Some days, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips drive their Ford F-350 through the mountains or desert, and don’t talk. Pulling their camper behind them, they often need hours of silence to get a reprieve from the work they do. The work they embraced not long after the worst day of their lives.
Their daughter, Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sports broadcast journalist, was murdered in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012.
Almost immediately after the killing, the couple knew they needed to do something to fight gun violence. Every year, they put thousands of miles on their truck as they travel from one public mass shooting to another, trying to bring solace to the newest members of the “family” of survivors. They offer their knowledge of and experiences with grieving. It may not make the survivors’ loss any less, but it is the Phillipses hope that their visits and words can make the survivors’ immediate future a little less frightening or confusing.
Jessi, 24, and her mother had texted that night, and Sandy knew her daughter was with a friend at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Lonnie was asleep in their bedroom.
“I couldn’t sleep that night for some reason, and had gotten up. And Jessi and I had texted, and then the phone rang and it was [Jessi’s friend] Brent,” Sandy recalled of the night she can never forget. She was surprised.
“It was like, ‘What is he doing calling me?’ And I picked up the phone. And then life was over as I knew it,” she said. “I started screaming.”
Lonnie woke to the screams, thinking someone had broken into their home.
“When I heard her screaming, so guttural, so animal-like, I knew something was absolutely wrong,” said Lonnie Phillips. “I went to find whoever was attacking her, and to help her, and found her sliding down the wall screaming, ‘Jessi’s dead. Jessi’s dead.’”
Lonnie carried her to the couch, and tried to understand what she was telling him.
“I started questioning her,” he said, saying he soon realized Jessi must be dead. “Because Brent is a paramedic, and he knows that she didn’t have a chance.”
Still, they clung to a sliver of hope.
They called their son Jordon, and he rushed to their San Antonio, Texas, home. He, too, questioned the veracity of the claim that his baby sister had been shot to death. After hearing the details, he excused himself and went outside. He called Brent. When he came back into the room, he was subdued. He confirmed that Jessi had been murdered in the Colorado movie theater. The next day he flew to Colorado.
While the couple was numb for months, it was soon clear that they needed to take action regarding the grisly results of gun violence.
“She says, ‘You know we’re gonna get involved in this, don’t you?’ And I said yes,” Lonnie said. “Jessi would have been very upset if we hadn’t done everything that we could possibly do to stop this carnage.”
Like many couples who have been together for several years, Sandy and Lonnie often finish each other’s sentences or thoughts.
“Stop the carnage. But also to help other people,” Sandy added. “When this happened to us, there was nobody to help us. We were in San Antonio, and it happened in Denver. So we were kind of, like, ‘What do we do?’ And feeling very alone, like nobody else had been through this.”
Even though many people had, of course, been through similar gun-related tragedies and gruesome deaths, the couple felt isolated.
“It was like, why isn’t somebody reaching out, or how do we find them?” she said. “And so as we started finding out what to expect, most of which was not much fun, we started going, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had somebody holding our hand through this?’”
Five months after Jessi was killed, tiny children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were gunned down in Connecticut. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips traveled there to offer their help.
“Those parents walked into the community center that we were meeting at, and I saw their faces and the shock, and the disbelief, and the zombie-like — I knew then,” said Sandy. “I knew then this is what we’re meant to do. That was us five months ago. If we can help these people in some way, we’re gonna do whatever it is that we can to help them. And that started it, and it is just continuing on since then.”
They have been to dozens of mass-shooting communities since Sandy Hook, meeting with countless survivors to help them prepare for what might come, and to encourage them to get trauma therapy. Their support group is Survivors Empowered.
Though it is excruciating, when speaking to the media or at public gun-reform events Sandy describes the carnage to her daughter’s body caused by the assault-rifle bullets that riddled it. That is so people can truly understand the trauma that bullets cause.
“Her right leg was ripped apart and rammed into her left leg,” Sandy reported quietly. “Her abdomen received four bullets and additional fragments. Fragments were lodged in her right wrist and other places. Her left clavicle was broken by a bullet. In her head, a bullet left a
5-inch hole. The bullet entered through her left eye, ripping apart her brain.”
In a devastating twist, just seven weeks before she was gunned down, Jessi had just missed being shot in Toronto. She had been at a food court and left to get some fresh air. Three minutes later, a gunman arrived at the same place, killing two people, one of whom stood where Jessi was just minutes before. Jessi blogged afterwards about the importance of living in the moment, and of hugging loved ones. When Jessi called her mother to tell her what had happened, Sandy reassured her.
“You have seen the worst of humanity today,” Sandy told her daughter. “You will never see it again.”
Not two months later, Jessi, 24, was dead.
After visiting the El Paso mass shooting survivors last month, the Phillipses drove north to Colorado, carving out a few hours along the way to find quiet, to be in nature, and recharge.
Before the next one.
Three weeks ago, thousands of citizens of El Paso, Texas, filled the Southwest University Park to listen to community and religious leaders from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border
assure them love would win over hate. I joined them that warm night.
People lined up for hours waiting to get into the memorial, which honored those people killed in the August 3 mass shooting by a white supremacist who targeted Hispanics. El Paso is more than 80 percent Hispanic. He shooter murdered 22 people shopping at Walmart, and injured about two dozen more. Less than 24 hours later, a different perpetrator killed nine people and injured 27 August 4 in Dayton, Ohio.
On the baseball field luminarias glowed — nine white circles commemorating
the Dayton victims, and 22 stars in honor of those killed in El Paso.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said battling white supremacy would be a priority for state police. He announced the creation of a group to battle domestic terror. A large electronic screen showed photographs and short bios of those killed in the El Paso shooting. Some of the survivors were in the crowd, weeping, remembering. Other people came to support them and their families, and to show the heart of El Paso. Normally the stadium is home of the Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team and Triple-A affiliate team of the San Diego Padres.
