Survivors of Gun Violence Become Passionate Political Activists

By Alex Gangitano, CQ Roll Call

It was a gorgeous, late summer morning in southwest Virginia. Barbara Parker awoke before her husband, Andy, to catch their daughter’s early segment on WDBJ, the CBS television affiliate in Roanoke. Alison Parker, 24, a rising star at the station, usually had a few live news segments between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. each day.

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The murder of his daughter and her cameraman sent Andy Parker into action. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

But on this morning, last Aug. 26, the screen was ominously blank when Barbara Parker turned it on. “There was nothing there,” she recalls. “Sometimes they have a glitch, and I thought maybe that was it.”

Then came the phone call from Alison’s boyfriend, Chris Hurst, that turned Barbara and Andy Parker’s life into a nightmare. There was a shooting, Hurst reported, but he had no other details.

“I woke Andy up and we texted her ’cause we talked every day and she would always text us back immediately, and there was no answer,” Barbara Parker recounted to CQ. They called the sheriff’s department and hospitals and couldn’t get any information.

“We just knew even before we got the call an hour later that it was . . . . ” Andy Parker says, his voice trailing off.

Indeed, Alison Parker and her cameraman, 27-year-old Adam Ward, had been shot on live television around 6:45 a.m. while interviewing the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Vicki Gardner. A disgruntled former employee at WDBJ, Vester Lee Flanagan II, a.k.a. Bryce Williams, had fired 17 shots from a Glock pistol, killing Parker and Ward and injuring Gardner, who survived by playing dead. Flanagan fled the scene and killed himself in his car after a five-hour police chase into northern Virginia.

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Alison Parker, left, and Adam Ward

In a 1969 book, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross traced five stages of grief for the loss of a loved one. These days for families and friends of shooting victims, there is often another stage, one that can kick in almost immediately: a ferocious drive into political action.

Four days after his daughter was murdered, Andy Parker publicly declared he would do “whatever it takes” to end gun violence. “I plan to devote all of my strength and resources to seeing that some good comes from this evil,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Aug. 30, 2015.

That same day, Parker told CNN he had been in contact with Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat with a mixed record on gun regulation, and representatives of Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group with its roots in a gun-control effort launched a decade ago by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A few days later Parker officially joined Everytown and dropped his bid for a seat on the Henry County, Va., Board of Supervisors to devote  his full time to the group’s cause.

“I think it was probably a coping mechanism to a large part,” Andy Parker now says. “You know, you go through these stages where initially you’re in shock, grieve and then we got angry that this continues to happen.

“That it happened to our daughter — I just felt like the way that we can deal with this is to get involved and try to save other lives, and do whatever we can and whatever it takes to prevent gun violence.”

Barbara Parker adds: “We raised our children to believe that they should stand up for things that they really believed in and we couldn’t see how that we could do anything less in light of what happened to Alison.”

They are not unique.  While close relatives react in unique ways to the shock of any violent death, more and more of them are heading into the political arena to try to prevent their tragedies from being visited upon other families.

Looking to the Law

Fifty years ago, after Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from a tower at the University of Texas in Austin left 16 people dead, there were few calls for limits on gun ownership. A string of assassinations in the 1960s that snuffed out two Kennedys and an iconic civil rights leader got Congress to ban mail-order rifle sales in 1968, but there was less concern about America’s global image as an out-of-control Wild West.

As casualties mounted in the 1970s and 1980s — two attempts on the life of President Gerald R. Ford, the wounding of President Ronald Reagan outside a Washington hotel, a massacre at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Diego — the Second Amendment itself came under fire.

One of the first groups to lobby Congress for gun restrictions was the National Council to Control Handguns, founded in 1974 by Mark Borinsky, the victim of an armed robbery a year earlier when he was a student at the University of Chicago. Over the next three decades, Borinsky’s group, headquartered in Washington, evolved into the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence led by Sarah Brady. Her husband, Jim, was Reagan’s press secretary and had been severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on the president.

The biggest victory for gun-control advocates came in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill, passed by Congress after six years of debate, requiring background checks and waiting periods for purchasers of handguns.

Still, gun violence continued to flare up regularly across the nation, from a mass shooting in an Oklahoma post office in 1986 to twin massacres in 1999, at Columbine High School in Colorado and at two trading firms in Atlanta.

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After he was wounded at Virginia Tech, Colin Goddard started pushing for both state and federal gun regulations. (Steve Helber/AP)

Goddard helps survivors of shootings become activists, often after they have contacted Everytown to ask how to help. “Everyone handles things differently,” he says.

