and I didn’t notice,” he said.

Other survivors at the table had remained uninvolved even after their own traumas. It was one thing to be shot in a fluke incident, they said; it was another to be made aware that those flukes were in fact occurring constantly in the United States, where a mass shooting involving four or more people happens about once each day. Green, whose daughter died in Arizona, decided to become an activist only after the shooting in Aurora. Colin Goddard, shot four times during his Intermediate French class at Virginia Tech in 2007, said his “awakening” came years later, while watching coverage of the Binghamton shooting in his New York hotel room.

Now each shooting made Goddard “deflate,” he said, “like going back to square one.” Each new incident made him feel stuck in time: same gun laws, same public inertia, same predictable sense of disbelief, same calls from the same reporters who asked him to reiterate the same story of his own shooting, even though retelling it exhausted him. “You are constantly reliving it, and summoning the outrage, and that’s horrible but also the best chance to make it stop,” he said.

After the shootings at the Navy Yard, Goddard told his story a few dozen more times: that three bullets remain in his shoulder and hip, and that only seven people in his class survived. Haas redoubled her efforts to pressure state lawmakers in Virginia. Tom Mauser, whose son died at Columbine High School in 1999, went to another candlelit vigil wearing his son’s old shoes.

Soto, whose sister was killed in Newtown, received a call Monday from a friend of a friend — a young woman whose mother had just been killed at the Navy Yard. They spoke for an hour. The woman was on her way to identify her mother’s body. Then she was going to a meeting with the FBI. Hundreds of people had visited her house in Washington and dozens more had sent flowers, she told Soto. The woman wanted to know what to expect in the weeks ahead. “What’s it like?” she asked.

“The craziness dies down, and people stop paying attention,” Soto said. “But the feeling goes on forever.”

* * *

The next day at the rally, Soto stood onstage holding a picture of her sister, trying to get some of that attention back. Insects buzzed in the trees above. A motorcade raced along the adjacent street. Soto looked out at about 200 people seated in black folding chairs — a good crowd, she thought, in part because of the recent Navy Yard shooting. “My sister was gunned down,” she began.

During the bus tour, Soto had taken the advice of fellow gun advocates and revised her speech to make it more detailed, and lately she had been telling stories to crowds that she never shared with her family. “We can’t really bring ourselves to talk about it in private,” she said. She knew her speech by heart, but she found it easier to read onstage from an iPad, because it made her memories feel more like remarks.

“We laid my sister’s clothing from that day out on her bed,” she told the audience. “If you have never seen what a bullet hole looks like, your imagination doesn’t do it justice. There were five. One was right by her heart.”

Next to speak was Badger, the 76-year-old retired Army colonel shot at Giffords’s event in Arizona: “There were nine chairs, and this man was just walking down the chairs, shooting them, point-blank,” Badger said. “A congressman. A judge. A 9-year-old.”

Next came Jennifer Longdon, paralyzed in a random shooting in 2004: “My fiance’s most devastating injury was a bullet that roared through his brain,” she said. “Then I was in a room that reeked of blood and antiseptic.”

The speakers rotated onto the stage for about an hour before the president of the local NAACP announced the beginning of the event’s long finale: He would read from a list of names of people killed in gun violence this year. He bowed his head and spoke in staccato rhythm. The audience remained in place — mournful, appalled, activated.

“Michael Arnold, age 16, killed with a gun.

“Sylvia Frasier, age 53, killed with a gun.”

Ten minutes went by, then 20. Some people began checking e-mail on their cellphones. Others left to get lunch. A few dozen more waited until after lunch and then returned to work, leaving behind a sea of empty chairs.

“Michael Cunningham, age 38, killed with a gun.

“Gerald Cunningham, age 27, killed with a gun.”

The remaining survivors at the rally departed for a reception. A man in a business suit walked by and pulled an empty chair into the shade to talk on his cellphone. A school group from Indiana wandered through, sat for a minute and then left.

Soon all that remained was one person at the lectern, reading names that were broadcast through a speaker system. A helicopter flew by. A nearby protester screamed into a megaphone about the federal budget. The speaker leaned into the microphone and raised his voice. “Courtney Davis, age 20, killed with a gun,” he said, but there was nobody left to hear him.

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