Andrew Wise, 28, said a friend’s grandmother was killed at the Walmart. He said he was there for that family, but also for all the Texan and Mexican grieving families.
“Just being here, just having everybody to support each other really shows how tight knit this city and community is with each other,” said Wise, who works for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “And how much we want to just lift each other back up.”
He said the shooting shattered the sense of safety in this Texas border town where many Mexicans come to shop and visit relatives.
“Of course, you never want to see any city or any families go through something like this, and you always hope that it never comes to your city,” said Wise, who was born and raised in El Paso. “When it hits home directly, it gives a whole bunch of different meaning and a whole — it hurts a lot worse when it gets right up close to home.
“And El Paso being one of the safest cities,” he told me, echoing what many said that week. “You think that we’re gonna be always safe. And as soon as somebody came and did this tragedy to us, now, like, our guard is higher. Our awareness is up. Everyone’s on edge. It just destroyed our sense of security. Like, everyone jumps at any loud sound. It just ruined a lot of things for everybody.”
Claudia Calderon also came to the stadium to show her support. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Calderon said when she became a mother, she decided to move to El Paso to be near her family— and to feel safer. Now she feels afraid.
There is “the fear that we thought we had left behind when we moved away from Los Angeles,” said Calderon, 36. “You know, you’re always watching your back in L.A., going from just to your car or whatever. There’s day-to-day violence there that you don’t see here. And all of a sudden, it felt like this bubble that we were living in bursted with this, with the violence.”
Because she and her children are Hispanic-American, this particular white-supremacist shooting made a “huge difference,” to her. “I think that it instills a fear of being who you are.”
She added that since the shooting happened, when she goes to the grocery store, she leaves her children at home — for now.
Two days after the memorial service, many more El Pasoans gathered outside an overflowing church to show another survivor they were his new family.
After 63-year-old Margie Reckard was murdered in Walmart, her husband Antonio Basco told the funeral home that he had no family in El Paso. He asked if he could open the funeral to the public. They had to move it to a larger church, because the response was so great. More than 900 flower arrangements and thousands of sympathy cards arrived from Texas, around the country and all over the world. People packed the church, and filed back outside after expressing their condolences, so others could enter the church.
“We just had to come and show our respect for his family, and to show him how great El Paso is,” said Dolores Luna, 77, lifelong resident of the city. “We’re going to get through this, one way or another. And we’re just so sorry of this tragedy that happened. In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way.”
Luna, who was there with her family, said they often shopped at the Walmart where the shooting happened.
“I just couldn’t believe it. Walmart is our number-one store for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And I was just stunned. What if we would have been in one of the stores like that?” she told me. “My heart breaks.”
She was outside the church with hundreds of other people to witness the arrival of Basco, who runs an El Paso mobile car wash. In the nearly 100-degree heat, hundreds upon hundreds stood patiently in line for hours, many holding colorful umbrellas to block the sunshine.
“In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way,” she said before walking up the church steps to greet Basco, who was surrounded by strangers hugging him.
Basco, tears in his eyes, said he could not believe the response from the public to the death of his “angel.”
After walking back down the crowded steps, Luna told reporters what she told the widower.
“You will always remember this, especially for your wife,” she said. “We will never forget you. This is your home, and it is El Paso strong for you and your family.”
Dan and Daisy Ramirez took their three children to the memorial for the 22 people killed 10 days earlier at an El Paso Walmart. The family quietly walked along the block-long memorial outside Walmart made up of candles, crosses, balloons, signs, stuffed animals and wooden crosses.
Daisy Ramirez, who works at an El Paso Walmart at a different location, said she both dreaded visiting the informal memorial outside the Walmart, and felt compelled to come.
“I just had to. I needed to come over here,” she said, standing at the edge of the memorial at the Cielo Vista Mall August 13. “I put myself in that cashier’s position, like what I would have done. I don’t know. I just needed to get it over with, and kind of relieve myself.”
One of the Walmart cashiers was hit by a bullet, but survived. Twenty-two people were shot and killed August 3 by a 21-year-old man, a white supremacist determined to kill Hispanics in a hate crime. More than 24 people were injured.
Hundreds of people continue to stop by the memorial, which looked like so many other cities’ mass shooting memorials. This one included signs of support from places of other shootings such as Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed and several people injured the day after the El Paso murders; from Gilroy, California, where three people were killed and 13 injured at a garlic festival in July; and Tucson, Arizona, where in 2011 six people were killed and 13 injured including United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords.
The El Paso couple said they have many friends and family — from both El Paso and Juarez — who regularly shop at the Ciela Vista Mall Walmart, referred to by locals as “The Mexican Walmart” because it is so close to the border and regularly draws many Mexican shoppers. The Saturday morning of the shooting, the store offered free or discounted back-to-school supplies including backpacks, so the place was filled with children, parents and grandparents.
The Ramirezes believed it was important to bring their children, 4, 7 and 10, to the memorial.
“It’s sad. We brought our kids so they could see that anything can happen,” Daisy Ramirez said. “They can learn from it and be aware of it.”
Her husband agreed.
“We don’t want to put it in our child’s mind, but we also have to be, you know, this is reality. I mean, life offers a lot of beautiful things,” Dan Ramirez said, “but there’s also things that we have to be aware of. And you just never know when anything can happen. You gotta be strong.”
Like so many people whose communities have experienced mass or other kinds of shootings, Dan Ramirez said he found the incident difficult to comprehend.
“We never thought it would happen. This community has been a very united place, very calm place, safe place,” said Dan Ramirez, born and raised in El Paso. “And, you know, for something like this, it’s just crazy and unbelievable for us.”
They said that, as Hispanics, the shooting makes them wary.
“With us, we’re more like on the lookout because we have the kids,” said Daisy Ramirez, who was born in El Paso but spent much of her childhood in Juarez. “So we’re constantly, like, looking back and forward.”
She added she and other Walmart employees are on edge.
