Virginia Chamlee is managing editor of Jacksonville Magazine.
The six-paragraph newspaper article about her was headlined, simply, “Shot in Head.” It began: “Gay Chamlee is listed in serious condition at Floyd Medical Center after being shot in the head Tuesday afternoon. Her husband is charged with the shooting.”
Sometimes I imagine what she was like before — big blue eyes shining, long hair blowing behind her as she drove too fast, like any teenager. I’ve only known her the way she is now — bloated from her medication, face sunken where her right eye should be, a large scar running over her head. That she has no sense of smell and has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old aren’t visible, but I can see these things when I look at her. My mother has been this way ever since she was shot in 1985 by a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun, more commonly known as a “38-special.” According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, American women are 11 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries. Yet gun laws in this country remain severely lax.
In the weeks leading up to the shooting, my mother had filed a petition for a protective order against my father. Protective orders are meant to make it more difficult for an abuser to purchase a gun but, because of a number of loopholes, they don’t provide much actual protection. Currently, the law in Georgia, where the shooting took place, does not prohibit individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms or ammunition, nor does it prohibit those subject to protective orders from possessing firearms or ammunition. My father — a man who had told his spouse he was going to kill her and had, just a month before, beaten her so severely she had to go to the hospital, at which time she gave birth prematurely to me — was able to secure a weapon fairly easily. The day before he shot my mother, he drove to a gun shop with a friend (himself a convicted felon) and had the friend purchase the weapon. Both men were present at the time of purchase.
The last few moments before my mother was shot were spent blissfully ignorant of her fate. She was cradling her 1-month-old baby in the passenger seat of her mom’s car when he drove up alongside her and fired twice. His aim was good on the second attempt. The bullet entered her head through her right temple, exploding once inside her brain. Her right eye was shattered, and a large portion of her brain was affected. She lost many of her motor skills and most of her memory.
The injury hasn’t subsided over time. In fact, it’s gotten much worse. In 2004, her nose began to deteriorate, which required doctors to surgically move a vein from her forehead to help regenerate the tissue. The extra skin on her face made it difficult for her to wear her glass eye and, obviously, made her even more self-conscious than she had been previously. In the 30 years since the attack, she has undergone more than 20 surgeries. The man who shot her, on the other hand, spent only seven years in prison after being convicted of aggravated assault.
In a 1991 New York Times op-ed, Ronald Reagan described an injury eerily similar to my mother’s. In the attempted assassination in 1981, Reagan was wounded, but his injuries weren’t as severe as those of his press secretary, James Brady, who was shot on the left side of his forehead. The bullet entered near his eye and passed through the right side of his brain before exiting. Brady survived, but he spent the rest of his life in pain and in a wheelchair.
Reagan’s op-ed, “Why I’m for the Brady Bill,” detailed legislation to establish a national seven-day waiting period before a purchaser could take possession of a handgun. “Since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide,” Reagan wrote, “the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths.”
As part of the Brady Bill, a five-day waiting period went into effect for a few years in the 1990s, but it was supplanted ultimately by instant background checks. This all happened too late to help my mother, but how many lives could have been saved if such a cooling-off period were still in place?
I don’t advocate the removal of every gun from every household in America — that’s an impossibility. I am advocating, however, closing the loopholes that have made acquiring guns too easy. Laws in more than 30 states allow those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes to buy and use guns. In most states, those with temporary protective orders against them are not required to relinquish guns they already own. The victims of these so-called “boyfriend loopholes” are the girlfriends and wives of domestic abusers, all too often shot simply because their partners were angry, controlling and jealous — and a gun was easy to obtain. Congress should not sit idly by while our mothers and our daughters continue to be the victims of these loopholes. State and local lawmakers have a responsibility to act to prevent gun violence.
What happened to my mom wasn’t simply an “act of evil.” It’s an example of the system failing.