How a grieving mom changed Kirsten Gillibrand’s stance on guns

The senator’s 2009 visit led to a well-timed change of heart, but much remains the same for this Brooklyn neighborhood
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in Hampton, N.H., last month. (Photo by Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — As she walked through the doors of Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told herself that all she needed to do was “show my heart.” Maybe then, in the Democrat’s first major appearance as a senator, she could gain the trust of a grieving community angry over her support for gun rights.

Inside, Jennifer Pryear waited for her. She held a photograph of her daughter, Nyasia Pryear-Yard. She wasn’t sure she wanted to meet a politician. “She’s not from Brooklyn. She’s from upstate. She likes guns,” Pryear remembered thinking. “But then I thought, if I could use my tragedy to make a difference, it would be worth it.”

It was February 2009, two weeks after Gillibrand had been appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate and three weeks since Nyasia, 17, left the house to go to a dance party. Someone started shooting, and a bullet struck Nyasia, killing her.

Jennifer Pryear at her Brooklyn home last month. Her daughter Nyasia, 17, was fatally shot in 2009. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

Pryear showed Gillibrand the picture and begged her to support stricter gun-control measures. To Pryear’s surprise, her pleas seemed to work. Gillibrand looked into the mother’s eyes and promised, “Your daughter’s death won’t be in vain.” Later, Gillibrand pledged to introduce gun-control legislation and start an internship program in her office in Nyasia’s honor.

Nyasia’s story is one Gillibrand tells often on the campaign trail as she seeks the Democratic nomination for president, a powerful anecdote to explain her sudden shift in favor of gun control.

[Listen on Post Reports: Robert Samuels on the story that changed Kirsten Gilibrand’s mind on guns]

Ten years after Gillibrand’s visit to Nazareth, though, there are still questions about her well-timed turnabout on an issue that had threatened her political future — and her follow-up on the promises she made to the community.

Her office can account for only one Nazareth student ever interning there. The offer — to work sometime between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., during the school year — was unfeasible for the students, whose school was more than an hour’s train ride away.

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And after standing behind Gillibrand at a news conference about gun control a few months later, Pryear never heard from Gillibrand again. She had no clue that the senator still spoke about her daughter until a Washington Post reporter told her.

Gillibrand’s office said the reason it never contacted the mother again was that it couldn’t find a way to get in touch with her — even though Pryear still lives in the house she lived in when she met the senator, with the same phone number she said she originally shared with Gillibrand’s office.

Nevertheless, Gillibrand said, she tries to honor the family through her advocacy. Each year, she pushes a bill banning interstate gun trafficking in Nyasia’s honor. Each year, like most gun-control legislation in Congress, it fails to pass. Gillibrand says she will have a better chance to pass the bill if she is president.

“I continue to work hard to try to solve gun violence,” Gillibrand said. “I know I’ll be the best leader on this because I can take these stories to anyone in a red place or a purple place that doesn’t suffer from gun violence and explain it to them in a way that they can fully understand.”

Sitting in the basement under Nyasia’s old bedroom, Pryear said she tries to remain optimistic about Gillibrand’s efforts and intentions. She once hoped that the senator could help give greater meaning to her daughter’s name. Now, she worries that her tragedy has been simplified into a story in a stump speech.

“I think I did help to change her mind, but I’m not sure she really felt it,” Pryear said. “You would think she would give a phone call or send a card. If you really care, you follow up. . . . Meanwhile, I am still coming home to an empty home and kids are still getting shot in Brooklyn.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) at a campaign stop last month in Derry, N.H. (Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

As she seeks to distinguish herself among two dozen candidates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gillibrand argues that her background uniquely positions her to persuade conservative voters on the country’s most divisive issues.

Growing up outside Albany, she said, she viewed guns in the same way many rural Americans did — as a part of life in the great American outdoors. Her mother shot the Thanksgiving turkey each year and would go moose hunting, duck hunting, deer hunting. When Gillibrand was 16, her mother went to Oklahoma on a bow-and-arrow hunting expedition for wild boar — which led to a winter’s worth of pork chops.

“It was ridiculous,” Gillibrand said of those meat-heavy meals.

Personally, Gillibrand never developed her mother’s love for shooting. This was not a moral stance, she insisted — she would just rather eat the food than kill it. Her family couldn’t get her to shoot so much as a BB gun.

“I had no interest whatsoever,” Gillibrand said. “I don’t know why it wasn’t my thing, and it wasn’t my sister’s thing, either. We liked to fish.”

The love for the outdoors was partly why she chose Dartmouth in rural New Hampshire for college. She began living in big cities only after starting law school at UCLA.

Then she spent a decade living in New York City, working as a corporate lawyer and commuting to a low-income section of the Bronx each weekend to mentor a high school student whose college tuition she said she helped pay. (Gillibrand said she has since lost touch with the student.)