“That next day, I had to go to work at 7:30 in the morning. And I was just really nervous [getting] from home to work,” she said. “Every person that goes in, we’re just looking after each other, you know. We’re on the lookout for anything, anything that might be suspicious.”
The couple posed for a picture, deciding it was safer not to have their children photographed alongside them.
Dan Ramirez picked up their 4-year-old son, and the family moved back toward the memorial. They joined dozens of others who were walking silently, some with tears rolling down their cheeks, many leaning on each other, past the keepsakes of memorializing.
“It’s gonna be hard to get over all this,” Daisy Ramirez said.
Not even two days after the 2015 shooting that killed nine worshipers in the African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina, some victims’ family members publicly forgave the racist shooter.
At the court bond hearing of the gunman less than 48 hours after he murdered their loved ones, several relatives of those slain amazed the American public by expressing forgiveness for the young white man who killed the African Americans at the AME Church. He was hoping to reignite the race wars, he told police. Instead, he received the survivors’ absolution.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Lance, 70, was killed in the church. “And have mercy on your soul.”
Collier was not alone. Several other AME church members expressed anger and deep sadness because of their losses, but also forgiveness.
Polly Sheppard was not at the bond hearing. Though she had been in the church and survived the June 17, 2015, shooting, she did not want to speak publicly during the initial months.
“I kept quiet because I wanted to go to those funerals, and [the media] didn’t know my face. I would be able to go without disrupting the funerals,” she said. It was several months before she spoke publicly about the violent ordeal. “I wanted to give the families time to grieve and everything before I started talking.”
Today she has become one of the informal spokespersons for the survivors, and her message is often about the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness “relieves all the pressure off of you,” Sheppard said. “You’re at peace. It’s an inward peace.”
Since the shooting, Sheppard has found herself in an unfamiliar position.
“I keep saying it’s a new job, to talk,” said Sheppard who was 70 the night of the shooting. A retired nurse, her natural inclination had long been to shy away from the spotlight.
Nearly four years after the shooting, Sheppard sat in her modest Summerville home, a large painting of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama on the wall. “I like to talk about forgiveness,” she said. “We forgave him, and I didn’t want the death penalty for him, either. I wanted him to be able to repent and turn his life around.”
Summerville is a Charleston suburb, approximately 25 miles from downtown.
Sheppard often travels to meet with other shooting-incident survivors. She recalled one man who argued with her about forgiveness.
She was meeting with survivors of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue hate-crime shooting in Pittsburgh. An anti-semitic killed 11 people and injured seven during Shabbat services on October 27, 2018.
One synagogue survivor told Sheppard he did not think he would ever be able to forgive the man who took so many lives that morning.
“Well, you have to live with that. It’s a problem. If you forgive him, you can go on with your life. It takes time, and so it's not done right away,” she told him.
In addition to her faith, which she admits was temporarily shaken that violent night in the AME church where she worshipped for nearly four decades, she is also a great believer in survivors seeking professional help.
“They need counseling, they really need counseling,” she said, then turning to advice. “And, stay in prayer.”
For her, though, forgiveness has been the key as both a survivor and a believer.
“The forgiveness part, I think it helped,” she said. “People will call me, and tell me how glad [they were] to hear me, and how good they felt after I left.”
The gunman in the AME church told Sheppard, “I’m going to leave you to tell the story,” she recounted, explaining why she was not shot. She said she is doing just that, but not by telling his story the way he had hoped.
“That’s why I say divine intervention,” she said, indicating she was doing God’s work. “I’m not telling the story about him. I’m telling the story on forgiveness. And how God will lead you in the right direction if you listen.”
For one survivor whose son was killed on the streets of greater Charleston, she is not there yet.
“A lot of people, they come up with, ‘You should forgive him,’” said Tisa Whack, whose son Tyrell Miles, 23, was shot by a young man who lived nearby. The man, who is serving time in prison, never expressed regret for shooting her son and one of his friends, which makes it difficult for Whack to feel forgiveness. “I tell people I’m not there yet, and I’m not gonna lie to anybody. I hate this guy to a core.”
Sitting in her office during her lunch hour, surrounded by photographs of her son, Whack referred to members of the AME church.
“A lot of people use the example of the Mother Emanuel, when they talk about how they forgave and it was even less than 24 hours. And I respect them for that,” said Whack, whose son Ty was her only child. She and another mom grieving her own dead son started the nonprofit We Are Their Voices, to help other young men in the community.
She said her son’s murder made her question her faith. Though she regularly attends church again, she is not in a place to forgive.
“I still struggle with it,” Whack said frankly.
A survivor of a different shooting does believe forgiveness helped him deal with the ripple effects of losing his father to gun violence.
Pardeep Kaleka’s father and five others died in the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and four others were wounded by the neo-Nazi who entered the gurwara, or temple, on August 5, 2012. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, was president of the suburban Milwaukee gurwara.
Kaleka found his way to forgiveness partly through his unexpected friendship with Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi and former member of the violent, white supremacists group the Hammerskins. The Sikh Temple killer also belonged to that skinhead group, whose members are often in racist rock bands.
A reformed Michaelis reached out to Kaleka after the shooting, offering his support. Eventually he and Kaleka wrote the book “The Gift of Our Wounds.” Kaleka said their connection created an atmosphere of forgiveness of the man who killed his father and other worshipers. The book focuses on learning about different cultures to bring understanding and forgiveness.
After the temple shooting, Kaleka went to graduate school to become a counselor. He counsels people to forgive, when they are ready.
“I would put the possibility in their hearts that, you know, forgiveness is a journey that they might want to take,” said Kaleka, sitting in his counseling office after a workout. He added that he would not suggest it too close to the date of their trauma. “What we get to is a place where I [suggest they] look back at their pain and they’re going to, you know, perhaps have this transformational approach to life.”
