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Four years later, Annapolis remembers Capital Gazette shooting victims

Family, friends and elected officials gather at the Guardians of the First Amendment memorial in Annapolis, Md., on June 28. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

So much had happened since the last time they had all been together at the Guardians of the First Amendment memorial, with its stone-etched dedication to the free press and five pillars representing the people killed in the Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018.

One year ago — on this same anniversary of the deadliest newsroom mass shooting in U.S. history — the victims’ friends and family gathered alongside those who survived the attack to dedicate the memorial in downtown Annapolis. It had been the eve of the sanity trial for the gunman, who had acted on a years-long grudge against the paper when he stormed the newsroom on a summer afternoon and opened fire.

Speeches were made and stories were shared during a lengthy ceremony.

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Now they were back, but this time the gathering would be brief. They wanted it that way.

A city official read the victims’ names: “Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara.”

Another official read a poem called “Listen” from Annapolis poet laureate Maggie Benshaw: “When we heard of another tragedy tears welled in our eyes. Will they stand up this time and hear our cries?”

There was a moment of silence and a wreath-laying, before the crowd of dozens began to slowly migrate toward City Hall, where a portrait of the victims would be unveiled.

Though the memorial was for those killed in one of history’s deadliest attacks on journalists, the people who gathered Tuesday were reminded of the hundreds of others who have died in mass shootings since.

“You’d think with all this practice you’d know what to say,” said McNamara’s widow, Andrea Chamblee. “I want to thank you for coming, and I want to urge you to vote.”

Pinned to her blue dress was an orange Moms Demand Action button, for the gun control organization that had become central to her life since her husband was killed. Maria Hiaasen, the widow of Rob Hiaasen, wore orange, too.

Gun control advocacy has helped the women make something of their grief — the news a constant reminder of the continued importance of that work, they said. They’ve watched hundreds of people lose loved ones to mass shootings since their own experience, watched lawmakers fight over background checks and loopholes. Finally, last week, they watched Congress pass a bipartisan gun control bill following the recent mass shootings at a grocery story in Buffalo and a school in Uvalde, Tex.

“The more we educate, the more we treat this as a public health issue, we’ll get somewhere,” Hiaasen said.

“It’s the only thing that makes us have hope,” Chamblee said, “to know there is something we can do.”

Each day and each year since the shooting had been different, each with evolving “ups and downs,” Chamblee said. There was the immediate grief after the attack, the three drawn-out years leading up to the gunman’s trial and then the trial itself, which ended last summer with a guilty verdict and lifelong prison sentence.

Their own lives had evolved, too. Some family members had moved away. Survivors had taken jobs in different newsrooms, some close by and some far away. Other colleagues took buyouts as their beloved newspaper faced more and more cuts.

These mass shooting survivors were called journalism heroes. Then the buyouts came.

Four years later, Chamblee had found ways to move forward. She had retired, she said, and met a “wonderful” partner.

“I have a good life,” Chamblee said. “I feel sad and wistful about that, because John deserved a good life, too.”

Chamblee spoke again at City Hall, expressing gratitude for everyone who had become a part of their collective Capital Gazette family: the city leaders, the state’s attorney, the first responders, those who called 911 that day, those who survived, those who have helped in the years since.

“I wouldn’t trade this team for anything,” she said. “Except for maybe one thing.”

Hiaasen spoke, too, asking those gathered to remember all victims of gun violence — not just those who died in high-profile attacks.

“Not every victim gets a tribute the way our five did,” she said. “May the Capital and every small paper press on. We truly need you.”

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The crowd mingled over refreshments, filtering through an upstairs hallway where a portrait of the victims was making its City Hall debut. Mark Peria, the local artist behind the portrait, watched as the victims’ loved ones inspected and reflected upon his work.

Fischman’s wife stepped toward the painting, kissed her hand and then touched it to the face of her late husband.

Peria did not know all the victims but had become friends with Winters through her reporting and photography in the Annapolis arts community. The day of the shooting, Peria had texted Winters and then-Capital Gazette reporter Selene San Felice when he saw police rushing toward the newsroom. San Felice texted back. Winters didn’t.

She prosecuted killers for decades. Then she took on the Capital Gazette mass shooter.

The next day, he started painting.

“I felt like I needed to do something,” Peria said. “As an artist, this is all I can do.”

The painting was sold at a tribute gallery show years ago and eventually donated for public display at City Hall, Peria said. He said he never expected to find himself at such a ceremony when he first picked up his paintbrush. But with his unexpected platform, he gently asked to convey a message. He, too, wanted to push the conversation forward — toward gun laws that keep people safe.

“I don’t want anything like this to happen ever again,” he said. “I’d like to say that everyone should act now.”