During that period, there were as many as 2,100 homicides a year in New York, but Gillibrand said she remained mostly oblivious to gun violence — even though it was a major concern in the Bronx community she was visiting.

“I had some exposure, but not a lot,” Gillibrand told The Post. “My life was pretty consumed doing commercial litigation.”

Whether by design or by coincidence, she said she did not have substantive discussions about gun rights with fellow Democrats when she joined Congress in 2007, even though her House delegation included some of the country’s most outspoken advocates for gun control.

In those days, some of her most notable conversations about gun policy happened with the National Rifle Association.

Then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand in Albany with Gov. David Paterson (D) in 2009 as Paterson announced he was appointing Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate. (Tim Roske/AP)

In a Sept. 19, 2008, letter to the organization’s executive director, Gillibrand wrote that she opposed bans on “certain firearms for cosmetic features, bullets of [a] random size” and “magazines holding an arbitrary number of cartridges.”

“I appreciate the work that the NRA does to protect owners’ rights and I look forward to working with you for many years in Congress,” she wrote.

Three months later, then-Gov. David A. Paterson appointed her to replace Clinton, who had been tapped to be secretary of state. Paterson, from Brooklyn, told The Post he was looking for a senator from upstate as a way to appease a part of New York where he was less popular.

Gillibrand, a Democrat who represented a rural, overwhelmingly Republican district outside Albany, now had to win the trust of residents in New York City.

From left, Paterson, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y) at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in January 2009. (Kathy Willens/AP)

She faced immediate ridicule about her positions on guns. The New York Observer published a cartoon mocking Gillibrand as celebrity markswoman Annie Oakley. A fellow congresswoman, then-Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband had been killed in a mass shooting on a commuter train, vowed to run against her for Senate if she maintained her stance on gun control. And at her first news conference, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took the microphone and assured reporters that she would change.

“I am confident that as Kirsten comes to see the cities of the state and sees the problem of gun violence there, her views will evolve to reflect the whole state,” he told them.

One constituent, Barbara Gil, read about Gillibrand and “began to seethe.” She had spent days consoling teenagers who felt unsafe in their neighborhood, and their newest representative was going around talking about hunters’ rights and keeping two guns under her bed. (Gillibrand later tried to clarify that she and her husband won one at a raffle and received another as a gift, and they were never loaded. She said she simply stored them there — but the political damage had been done.)

Gil decided to do something she had never done before — write an email to a columnist at the New York Daily News. She suggested to him that Gillibrand should visit the Catholic high school where she served as principal.

One of her students had just been killed at a dance party. That student’s name was Nyasia Pryear-Yard.

Pryear said she tries to stay hopeful about Gillibrand’s gun-control efforts but worries her daughter's death has been simplified into a story in a stump speech. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

One recent May evening, Pryear scanned her cellphone and looked at old pictures of her daughter.

“My daughter wasn’t just some average teenage girl,” the mother said. “She was a triple threat: brilliant, beautiful and black.”

Nyasia was an honor-roll student and a cheerleader. She worked on the yearbook, wrote poetry and was eager to study journalism at Penn State. She loved being the center of attention so much that she had two outfits to herald her transition to womanhood at her sweet-16 party — a pure white princess dress and a form-fitting lime-green number.

In January 2009, Pryear had been considering taking Nyasia to see the swearing-in of the first black president. But Pryear’s mother fell ill, and Nyasia was distraught. Her mother suggested she find a way to keep her mind off things, and Nyasia told her about a party that some of her friends were attending.

“She was having a rough day, and I wanted her to have fun,” Pryear said. “She wasn’t a bad kid, so I trusted her.”

Pryear was working an overnight shift as a security guard when the call came from the police. The details were murky, but two men had started shooting at Elks Plaza, the small venue that hosted the party. Three people were hit, and her daughter was one of them.

Barack Obama would be sworn in. Pryear’s mother would recover from her illness. And Pryear would carry Nyasia’s white dress to the funeral home.

Pryear last month outside her home in Brooklyn. She called her daughter a "triple threat" — "brilliant, beautiful and black.” (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

At Nazareth, Martin Evelyn, the student-body president, remembers going from room to room to tell his classmates about Nyasia’s final arrangements. The students were familiar with peers getting shot, but Evelyn said they took Nyasia’s death especially hard. Her shooting defied a harsh logic about neighborhood life that so many kids here established for themselves to feel safe.

“You mentally prepare yourself for the kids who do bad to have bad things happen to them,” Evelyn said. “That’s a part of the callus of growing up in the ’hood and ’hood-adjacent. But Nyasia’s death was not expected.”

Days later, the principal told them their new senator was coming to visit. She explained Gillibrand’s stance on guns. She invited the students to challenge her.