Kaleka said that through forgiveness and acceptance of his vulnerability, he has learned to live in the moment and appreciate the life he was given.
“In just the weirdest way, I’m much more happy,” he said. “And I don’t think that would have happened if the shooting wouldn’t have happened.”
Kaleka recently took a new job, a move that seemed natural, given his path. In June 2019, Kaleka was named executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a nonprofit of faith leaders dedicated to building dialogue and relationships to counter hate and fear, and to fight for social equality.
“When we talk about forgiveness and we talk about acts of kindness, we talk about, you know, who we are, who we’re meant to be,” said Kaleka, a father of four. “And I think those journeys are the ones that are the most worth taking.”
Hypervigilance often accompanies post traumatic stress disorder of gun violence survivors. Someone shot in a movie theater may choose to watch movies on television at home. Someone whose child was killed in school may be wary of sending their other kids back to school, whether or not it’s the same facility.
For some survivors, time eases the hypervigilance. For others, being afraid never completely fades. And still, many refuse to let the fear run their lives.
In June 2018, Pardeep Kaleka, whose father died in a racist act of terror six years earlier, was still feeling hypervigilant, especially in crowded spaces.
“If I’m at a coffee shop, I’m a little bit hypervigilant. If I’m in a public place, I don’t really feel safe,” he said, sipping a bubbly water as he sat on an outdoor patio of a Milwaukee coffee shop in June 2018.
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suburb. On August 5, 2012, Satwant Kaleka and five others were shot to death by a racist neo-Nazi, and four people were injured.
A former police officer, Kaleka said it took will power and a leap of faith to let his kids walk from his car into school after the temple attack. The Sandy Hook shooting happened the same year as the Sikh Temple shooting — just four months later.
“If I’m in a school, and I’m dropping my kids off and, you know, this was at the time that Newtown happened, that thing happened, and you’re just seeing it all over the place,” he said.
“And the threat is real. And that takes you processing.”
And during an interview a year later, Kaleka, who after the shooting went back to school to become a counselor, said he no longer felt fear in the same way.
“I think the hypervigilance has kind of left,” he said, sitting at a large table inside his counseling office in June 2019. “And I’ve been able to process through it. And it was really like saying, ‘Okay. I existentially embrace the vulnerability of life.’”
He says that outlook often leads to living in the current moment, while still hoping for a future.
“I have things that I need, I want, to live for. I want to watch my kids grow, I want to see them get married, I want to see my grandchildren. I want to see life,” he said. “But at the same time it’s just, I’m not going to be scared. I’m not. Either you can be scared of life, either you can be scared of the next shooting happening. Or you can, you know, really do something about it, and try to prevent people from getting hurt. And also not be scared of it.”
For Polly Sheppard, who survived the 2015 African Methodist Episcopal Church racist shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, fear of returning to her church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, does not mean she is afraid to leave the house.
“The atmosphere is different,” she said of the church where her best friend Myra Thompson and eight others, all African Americans, were murdered by a white man who later told police he had hoped to reignite the race wars. “I get a kind of eerie feeling when I'm in there.”
Since the shooting, Sheppard worships at another AME church in Charleston. Occasionally, she will visit old friends at Mother Emanuel, but only during the day.
On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered the AME church basement where Sheppard and 11 other worshippers were attending an evening bible study group. They welcomed the stranger into their midst. The gunman sat with the group for nearly an hour, and when most of them were praying with their eyes shut, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack, and began shooting. Nine people died, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, and four other church ministers. The gunman did not shoot Sheppard, telling her he wanted her to live to tell the story.
In addition to the fear the gunman hoped to bring, a faceless group also applied hatred and pressure toward Sheppard after the shooting.
“I got a message on my computer from the Ku Klux Clan one day after I’d been on TV,” she said. “Telling me to stay off TV. And, ‘We know where you live.’”
This was soon after Sheppard’s story aired on NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt. He interviewed Sheppard and survivor Felicia Sanders approximately three months after the shooting. Sheppard said she called the police about the message, but they did not track down the intimidating email sender. While the message frightened her initially, in the long run it mostly made her angry.
“I'm not actually that afraid of them. I just hate for them to even be able to tell me anything,” she said, frustrated that strangers with such a dark message could get onto her email. “But it didn’t, it didn't scare me to where I wouldn't go out or nothing. I was angry. But that's it.”
She paused and then smiled mischievously. “[If] I could catch him, I would ring his neck,” she said. Sheppard laughed in spite of the seriousness of the situation.
She did admit that, since the shooting, she’s not as active as she once was.
“Well, I’ve kind of slowed down,” she said, again uttering a quiet but deep laugh of someone who has known great joy over the years. “I'm not interested in going out too much. 'Cause it’s, — I realize I don't know everybody. But I can't be afraid all the time either. But I don't go out too often.”
She said that since the shooting her life has changed in other ways, too. Now strangers recognize her, and people known and unknown to her want to speak with her.
“Life is altogether different. And everybody wants you to talk. And everybody think, they think I got something special. Some people that they have seen all I saw, they wouldn't be quite as stable,” she said, adding that more than a year of counseling helped her. “I don't have anything special. I say, the Lord does it. And he's available to everybody.”
Sheppard, who said because of the shooting she has met civil rights activist John Lewis, South African former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, feels privileged to be one of the informal spokespersons for the AME worshipers.
Still, when people want to touch her, she takes it with a grain of salt.
“They say, ‘Oh I just want to touch you, I just want to’ — everywhere I go somebody want, they want to hug you,” she said and paused. “I think it's just amazing. They're just amazed that I'm still alive and my mind is straight. Yeah.”
And here came that laugh again.
Fourth of July: Parades, peppermint-candy ice cream, and fireworks. What could be more fun than these Independence Day traditions? If you are a survivor of a shooting, however, this holiday may not feel like a time to celebrate.
Exploding fireworks, or the crush of a public event like a holiday parade, can trouble survivors of gun shootings — even if the bullets never reached them.
