Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: Aurora

Newtown- Four Years On

sandyhook-heart

I must preface this post by acknowledging I am not a gun violence victim (or a family member or friend of a gun violence victim) and, therefore, have no real understanding of its impact on anyone’s life. And while I can no more comprehend the destruction such violence imparts on a family any more than I could know what it is like to be an astronaut, anyone tangentially involved in the gun violence prevention movement has a story to tell. The story of what drove them to act.

My grandparents could relate every mundane activity that occurred on the day they heard about Pearl Harbor. My parents could describe the entire day when they heard about the assassination of President Kennedy. I can relate how desperately I wanted to gather up my twin second graders and wife and cuddle with them in the hours after the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11th. And so too, I can recall the horror and sickening feelings I felt learning of the events of December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut.

Again, my story is no more significant than anyone else’s, but, for what it’s worth, here is what I recall.

It was going to be another long day at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After the always frenetic hour+ commute from Spring, TX, we began the day with my wife having blood drawn at 10:15. From the first-floor diagnostics lab, we proceeded to the imaging department on one of the upper floors where she would be undergoing a PET scan and a CT scan to quantify what effect (if any) her chemotherapy regimen was having on the determinedly marching cancer in her body. We settled into the waiting area for her name to be called. After a while, her name was finally called, and she was tapped with an IV for the tests and taken back to the imaging area leaving me alone. These tests take a long time to complete and were being done one after the other, so I knew I was in for long morning alone. I was able to snag one of the few desks I needed to connect my computer to work. After connecting to the internet and securing a connection with work, I pulled up CNN, as I always did, to see what was going on in the world outside the hospital.

The breaking news headline relayed reports of a school shooting in a place called Newtown, CT. Having graduated from the University of Connecticut, and knowing friends from across the state, I pulled up Google Maps to locate Newtown. I found it, a small community not far outside Danbury. The initial reports said that there were several casualties, but that not much was known, and the scene was still active. I remember pulling up the Hartford Courant’s website and the local television news websites to see if there was any better information. Reports were indicating that the shooting was at an elementary school and that there might be a child among the injured.

As we know, reports continued to be updated, first with five injured, then 10, then a report that many children may have been shot and some fatally. In the waiting area, where people tend to be friendly, if isolated, some with family or friends accompanying them to their procedure, others alone, looks began to be shared, as if we were all wondering if anyone else was aware of what was developing. Stares lingered a little longer than usual as if we were all sure that the horrible news we saw on our phones or computers was isolated to our nightmares and not actually what was really happening. We searched each other’s eyes in hopes that what we were reading was wrong. Waiting for someone to say it was all wrong. The reports continued to be updated. TV news crews had been dispatched and were on their way to the scene. A dozen killed. Then another update indicating maybe more. The scene had been secured, and the word was spread that the shooter was dead. I remember thinking that at least whatever horror he/she had unleashed was quashed and no one else would be injured. The number of wounded and killed continued to climb over the next hour into a dizzying number that I felt (hoped) must surely have been incorrect. There was no way anyone could kill the number of staff and children being reported. They were children! We all know how wildly exaggerated news reports tend to be in the midst of a situation. This couldn’t be true!

The waiting area became noticeably louder as people began to process and share what had happened. After several hours, my wife finally walked out from the back area of the imaging department, and as she walked toward me, I fought for the words to tell her what had happened. My eyes welled up with tears, and my throat was no longer capable of forming words. She was the one with cancer, undergoing all manner of torture to combat the disease, and here I was, hugging her and breaking down in tears. The ride home, as usual, regardless of the time of day took much longer than it needed to. I was quiet in the car. We did not have the radio on, listening to music as we always did. By the time we reached home, the final tallies were being calculated. Twenty-six dead, not including the perpetrator or his mother.

That evening, I was alone in my home office, shaking with anger. My wife entered to find me on my knees almost hyperventilating with rage. It was no longer enough to write about gun violence, I told her, I needed to get involved. She hugged me and said she understood and would help me as long as it didn’t consume me and send me into a deep depression. I promised, saying that I simply needed to do something. I knew it wouldn’t be me alone who felt that way that night. I knew thousands were already involved. I simply wanted to add my voice.

I had become angered enough by gun violence in America after the theater shooting in Aurora, CO the previous July 20th to write about it. The very first entry in this blog was simply a copy/paste of a blog entry written by one of the victims of that shooting, Jessica Ghawi. She had narrowly escaped a shooting in a mall in Toronto the previous June 2nd and wrote about the event and how grateful she felt.   The second to last paragraph of her entry reads:

“I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.”