By 2006, as mayor of New York, billionaire Bloomberg pushed the gun-control debate up a few notches. He formed a coalition with other city leaders, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and pledged to spend millions of dollars on advertising to advocate for stronger gun laws.

In April of the next year, a 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, Seung-hui Cho, marched across the Blacksburg campus with two semi-automatic pistols and killed 32 students and faculty members before shooting himself.

Cho’s actions left thousands of relatives, friends and acquaintances of the victims drowning in a sea of anger and sorrow, but most found a way to start swimming again, often in the direction of civic involvement. Colin Goddard, who was shot four times at Virginia Tech but survived, is now active in Everytown for Gun Safety and has appeared in news programs, talk shows and online videos preaching the need for stringent background checks on gun buyers. (Cho was able to buy two guns in 2007 despite the fact that he had been ordered by a Virginia court to undergo mental health treatment in 2005.)

Another survivor of Cho’s rampage, Emily Haas, rarely speaks publicly about having two bullets graze her skull and then managing to call police and guide them to her classroom while she lay bleeding on the floor. But her mother, Lori Haas, is now the Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, another group that has been active in the debate for four decades.

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Tom Sullivan listens to the announcement that James Holmes was sentenced to life plus 3,318 years in prison. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The result was Aurora Rises, a group formed mainly to help families of shooting victims rebound by paying bills, taking care of kids, providing whatever is needed. After a sudden loss, Sullivan says, “things slip between the cracks, things don’t matter as much, like turning off the lights.”
Sullivan says his approach to gun control focuses on finding consensus. If more rigorous background checks are implemented, he says, “that will help. It’s not going to prevent, just like we make it mandatory that everybody has to have a seatbelt in their car. It doesn’t stop people from dying in car accidents but it certainly has brought the numbers down.”

“Gun violence is a public health problem,” Haas says, adding that it could soon be the leading cause of death in America.

Aurora, Newtown

The mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20, 2012, added more soldiers to the battle for gun restrictions. One of them is Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was murdered while watching the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” as part of a 27th birthday celebration. Alex was at the movie with co-workers when James Holmes opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Soon afterward, Tom Sullivan’s wife and daughter went to an event promoting gun control and realized the issue “certainly was much bigger than us.” So the family decided to join others. “I was afraid if people just saw us crying and angry all of the time, that wouldn’t have been useful for anybody,” he says.

Sullivan adds: “There’s not a pill to make you smarter, there’s not a solution to make you fitter and there’s not going to be one particular thing to fix this.”

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Mark Barden backed by a somber President Obama and Giffords, left. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A neighbor of Lanza’s, Po Murray, was motivated to establish the Newtown Action Alliance, which is involved in advocacy to prevent gun violence. The mother of four former Sandy Hook students, one who graduated only a year and a half before the shooting, has spent the past three years devoted to this work.

After the Dec. 14, 2012, slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the cries for Congress to clamp down on guns may have been the loudest ever.

Mark Barden lost his son, 7-year-old Daniel, that day. Barden co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit made up of other victims’ family members and community members to provide programs to educate parents, schools and organizations before shootings occur. The group focuses on mental health advocacy and early-intervention programs with a grassroots approach. “There’s a place for calling your elected officials,” Barden says. “We talk to community leaders to get into the space before the gun is in the equation.”

Newtown Action Alliance is made up of all volunteers, and according to Murray the ultimate goal is to enact a federal law similar to Connecticut’s 2013 measure banning magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, like what Lanza used. The state law also requires universal background checks for all firearm purchases.

“It doesn’t make any sense to us that Congress is sitting there watching all these people die, and not doing anything about it,” Murray says.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis mother Shannon Watts watched the aftermath of Sandy Hook on television and was inspired to take action. A day after the shooting, she founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“My kids were little and I really didn’t know how to get involved, but when Sandy Hook happened, I just felt it would happen again,” Watts says. She compared her push to the 1984 Mothers Against Drunk Driving effort that succeeded in getting Congress to force states to hike their drinking age to 21.

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Po Murray, who started a group after Sandy Hook, talks with her senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Six Votes Short

“I had no idea I was starting a movement, I just thought I was starting a conversation,” she says.

In 2014, Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Watts’ group merged to create Everytown. Moms remains the grassroots arm of the organization.

Barbara Parker says of Watts: “She is not a survivor, she did not have a child or a family member who was killed — she was just so outraged after Sandy Hook that she started talking to a friend and talking about ‘we can’t sit by and watch this; these are children.”