Mindy Scott is a waitress who survived the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas October 1, 2017, and drove many of the wounded to the hospital. Later she found solace in her closet when fireworks exploded on the next New Year’s and again on the Fourth of July. She, her 21-year-old daughter, and her two rescue dogs made it through together.
“I lived right next to the Strip. So on New Year's Eve, I got to hear all the fireworks from the Strip,” she said, adding her family moved to a different house after the shooting to try to get away from the horrendous memories.
“I hid in my closet with the headphones on,” Scott said about the Las Vegas New Year’s fireworks that occur every year. But this was not just any year. It was only three months after the shooting that killed 58 people and left more than 400 wounded.
“I sat with my dogs, my pit bulls, as they snuggled me,” she said. “And that’s how we did it through the night. And when it was done, we went to bed. It was just getting over that little hump. The next one was Fourth of July, of course.
“And it’s not the big booms. It’s the little ones, the popping ones that affected me. Or you just sit outside and somebody would, like, a month after the Fourth of July, people were still letting off fireworks. And that would get to me.”
It is not only fireworks that can spin survivors into a panicky flashback.
“It could be a vehicle backfiring, or a door slamming, or a car driving over a manhole cover that can send people over the edge,” Scott said, sitting in her new backyard a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. It is quieter than in her former house.
“Or we would hear too many sirens coming down the street. And it was almost like my heart felt like it was just beating out of my chest. ’Cause my anxiety would just get so high from it. I mean, now I don’t hear it.”
Pat Maisch, who survived the January 8, 2011, Tucson shooting, was credited for grabbing the gunman’s magazine before he could reload. Thirteen people were wounded, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, the target of the attempted assassination. Six people were killed, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.
Maish said she still can be triggered by being in the vicinity of the shooting.
“I would drive by there, and after I get over to Ina [Road] and First [Avenue] my hands, I just start flexing my hands because they felt really tense,” Maisch said. “One day I stopped at the light, and I found myself clutching the steering wheel tightly. And so, it does have a long-lasting effect on your inner being.”
Like Scott, Maisch said even the most common sounds can cause flashbacks.
“It doesn’t have to be a gunshot that takes you back. Right over Swan and Sunrise [roads], even though I know this big grate is in the street. If I am not paying attention and I hit that grate with my truck, just that ‘ka-kow’ will take you back,” she said. “You know, it’s just any kind of sudden noise.”
She added that even if a loud noise is expected, it can still have a negative impact. Approximately a year and a half after the Tucson shooting, Maisch went to a funeral during which there was a 21-gun salute.
“Even though I knew it was going to happen,” she said, “a 21-gun salute, I don't know how long that takes, but it shakes you to the core.” That is mostly because she had experienced the 33 rounds being shot in approximately 20 seconds in Tucson in 2011.
Like many gun violence survivors, Maisch has become hyper-vigilant.
“When I go to airports or crowded places, unintentionally or unconsciously, you sort of look around and see what’s happening and what you might do if something did happen. So that becomes part of your life, where you don’t have the freedom not to think about,” Maisch said. She slipped into the third person as survivors sometimes do, perhaps as a self-protective mechanism. “You look for that tornado shelter when you’re in St. Louis, you know, or Atlanta. You think, ‘What would I do if something happened?’”
For one survivor of the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, going out at night has become a challenge.
Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, a Puerto Rican lawyer who moved to Orlando less than a year before the shooting, was not injured that night. In fact, he ran outside when the shooting began, and did not realize it was a major incident until he woke up the next morning. Still, it changed his life.
“It comes, like, it varies,” said Negron-Almodovar a legal services coordinator at Latino Justice, an Orlando nonprofit. “Like if I go out on a Saturday night to a Latin [music] place. That’s when it’s mostly there. But I still, like, I want to go out and enjoy and have a good time. I love going out to dance and stuff. So it’s kind of like a mess.”
The shooting still impacts his emotions.
“Sometimes I find myself getting very angry,” Negron-Almodovar said. “And I know it’s related to that, to that feeling of impotence almost that you had that day.”
Many gun violence survivors share these feelings.
Too many others, thousands — including children who were at school or simply walking in their neighborhoods — can no longer experience any kind of feelings, or participate in Fourth of July activities. They do not get to decide if they want to go to the parade, spread a blanket out to watch the heavens light up above them, or take a peaceful walk in the woods.
They are dead.
Brandon Wolf, who carries heavy survivor’s guilt about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, thinks people are too quick to put trauma behind them. People want to rush on, rather than stay in the uncomfortable place of acknowledging the current reality.
“I’ve been thinking about our need as a society to move on. Our desperate need to find closure to these things,” said Wolf, 30, who was at Pulse the night of the shooting, which left 49 people dead and more than 50 injured. “We prop up people who were once physically injured that have made [that part of] their recovery.”
June 12 was the third anniversary of the 2016 Pulse shooting, and like many other dark anniversaries, postings of photographs of the dead and memorializing words exploded on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Wolf’s survivor’s guilt was more than the “normal.” That is because he urged his two best friends to go out with him that night. Wolf’s former partner had contacted him to see if they might get together. After saying yes, Wolf sent a message to his best friends Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, and Drew’s partner Juan Ramon Guerrero. But Drew said they were not up for going out. Brandon persuaded them to change their minds.
“I need backup,” he told them. “I’m going to pull the best-friend card. And I need you there with me.”
They agreed. “We got in the Uber. And flipped a coin, basically, and said, ‘Where do we go?’ And we landed on Pulse.”
That choice would change their lives forever. For two of them, it would end their lives. Wolf escaped, but his two friends did not. He still cannot describe that night without what-ifs and stinging tears. Wolf rearranged his life priorities to initially respond to his feelings of guilt, and later to simply work toward making the world brighter, and safer.