“Let’s get some questions going and figure out a way to keep the tone respectful,” Gil told them.

When Pryear heard Gillibrand was coming to the school, she was “a little upset,” she said, because she was afraid her daughter’s death would be politicized.

“Politicians don’t keep their word,” she remembered thinking.

But she had already lost Nyasia. In speaking to Gillibrand, she felt she had nothing more to lose.

Gillibrand, alongside Schumer and others, speaks in Binghamton, N.Y., in April 2009, four days after 13 people were killed in a mass shooting at the American Civic Association building in the city. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Cameras flashed as Gillibrand walked into Nazareth Regional High School. The principal shook her hand and asked to speak with her away from the cameras. Gil recalled them walking to her office. She made some coffee. Then, she reached under her desk and pulled out gifts for Gillibrand: two outfits for the senator’s newborn son.

“Let’s talk mother to mother,” Gil recalled saying to her.

Gil told her Nazareth was considered a haven from the gang activity in the neighborhood. Her students were mostly children of poor and working-class Caribbean immigrants who stretched their paychecks to give their kids a better education. Gil asked her new senator to keep in mind how much she loved her own children to empathize with a new community.

“There’s a mother here who just lost her child, and I hope you can hear her pain,” she said.

Barbara Gil, then-principal at Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn, shown in January 2009. (Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News/Getty Images)

Jennifer Pryear and Nyasia’s father, Alberto Yard, were waiting for Gillibrand in an alcove. Pryear tried to hold back tears as she spoke about her triple threat of a daughter. She had to wonder: Where are all these guns coming from?

“We don’t have gun ranges here. There are no deer in Brooklyn,” Pryear remembered trying to convey to Gillibrand. “Maybe the guns are stolen from places like where you’re from.”

Gillibrand said little. As she thought about the meeting 10 years later, Gillibrand’s voice still trembled.

“It was sad,” Gillibrand recalled. “It was really sad.”

Gillibrand then walked to the school’s chapel, where Nyasia’s classmates were waiting for her. But the students weren’t alone. Their parents came, too, hoping to educate their new senator. For nearly an hour, the group had a conversation about gun violence that echoes today.

The students explained to Gillibrand that they could not understand why anyone in their neighborhood would want or need a gun. The people they knew who had them ended up shooting someone, or getting shot. Marcus Samerson, who was in Nyasia’s homeroom class, said his classmates saw gun ownership as an example of culturally biased policies in America. During a period when police officers in their neighborhood were practicing stop-and-frisk policies, the students feared they would get harassed if they were caught with a firearm — legal or no.

“It was a really real event,” Samerson said.

Mother after mother told Gillibrand they were so afraid of gun violence that they had little choice but to keep their children inside. One was so scared she wouldn’t even let her son take out the garbage.

Watching Gillibrand’s face, the principal was sure her community had accomplished something remarkable: They changed a politician’s mind.

“You could tell in her body language, the tilt of the head, her facial expression, that she was listening and she was moved,” Gil said.

As she left Nazareth, she told reporters that she would fight to “keep illegal guns off the street.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Gillibrand recalled thinking. “There was no discussion or time for evolution. It was immediate. I just knew I was going to do the right thing and lead on an issue that I had not led on before.”

She wanted to work on the gun-trafficking bill to address Pryear’s concern. She would eventually recant all her positions she outlined in the letter to the NRA, calling for universal background checks and bans on assault rifles and bump stocks.

Gillibrand’s NRA rating dropped from an A to an F.

Gillibrand waits to take the stage in New York as she kicks off her presidential campaign in March. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

On the presidential campaign trail, Gillibrand accuses the NRA of poisoning the political debate on guns and keeping her bill from passing.

“They are the worst organization in the country,” Gillibrand said at a recent Fox News town hall in Iowa.

Still, Pryear sometimes wonders whether Gillibrand got more from their conversation than she ever will. Gillibrand would keep her Senate seat, be reelected and pursue the highest office in the land. There was a time when Pryear imagined going along with Gillibrand, speaking at anti-violence rallies, traveling with her senator while telling the story of her daughter’s death. Gillibrand now does that on her own.

Back then, Pryear had hope for her daughter’s legacy. Community leaders had vowed to find the killer, a senator had made her a promise, and the election of a black president had unleashed a new feeling that so much was possible.

But the news conferences would end and local activists would move on to the next tragedy. The internship program in her daughter’s honor was a bust, and, as far as she could tell, the calls of consolation from Gillibrand’s office never came. The calls from the police department stopped coming, too. Nyasia’s case has gone cold.

Ten years after Gillibrand’s shift on guns, the grieving mother still struggles with the question she had when the two first met.

“I know God gives us lessons in life, but I’m still wondering: What is the lesson of my tragedy?” Pryear said. “I’m just waiting for the answer.”

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