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the first modern piece of gun-control legislation on Oct. 22, 1968. Because of the sweeping bill, stricter licensing of firearms begins and felons can’t buy guns and ammunition. (LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe)

Another warrior enlisted in the gun battle after May 23, 2014, when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others in a shooting rampage near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. One of the victims was 20-year-old Christopher Martinez, who was killed at a deli. His father, Richard Martinez, is now an active member of Everytown.

Pressure from these groups — and from a similar organization founded a month after Sandy Hook by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot while greeting constituents outside a Tucson grocery store in January 2011 — almost resulted in significant congressional action to expand gun regulations. An amendment to require background checks for all gun sales had backing from 54 senators, but failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

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Richard Martinez, center, at a 2014 rally in Washington with other shooting survivors. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“I didn’t give it a thought, I just started doing it; there was no conscious decision,” Martinez says of his move into political action. “Everything that I thought was important before Chris was killed isn’t important to me anymore. I was an attorney. . . .  I haven’t been back in the courtroom since. I don’t care. The only thing that’s important to me now is to try and reduce gun violence in America.”

He puts himself in the same category as members of Congress who “didn’t do anything” after Sandy Hook. “It’s not just them, it’s the rest of us; we haven’t done enough,” Martinez says. He says the first step should be universal background checks on all gun sales. “We are actually not anti-gun,” he says. “We’re anti-gun violence.”

Martinez doesn’t lose hope when new shootings occur. “People used to go to Steve Jobs all the time and say, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that,’ and he got it done. Every other country that faced this problem in the developed world has implemented common-sense changes to their gun laws and reduced gun violence.”

Martinez says he feels a strong bond with Andy Parker. “For some people, like me and Andy, there’s no choice. Andy and I cannot accept the way our kids died.”

Parker moved swiftly and aggressively into action after his daughter’s murder. In his Post op-ed, he slammed his congressman, Virginia Republican Robert W. Goodlatte, for not holding hearings on legislation to reduce gun violence as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“He has refused to lead on this issue, and he has done absolutely nothing to help contain the carnage we are seeing,” Parker wrote. “On the other hand, Goodlatte had no problem cashing his check from the National Rifle Association during the 2014 election cycle. Shame on him.”

Goodlatte offered to meet with Parker shortly after the article appeared. “Mr. Parker is right — gun violence is an emotional and heartrending issue, one with many root causes, and one that by working together in a constructive manner we can help to further reduce,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

A spokesman for Goodlatte said later that the two met for about an hour and “spoke about additional ways to help reduce gun violence, while also protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens.

“Many of our nation’s gun laws are not currently being enforced by the Obama administration, and Congressman Goodlatte encouraged Mr. Parker to speak out about this alarming trend,” the spokesman said in an email. “Congressman Goodlatte is also working on a few issues of common ground, like mental health reform, that were raised in their meeting and subsequent communications.”

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Goodlatte (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On Oct. 5, 2015, Parker took to the media to make another declaration: “We are engaged in a war in this country.” His op-ed ran in USA Today four days after 26-year-old Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer killed eight fellow students and a teacher at Umpqua Community College in Rosenberg, Ore. Harper-Mercer committed suicide after exchanging gunfire with police. He was anti-religion with white supremacist leanings and struggled with mental health issues. All 14 of the weapons he owned were purchased legally.

With the help of Everytown, Parker and his wife also became active in campaigns for the Virginia Legislature, and had one key victory. Their endorsement and appearances in behalf of Democrat Jeremy McPike helped the volunteer firefighter and medical technician narrowly defeat an NRA-backed Republican mayor, Hal Parrish, in a race for a state Senate seat.

After the election, two more violent attacks dominated national news before the end of 2015: On Nov. 27, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear Jr. killed three people, including a police officer, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., and on Dec. 2 a married couple, 28-year-old Syed Rizwan Farook and 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and seriously wounded 22 others when they opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif.

“I just become enraged. It’s a gut punch, again,” Parker says of each shooting. “I think that whenever these events happen, it affects people exponentially. People get touched by this. And I can’t tell you the number of people over the course of the last four months that have talked to me and Barbara, that have just come out of the woodwork and said, ‘Look, how do we help?’”

“I think that what people have to understand, saving lives shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Barbara Parker says. “That’s not what we’re trying to make that into. We have to take a good hard look at these issues and push our congressional leaders to do something.”

Despite the unending pain, Andy Parker says he retains hope. “I think that there are enough people with common sense, rational human beings that want to see change, and I think we are going to make a difference and we are going to change this,” he says. “It may not happen tomorrow but we’re in this for the long haul and we’re not going away.”