He and others started the Dru Project, a nonprofit that “gives scholarships to students who truly exemplify Drew's spirit and desire for unity, inclusion, and love,” according to the website. (The spelling of “Dru” comes from the fact that Drew Leinonen, like many millennials and Gen-Zers who brand themselves, had branded himself online as the Dru Project.)
Wolf has also become an activist for gun reform, modeling his work after the Parkland students and calling it his life’s purpose. He met high school activists who helped him choose this path. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Wolf attended a memorial in Tallahassee, where he had moved after the Pulse shooting. He could not stop crying.
“It's really hard to figure out or feel out when you're gonna have an emotional reaction to something. That particular tragedy really shook me. I think that was the most emotional I've felt since June 12th. So much so I think that you could feel the ripple effects outside of that,” he said. “I felt responsible that I had failed them in my advocacy. And I'm watching the TV and 17 people are dead, most of them children. And I thought, ‘If I had just done more. If I'd just said more, if I'd just fought harder, maybe this wouldn't have happened to them.’”
His plan was to slip out, but a man stopped him.
“This lawmaker grabbed me and he said, ‘You need to say something to these kids.’ And I said, ‘Well, what I have to say to these kids? I failed them. Why would I talk to them?’ And he said, ‘Because you're the only one who gets it.’
“So I went over. And I tried to talk to them. But again all I could say was ‘I am so sorry.’ The kids put their arms around me. And they said to me ‘It's gonna be OK.’ And so I made a bond and a pact with them in that moment. That I would not stop talking,” he recalled. “They’ve challenged me to think beyond what's possible, many times.”
Wolf reflected on the trauma of a live shooting.
“It’s difficult to describe,” he said, sitting in an Orlando Starbucks. He worked at Starbucks for more than 13 years, and now does media relations at the nonprofit Equality Florida. “It’s a bit like being in this moment. Where we're just talking, we’re having a conversation, we're at a Starbucks and, without warning, we’re in the middle of a warzone. There's 49 people there drowning in their own blood. There's somebody trapped in a bathroom with five people half of them are either dead or injured. The police are outside. There's 50 sirens. Everyone is holding an assault weapon. In an instant.”
Wolf said some people push for quick recovery, so they can feel good about moving on. He recalled an event at which he and other Pulse survivors were being honored. He was standing with another survivor, who had been injured and now used a cane. He said a bystander told Wolf he was very lucky to be standing “next to such strength. Look at how he’s recovered and he’s so strong now. I am so proud of him for that.”
Wolf reflected on how that might make the survivor feel.
“Knowing that the world is waiting for him to be well, so they can move on. So they can be well. When in reality 25 years from now he will still have the same issues that he has today. And when at what point did survival become about physical fitness? Rather than emotional healing?” he asked. “To be a survivor is not to check boxes. It's not to be lucky. Or proud. It's to fight for your life every single day. You don't ever stop surviving that experience. You just keep reliving it over and over again.”
Wolf said Pollyanna thinking can be toxic.
“That doesn’t allow us to find a solution. Because we’re so stuck on the idea that we have to close the book, that we can’t write the ending,” he said. “My purpose has to bring some good out of it. That for me is what actual closure looks like. That we find the hope in it all. That we find the humanity in each other. So that we can do things that make us all better.”
May 31, 2019. Another day, another deadly shooting.
This time, a Virginia Beach engineer murdered 12 people and wounded four. After resigning via email on a Friday morning for “personal reasons,” the man returned to his municipal workplace and gunned down 11 co-workers and one contractor.
Tragically, most Americans are not surprised. How could they be? Every day, 100 Americans are killed by guns, and hundreds more are injured. But they might be curious about a growing trend: omitting the perpetrator’s name.
The local police chief named the killer just once, and then said he would not utter his name again. Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. Cervera told reporters that Saturday, June 1, would be the only time police would announce the gunman's name. After that, he will be referred to by police only as “the suspect,” to keep the focus on the victims, Cervera said.
Not naming the perpetrators of these shootings is becoming more common, often at the request of survivors.
In fact, in Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book Parkland, about the gun-reform movement that grew out of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the murderer is never mentioned.
Many shooting survivors, be they the wounded or family members of those killed, criticize the media for putting more attention on the perpetrator than those people killed or wounded.
“The only thing that I have to say negatively about the media [is that] our tragedy has become sort of like an opiate for them,” said Lori Alhadeff, the mother of Douglas High School student Alyssa, 14, who was killed in the shooting.
“They continue to glamorize the shooter. And I have a big problem with that. There should be no notoriety,” Alhadeff said. “You probably don't know what my daughter looks like, but you all know what the shooter looks like. Stop showing his picture. He should be a black box with an X on it. Stop saying his name.”
She said that while overall she has been treated well by the media, she wished journalists would focus on those killed, rather than the killer.
“Instead of saying the shooter's name, say, 'the killer of Alyssa Alhadeff.’ And then it brings people back — ‘Well, who's Alyssa Alhadeff?’ And we remember the victims instead of remembering the shooter,” she said.
Pat Maisch agrees. January 8, 2011, Maisch was waiting in line to meet United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords at a political event outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. Instead, a young man obsessed with Giffords shot her in the head and then shot 19 others. Six people died that sunny Saturday morning, and 13 were wounded, including Giffords. Maisch is credited for grabbing the gunman’s extra magazine before he could reload. The gunman was tackled by two men, and is serving life in prison.
Maisch, who became a gun-reform activist after experiencing the Tucson shooting, said many survivors want every gunman’s name wiped out.
“You never say the names of the victims,” she criticized. “You're always saying the names of the perpetrator.”
Maisch added that many survivors also argue against using the word “shooter,” which might sound positive in the mind of someone violent or troubled.
“Call him ‘the perpetrator’ or ‘him’ … instead of ‘the shooter,’” she said. “You don't need to keep saying his name.”
Maisch also accused the media of giving too much attention to the perpetrators, named or not.