Forty-eight days later she was dead. I wish I had known Jessica. I was fortunate to meet her parents in October of 2015, six weeks after my wife’s death. They were as kind and compassionate as anyone I’ve ever met and doggedly determined to prevent gun violence. Sandy Phillips’ first question to me as she stepped out of her car was to ask how was I doing after my wife’s death. She had lost a child, and her involvement in the gun violence prevention movement was the reason I was meeting her, and yet here she was concerned about me! I had no idea she knew about my wife’s illness or death. She is an incredible individual and so is her husband, Lonnie.

So now we find ourselves four years out from the shooting in Newtown. There have been political victories and defeats in those four years and over 130,000 Americans killed by a gun over that period of time, including many in the over 200 school shootings since Newtown. The greatest shift in that time has been the involvement and organization of hundreds of thousands of people like me. People fed up with accepting gun deaths and injuries as part of “normal” American life. The gun lobby is still a juggernaut in Washington, D.C. and in state houses around the country, but it is no longer the only voice or position. Social change comes in glacially slow movements, but it comes all the same. I can never fully appreciate the scars this date has left on the family members and friends of those lost four years ago or in any of the other gun-related horrors before or since. July 20, 2012 and December 14, 2012 changed my life and forced me to add my voice to the thousands of others no longer willing to consent that gun deaths are acceptable. Four years on and the fight is not over, but we have never been so organized or vocal or determined.

Meeting a Hero

Having lost my wife last month and my father in November of last year, I know the awkwardness caring people bring with them when they want to express their condolences. Both my wife and my father died of cancer, an insidious, destructive disease that kills from the inside out. But what do you say to someone who has had a loved one taken from them violently? We anthropomorphize cancer and speak of the “battle” waged against a nefarious foe. But what “battle” can we speak of having been waged against an instantaneous, violent death? It is simply chaos from the cosmos, dropped upon the heads of those who survive. In some cases, it is the Damocles sword of gun violence befalling someone dear to us without warning.

So it will be with my meeting Sandy and Lonnie Phillips tomorrow at a meeting of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. As none of you will remember, my very first blog post was simply a reposting of their daughter Jessi’s blog about having just missed a mass shooting at a mall in Toronto on June 2, 2012. She was murdered 48 days later at the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012.

In fact, despite continuing to write about it on my little blog, it wasn’t until the murder of twenty schoolchildren and 6 of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I was forced to act. It was while listening to a conference call of the Brady Campaign on January 7, 2013, that I heard Jessi’s heartbreaking story told by Sandy Phillips. The next week I was speaking out at Democratic clubs around Houston of the need for action to quell the violence guns were having on American society.

I consider my need to act an outpouring of love for my children. No longer could I look them in the eye and deplore gun violence without taking a stand and working to affect change. Whatever effect I might have (however small), had to be done for my children and their future. However, I attribute any courage I had to speak out publicly to Jessi, Sandy, and the parents and family members of those who were killed at Sandy Hook. But especially Sandy. Because while I had a hard time imagining me ever getting out of bed again should something so horrible befall my children, Sandy was out there speaking and acting, every day, despite the pain of her loss. And I know that change cannot be made without the efforts of those beyond the parents and family members of gun violence victims. People like you. People like me.

At a counter-rally outside the 2014 Annual NRA Paranoia Jamboree in Houston, I saw Erica Lafferty, daughter of Dawn Hockspung, murdered principal at Sandy Hook Elementary. I also saw the father of one of the murdered children. Despite their proximity and my desire to meet them, I was embarrassed to introduce myself. But was it the simple awkwardness attributed with expressing condolences or was it my guilt for not acting sooner to address gun violence? I don’t know the answer to that. I left them alone, content to stand alongside them that day in opposition to the more guns everywhere agenda of the NRA.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I am nervous, anxious and excited. I consider Sandy Phillips a hero. I don’t want to injure her or embarrass myself by saying something stupid or insensitive. It has been over three years now since I became active in this movement and I’ve seen it gather momentum despite roadblocks and disappointments. So, in spite of my nervousness tomorrow I will meet Sandy Phillips. I admire her too much not to attend.

