After three weeks of traveling in the Southeast and the Northeast talking with survivors of gun violence, I am taking a break in a quiet corner of Vermont. Here, I am reflecting on my reporting. I am thinking about the many people I have met, the heartbreak I have encountered, and the incredible and varying shapes of people’s partial recovery and new paths.
In two restaurants, I ended up doing unplanned, short interviews with employees, one in Charleston, the other near Parkland. Both of these women had opinions and feelings about the shootings that had shaken their communities. Neither of them knew the victims killed or injured, but when they heard about my project, they wanted to tell me about how the shootings had impacted their towns. A lot.
Several people I interviewed were parents whose children had been shot dead in the schools of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida. Both communities were also struggling with the ripple effect of suicide. Two parkland teens and one Sandy Hook father recently took their own lives, leaving the other families, teens and parents feeling gutted.
Then, there were the two mothers I talked with whose sons had been shot in cold blood — in or near the neighborhoods where they lived.
Several of the parents whose children had been murdered simply want to get back to focusing on being good parents for their remaining children. Moving through their deep grief, they regretted the way they felt diminished as parents for the children who lived, as they processed the loss of the ones who did not.
I also met other shooting survivors, like the men who mourned their friends who had not lived through the Orlando shootings at the Pulse nightclub.
I spoked to an elderly woman who survived the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) shooting in Charleston. She continues to live with the memory of closing her eyes in prayer, only to hear gunfire, and opening them to see people around her being slaughtered. A White supremacist, the shooter, had been welcomed into the spiritual setting.
I talked with teenager Holden Kasky in Parkland who was in school the afternoon of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He had just left his classroom that serves autistic students when the alarms sounded. His brother Cameron was with him, and the two boys were told by a teacher to get into a nearby classroom right away. He told me how he had worried about his friends being enclosed in a small room when bullets caused a lockdown, because one of his autistic classmates makes loud noises when stressed. Would that bring the gunman, he wondered and worried. He slowly told the story of the police with “really big guns” at the chaotic school scene, recalling broken glass everywhere.
“Put your hands up,” he remembered the police shouting.
Neither Cameron nor Holden were shot that day.
Their father Jeff Kasky filled me in on the political action committee he and other parents of Douglas High School students started called Parents vs. Assault Rifles. And his son Cameron co-founded the student-led gun-violence prevention group Never Again MSD, and helped organize the now-famous March for Our Lives event against gun violence. A senior in high school, he and his activist classmates are still committed to their mission. Yet, they are also working to graduate from high school, perhaps go to prom, and are still just, of course, teens.
“What’s so sad is when you meet them is that they’re just teenagers,” said Kristin Song, whose son Ethan died Jan. 31, 2018, at 15, as he was fooling around with a neighbor’s loaded gun and was killed. Song has met the Parkland students at gun-reform events. “When you just chat with them like this they’re silly and goofy and they’re talking about, like you know, graduation. And then when they’re on (stage), they’re like talking about these incredibly heartbreaking things. I felt so bad for them that all of that was robbed.”
Song said when she visited with some of them in Washington, D.C., she complimented them on how assertive and articulate they were.
“And they said, ‘Well, we have to be. We’re the hunted generation,’” she recalled. “I can’t even comprehend that.”
The two mothers in Charleston who lost their sons, now work with other moms who are going through the same losses due to gun violence — their sons, too, were shot and killed.
“I’m getting tired of moms picking up moms, moms picking up moms,” said Tisa Whack, whose 23-year-old son Tyrell Miles was murdered in Summerville, South Carolina, near Charleston in 2015. “If you reach the age of 25 in this area, it’s, it’s amazing.”
She and another mother who lost her son to gun fire co-founded the group “We Are Their Voices.” The nonprofit “provides outlets, access and opportunities to help young men divert from negativity in an effort to end gun violence,” the website states.
Later this month I will be home, sifting through the many interviews I have done with survivors of gun violence since last summer, shaping them into articles or chapters or blog posts. And I will let the people who temporarily let me into their lives tell their own stories.
One of the main lessons I have gained from this latest reporting journey, is the way gunfire impacts so many people on different paths of life, in various neighborhoods, and at what were once the unlikeliest of places.