“They shouldn't say anything about him,” she said. “They should talk about the victims.”
She criticized an article about a court hearing in which an accused gunman was described in detail, down to his “fashionable sunglasses.”
“Who cares what the perpetrator wore to court?” she asked.
Alhadeff, of Parkland, said by focusing on the killers, the media glorifies the person wielding the deadly guns. She added that many gunmen do not care about their lives, which makes them untroubled by the possibility of getting killed during a violent encounter.
“So they'll say, 'Well, I'll go and shoot up a school and I [if I] kill myself like, whatever, I don't care. At least I'll kill other people and then I'll become famous,’” she said. “We have to stop that. And the media is the one that is creating this, this monster, and creating this glamorization of being a school shooter.”
If the media printed and said the name and focused on the people murdered, like her soccer-playing daughter Alyssa Alhadeff, it would help people to remember her, and also might make these shootings more real to everyone.
“I think it just, it helps to remember who was tragically taken,” she said. “Because I think we become so desensitized, desensitized to these shootings. It's become such a norm. And that's terrible to think that someone being shot is normal in this horrific way.”
After the Virginia Beach tragedy, the vice mayor became one more person shaken by another shooting.
“I don’t say I’m in shock,” Vice Mayor James Wood told the press. “I’m numbed.”
* * *
June 7 is National Gun Violence Awareness Day. #WearOrange to honor victims and survivors of gun violence and show support for solutions to the gun violence epidemic.
While people on the far left and far right of the political spectrum argue about gun reform, most agree that children have the right to be safe in school.
“I always felt that as adults, it’s our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our kids go to schools in a safe environment,” said Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018.
She said that before the shooting, she was a full-fledged soccer mom. “We lived in this bubble over here in Parkland. We call it the Parkland bubble.”
She and many of her fellow moms mostly focused on their children, and whatever activities those kids were into as stay-at-home mothers.
“You know, pack my kids’ lunch, put my tennis uniform on,” she said, noting that she was on a tennis team. “I’d go in and play tennis. Go to the grocery story, buy dinner for my family, come home cook dinner, clean the house, do laundry. And then my kids were coming home from school.”
All that changed the day Alyssa did not make it home. Lori and her family became members in “this club that nobody every wanted to be in,” said Alhadeff.
“I was in my own bubble, my own world… until my daughter was shot 10 times with an AR-15,” she said in tears. “That really opened my eyes to, you know, that it’s gotta stop. And by doing nothing and doing the same thing over and over is, you know, they say is the definition of insanity.”
Instead of doing nothing, Alhadeff does a lot.
She ran for school board on the platform of school safety, and won a seat. She considers herself a strong advocate for school safety on the Broward County Public School Board.
“We have school shooting after school shooting after school shooting, and then these commissions come and they come out with these recommendations,” said Alhadeff, who has a masters degree in education. “I mean after Columbine, Sandy Hook, they all came out with these recommendations.”
But recommendations are one thing; actions backed by real money are another. She said school boards often look at recommendations, and select a few of them, as if from a menu.
“We can’t forget about the rest. So it’s my job to keep that in the forefront,” she said. “This came up in the last meeting because they were allocating funds for different initiatives, and school safety had zeros next to all of them.”
Alhadeff questioned the superintendent and fellow board members, pointing out that they had a report with specific recommendations for the 200-plus schools in the district. She asked how they could follow through on those recommendations without assigning dollars to them.
“It’s going to take money,” she said, “to accomplish those safety measures.”
Alhadeff has also pushed for Alyssa’s Law, which requires that every school have a panic button to alert law enforcement of a threat at the school. It was recently enacted into law in New Jersey. She hopes to see the same in Florida. But this year, Florida legislators attached it to a bill to arm teachers, which Alhadeff is opposed to.
“I can’t ask people to support something that supports arming teachers,” she said, hoping that next year Alyssa’s Law can stand alone and pass into law in Florida.
Like all families who mourn their murdered children, Alhadeff’s life has changed drastically since Alyssa’s death.
“Before I was just a stay-at-home mom” with a paper calendar, she said. “And so now I have two phones. I’m running a nonprofit organization. I have a secretary for the school board.” She has two Twitter and two Instagram accounts, and recently did an interview on The Today Show. “Plus I’m a mother of two boys, and a wife. So I wear a lot of hats.”
The nonprofit she and her husband Ilan Alhadeff founded is Make Our Schools Safe, a nonpolitical organization that commits itself to improving the safety of schools and research on school safety. It stays away from gun-reform debates, however.
“We don’t focus on the gun issue because it becomes too polarizing. People go to the right, people are left, and then they forget about making schools safe,” said Alhadeff, who says that her activism helps her healing. “Our children are required to go to school. So we (adults) need to be required to make sure that their school is safe.”
She came up with the framework for the nonprofit soon after her daughter was killed.
“Right after the tragedy, like my brain was on speed. Like, just going crazy,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sleep for weeks upon weeks. And I came up with this idea.”
The organization also creates Dream Team clubs at schools, in which students become safety activists, each meeting the needs of their particular school. Currently they exist in Florida, New York, New Jersey, and at American University in Washington, D.C.
The day after the shooting, Alhadeff gained notoriety after yelling into a live CNN camera, appealing to the president to take action to protect children. Later she said that, enveloped in grief, she had no idea what she was going to say. But when a reporter handed her a microphone, she found her words.
“President Trump, you say, What can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands,” she screamed, tears streaming down her face. “What can you do? You can do a lot. This is not fair to our families and our children to go [to] school and have to get killed!”
Alhadeff said the shooting has made the family closer, but at what cost.
“I don’t think anybody has a recipe for when something so tragically happens to their sister that they, you know, know how you can respond appropriately. They have channeled their energies into their soccer,” she said of her two sons. Alyssa was also a devoted soccer player.
As her family moves through the waves of grief, Alhadeff remains focused on protecting students from future shootings.