Comfort for Aurora

Remembering the Victims

“In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.” Abraham Lincoln, May 25, 1861 in a letter of condolence to the parents of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

I did not know Jessica Ghawi, Alex Teves, Alex Sullivan or any of the other nine victims murdered in the horrific July 20, 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I do not know any of the 70 people who were injured that night and survived. But as an advocate for gun violence prevention, Jessica, Alex, Alex and many others have become my (forever young) friends. It is because of them that we work for a safer future so others are not sacrificed on America’s insane firearms alters.

The trial for the monster responsible for this all too familiar, American-centric, gun-related carnage is underway in Colorado and I find there is no way to accurately or compassionately convey my love to the survivors, their families, or the families of those murdered without sounding as if I can possibly understand their grief, pain, suffering, loss, anger… even this list seems somehow presumptuous. To those strong enough and compelled to attend the daily court proceedings, this list of presumptions must also include: the ability to sit in the same room with such a monster, knowing that he is attempting to “game” the jurisprudence of Colorado with his “superior” intellect, and the self-control and commitment to a civilized society not to throttle him when he lifts his veil of innocence whenever the jury is not in chambers. Cameras are everywhere.

It is, therefore, ironic that I find the most reflective and appropriate comments in the haunting words of one who would himself later become the victim of gun violence. In a letter dated Nov. 21, 1864, President Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a mother who it was believed had lost five sons in the Civil War. He wrote:

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. 

And so, with these borrowed words, please let the victims and their families know that I am thinking of them, grieve for them, honor their children and don’t presume to understand their pain. I haven’t the right words. Allow Lincoln’s to carry my comforts.

My Inspiration

Inspiration

 

Christopher Hitchens wrote, “To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?” This little blog started as a way for me to scream into deaf space when news events or personal experiences left me no other options; when nothing could mute the chest-tightening anger and helplessness I felt; when, as Shakespeare wrote, I bothered to complain “and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.” And so, I write. My first malediction was two years ago today. However, they were not so much my words but a reposting of the words written 45 days earlier by a young woman in Colorado. She wrote of the events she experienced at the Eaton Mall in Toronto on June 2, 2012 when a gunman (sorry NRA, he was a gunman (whom I refuse to name), not a perpetrator with some random weapon) opened fire in the Urban Eatery Food Court. Five people were shot, two died. She began:

 “I can’t get this odd feeling out of my chest. This empty, almost sickening feeling won’t go away. I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Center in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm‘s way. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting.”

She continued by showing how, in three minutes, a decision to go out into the rain saved her life.

 “My receipt shows my purchase was made at 6:20 pm. After that purchase I said I felt funny. It wasn’t the kind of funny you feel after spending money you know you shouldn’t have spent. It was almost a panicky feeling that left my chest feeling like something was missing. A feeling that was overwhelming enough to lead me to head outside in the rain to get fresh air instead of continuing back into the food court to go shopping at SportChek. The gunshots rang out at 6:23. Had I not gone outside, I would’ve been in the midst of gunfire.”

That eloquent, insightful young woman was named Jessica Redfield and she was murdered two years ago today in the theater shooting in Aurora, CO. She and eleven others were killed and 70 others were injured that horrible Friday night. She is gone, but she continues to inspire. CarlyMarieDudley Since that time, her mother and thousands of others, many accidental activists driven to act after the horrors visited upon Aurora, CO or Newtown, CT or Oak Creek, WI or Santa Barbara, CA or Washington, D.C. or Spring, TX or any of the other tragedies that take 30,000 people a year. They have started a movement that will not only change the face of America, but make it a safer nation. It will not happen quickly (nor soon enough), but it will happen. Initially only disjointed lamentations from thousands of individuals, they have begun to coalesce into a united voice, a voice determined to prevent the next tragedy, a voice which has a goal of Not One More.

Consider the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Begun in 1980 by one mother, Candy Lightner, after her 13 year old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver, it has gone on to become a national institution in activism with over 600 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. MADD has worked to enact zero tolerance legislation across the country, enacted 0.08 blood alcohol level laws nationally, is partially responsible for a 40% reduction in drunk driving attributed traffic deaths since 1982 and brought the term “designated driver” into the public lexicon.