“The bullets don’t discriminate,” she said softly. “The problem that we have in our country with guns is going to continue to be an issue until we unite as a country to demand change. And that we all take two steps to the middle to figure out what that change looks like, and compromise.”
She cannot comprehend why this has not yet happened.
“We hardened our airports,” she said of the now familiar safety checks. “And after every school shooting, ‘Thoughts and Prayers.’ But that’s not protecting our kids. Our children are continuing to die in our schools from gun violence. And we need to wake up.”
“Some find truth and purpose, and some find darkness and oblivion.”
A friend recently sent those words to Mitch Dworet, whose son Nicholas, 17, was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last winter. The quote resonated with him.
“When you lose a child, there’s a lot of dark places,” said Dworet, 59. “It leads you into oblivion and/or you find purpose and are driven to other things. But it depends upon the day.”
Mitch and Annika Dworet are the parents of Nicholas and Alex, both shot at school that day. Alex, then 15, still has shrapnel in his head, and like his parents deals with post traumatic stress disorder. Nick did not live through the massacre.
I interviewed Mitch Dworet not long after the first anniversary of the mass school shooting that took place on Valentine’s Day, 2018.
“It’s so fresh for me even though it’s been 14 months,” Dworet said, sitting in a Starbucks not far from the Stoneman Douglas High School, where Alex still attends school. “February 14 is just yesterday to me, you know. And I’m always thinking 24/7 about my son. Doesn’t go away. He was taken very violently and very quickly and I didn’t get a chance — I told him I loved him that morning, but I didn’t get a chance to do many things.”
Mitch and Nick were close, sharing music and discussing wide-ranging topics.
“You know, that last hug. Who would ever think (it would be) the last time?” he asked about never seeing your child again after the ordinary act of dropping him off at school. “You’d never think that. I don’t think much about the what-ifs anymore. Because that’ll really torture you.”
He does still mourn the loss of Nick for himself and his family, of course, but also for the greater world, where Nick’s adult life will never come to be.
“I always told Nick how proud I was of him, his accomplishments. I didn’t lose out on that. But I did lose out on seeing my son do so many things. (Becoming) a father, and getting into his career, accomplishing his swim goals,” he said. “He was becoming just this fantastic person, swimmer. Not only did I lose that day, and my wife and my family and my friends (also did), but we as a society here in America. I hate to go so big, but we lost that day. We all lost.”
Dworet, wearing one of Nick’s T-shirts, said local swimmers write, “Swim4Nick” on themselves before swim meets. Nick was captain of the school swim team. A senior, he had signed to swim at University of Indianapolis, and dreamed of swimming in the 2020 Olympics.
“So many people have heard about Nick, and what he accomplished in such a short time,” said Dworet, who has a tattoo on the inside of his left arm of Nick swimming the butterfly, wearing his favorite goggles. The Dworets created the charity Swim4Nick, which offers college scholarships for swimmers, and free swimming classes.
“We created, my wife and I and my family, and the community, and so many people, created this wonderful, wonderful guy. Who happened to be my son. And his impact is everlasting.”
Dworet recently visited the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Temple survivors to show his support. He also makes himself available to the press and sometimes speaks publicly about what gun violence ripped away from his family.
“I do speak about it because I want to remind people that this can happen to you just like it happened to me,” he said. “I’m not special. I don't want this. But it will happen to you as easily as it happened to me and my family.”
Still, while Dworet greatly admires the March for Our Lives activists and the fellow MSD parents who fight for gun reform, he would rather not be doing any of that.
“To sit here and say all this stuff, that’s not my job,” he said, adding that every interview and public appearance is draining, taking energy he would rather spend elsewhere. “I’m a father. I need to move through my journey and recover, and find my resilience.”
He said he and Annika are working together to find their footing, and to be there for Alex, who saw fellow students shot and killed that day. The family has been to trauma therapy, which Mitch calls invaluable.
“My wife and I try and continue with some kind of normality in our world, in our home. We’re trying to also find our way through this. It’s a new way,” he said. “I have to honor my wife’s grief, and she has to honor my grief. So we have to be good for each other. And respect each other. And love each other. And we hope that Alex sees that. Because your children don’t want to see you, you know, suffering. And I know in my heart that Nick doesn’t want us to be suffering.”
While the family makes appearances at “Swim4Nick” events, he does not push Alex to take part.
“Nick and Alex were very close,” he said. “I’m standing there and giving a speech, and I want Alex to stand with us, and with my wife, and he feels like a target. There’s a lot that goes along with balancing out the 16-year-old, and — then if we go into the loud places, you know — with the PTSD. This is our new world.”
Like many gun-violence survivors, Dworet said he has been buoyed up by the kindness and love of family, friends, and literally thousands of strangers who wrote supportive letters. Still, the pain, even with the new adopted “family” of fellow mourners, is sharp and complicated.
“It gets very lonely being a survivor,” he said. “The loneliness and the depression. And the confusion. Loss of focus. It’s real. It’s raw. The PTSD. You have to deal with it every day. It doesn’t go away. Looking out into the world, seeing young families, it hurts. Yes, it’s beautiful. But it hurts because that’s what I had. Now I have to live a different life.”
Dworet did not want to talk about the politics of gun reform, but he did say he has had it with those who spout gun rights while refusing to consider the grief of mourning families.
“You cannot imagine how much strength it takes to walk in my shoes,” he wants to tell them. “And you could be this hero and talk about guns all you want, because all your kids are in place. You have kids to go home with. You can have Thanksgiving. You can have Christmas. You can have a future with your children. I don’t have the future with my son Nicholas.
“I deserve to be a father again. And a husband to my wife. I didn’t choose this. It chose me,” he said. Mitch Dworet wants more time with his younger son Alex, who he calls his hero.
“That’s the ultimate: To be a dad,” he said. “I want to get back to being a great dad.”