Using MADD as a framework and appreciating the need to commit time, dedication, and effort for the long haul, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was founded the day after Sandy Hook. And if MADD felt hampered by the strong alcohol beverage lobby, Moms Demand Action knew they were up against the behemoth of all lobbyists, the NRA. When asked to explain their activism success, MADD provides a series of critical tenets, foremost among them having passionate, committed volunteers and putting a face on statistics. As MADD writes:

 “Before 1980, drunk driving deaths and injuries were spoken about in terms of cold, hard statistics—a tactic that was having little, if any, impact on reducing the number of deaths and injuries due to alcohol related crashes. But MADD didn’t speak of statistics. MADD spoke of loved ones, family members and friends—an intensely personal communication style that started with the organization’s charismatic founder and continues today. Every death, every injury is given a face, family and history— personalizing the issue so that everyone can relate, even those who have never experienced the tragedy of drunk driving.”

 Because statistics can be found to support almost any position, especially with the gun rights crowd continuing to fund discredited economist John Lott (or should we call him Mary Rosh?) and his specious data, we are reminded of the phrase attributed to Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” To counter this, gun violence groups, like Moms Demand Action, have combined the top two pillars of successful activism, according to MADD, by having passionate volunteers share the stories behind the statistics. As shown by MADD, it is a formula for success and a roadmap showing not only what can be accomplished but how long the path may take. No matter, the determination of these activists knows no limit because their well of compassion has no bottom.

Moms Demand Action has also tried to harness the power of social media to not only get out its message, but to affect change. They have seen this strategy beget success. However, personally I have all but given up on Twitter as a means of communicating having lost interest in attempting to conduct a rationale discourse with people responding in 140 character bursts of bizarre thought. More often than not, I find myself descending into a miasma with some troll and their obtuse paranoia and misogynistic vitriol into a spiraling Dante-esque hell with no Beatrice to lead me out. There is never any discourse (or room for movement) and the inevitable name calling is wholly a waste of time. So, too, it is with so many of the comment sections of news websites and Facebook pages. What begins as a thoughtful comment soon falls victim to the lowest common denominator of society, the base, violent name calling and misspelled threats. I can’t imagine the mail received at the White House.

Politicians understand polls and chase donations. To acknowledge this is to understand the rules required to bring about societal change. While a new Quinnipiac poll shows 92% of voters support requiring background checks for all gun purchases (including 92% of gun owners) and 89% of voters support preventing people with severe mental illnesses from purchasing guns (including 91% of gun owners) this poll also shows that words matter. Assistant Director, Tim Malloy stated of the poll,

 “Americans are all in on stricter background checks on gun buyers and on keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. But when it comes to ‘stricter gun control,’ three words which prompt a negative reflex, almost half of those surveyed say ‘hands off.'”

In a fascinating series of articles in Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson wrote of 7 (not-so-easy) steps to beat the NRA. To me, most importantly (and something about which I have previously written) is the need to assimilate the various gun violence prevention groups into a unified voice capable, in terms of membership and funding, to compete on Capital Hill, in state politics, against the gun lobby and for the conscience of the public. This has now begun to happen. Recently, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America have come together under the Michael Bloomberg funded umbrella Everytown for Gun Safety. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun ViolenceAmericans for Responsible Solutions, the Newtown Action Alliance and others, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and It Can Happen Here continue their important work independently. There are economies of scale available to this movement which may be necessary to influence elected officials. It is unfortunate, but money talks in Washington and in state houses across America. It is a tactic successfully used by the gun lobby for decades and a resolution gun violence prevention groups must embrace.

Words matter. We are castigated for using the term magazine when we mean clip (or vice versa) and are constantly asked to define “assault rifle” (as if we invented it and it were not a term gun makers created so the average Joe could pretend he was G.I. Joe). Words matter, but so too can they inspire! Jessica Redfield continued in her post saying

“I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening. I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.”

Every hug from a family member is precious. So tune out the static of the conspiracy theorists, the angry trolls, the paranoid “patriots,” the delusions of the “false flag” crowd,  and the AM radio troglodytes. Instead, read as much as you can. Learn the subtle nuances of these issues and find the inspiration left to us by others. A cruise ship steaming at full speed will take over half a mile to stop after the engines have been reversed. But it will stop. So, too, will we change America and in the process, save lives. Over these past two years I have met some amazing people. People who would rather be doing other things with their lives but who have had their futures permanently altered by gun violence. Visit these pages for more information on how you can remember the events of two years ago today and, perhaps, find your inspiration:

Jessica Redfield Ghawi Foundation Scholarship Fund

ACT Foundation – Alexander C Teves Foundation

Alex Sullivan Fund

Although I never met her, Jessica continues to inspire me.