Then, within the past week, two big-headline shootings took place: one in a California Synagogue, another at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. And during that time, far too many of other young people were shot and killed in their own neighborhoods, sparking only local stories, if any at all.
Gun violence is all around us, and close by, and people are learning how to cope. Or not.
Driving on the curving roads of Connecticut, the scenery is bucolic, the homes lovely colonial clapboard. A driver's feelings are likely peaceful. The birds sing; the fruit trees gently shed their blossoms. It is spring, after all.
In Florida, where large beautiful homes make up many gated communities, children ride their bikes freely around their neighborhoods, maybe walk from their home to that of their best friend.
What could be safer for our kids than growing up in such neighborhoods? Where parents have worked hard to assure their children grow up well taken care of, watched over and secure? Where many moms are lucky enough to stay home after the kids are born, to be there when the school bus arrives?
Still, for Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, to mention just two locations of the hundreds of United States school shootings (24 reported in 2018), the careful parental choices made for many children did not keep them out of harm’s way. Not when shooters made their way into the schools with the intent to murder.
While many parents of both the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy of Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, and of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, took the road to activism, others chose different paths.
For Michele Gay and Alissa Parker, whose daughters Josephine “Joey” and Emilie were both killed at Sandy Hook in Newtown, the focus became school safety.
“There was a lot of activity and conversation around gun-related issues. For Alissa and me, though, you know, we had surviving girls that needed to go back to school. And the two daughters we lost loved school,” said Gay. “So it seemed only natural that would be where we would put our attention. Sending our daughters back to school and feeling safe and OK about that. And we knew that we weren’t the only people that were struggling with that. We knew that, you know, parents from thousands of miles away in other communities were thinking, ‘OK, have we crossed the threshold here? Is it no longer safe? Do we no longer have the expectation of safety for our kids in school?’ That’s why we chose to focus our energy there.”
Gay and Parker created Safe and Sound Schools, a non-profit national organization made up of school-safety experts, as well as professionals in mental health, emergency medical, fire and law enforcement. The organization “built a community committed to the safety of our nation’s schools,” and offers a free school safety model along with corresponding toolkits, which schools can download.
For another mom whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, her family’s direction was also very different from advocating for gun reform.
JoAnn Bacon and her husband Joel turned to writing a children’s book. With another writer, the two wrote a book based on their first-grader Charlotte and her love for dogs. Then, their son Guy, who was 10 when his sister died, worked on his own book — about therapy dogs, which had helped him find his way after the shooting. The Bacons also created a foundation to emphasize and reward kindness, which later morphed into one that brings support dogs into schools. And then JoAnn began looking for research on psychological, therapeutic support for grieving families. (She discovered there was very little available; I will address that in a future post.)
All of this was part of the family’s recovery work, as well as a way to honor Charlotte Helen Bacon, and not let her memory fade. They wanted to find a way to ensure that their only daughter would be remembered.
“I wanted to make sure that Charlotte’s story was … available, and people had the ability to learn about her,” said JoAnn Bacon, who considers herself to be a private person. “So we decided we wanted to write a children’s book.”
While they knew soon after the shooting that they hoped to write a book, it was many months before they were ready to actually move ahead with the idea. The book was published on what would have been — should have been — Charlotte’s ninth birthday:
Feb. 22, 2015, just about two years after the shooting.
“Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter” is about the little brunette with a “bold sense of adventure,” who loved the color pink, and her dear friend, a dog named Lily. That dog is based on the real Lily, a golden lab who was devoted to Charlotte.
“Oftentimes the victims and their stories get lost. And they get lost in advocacy. I felt like everybody was ready to jump into trying to prevent something like this happening again, which I understand. But I think as they were doing that, the victims and their families were getting left in the dust,” explained Bacon, who said creating the book was both excruciatingly painful and wonderful. Painful because of the deep dive into grief all over again, and wonderful because the book honored Charlotte. “I wanted to make sure that Charlotte’s story was there.”
The week I interviewed Michele Gay and JoAnn Bacon, I was at a dinner with several Connecticut couples, most of us in our 60s. Some of the women, of course, talked about their children, 30-somethings, and how those “kids” were doing in life. We all agreed it was good to see how our children had turned out, how their lives were going now — their careers, their loves, and their avocations. I’ve been part of this kind of conversation many, many times, and I am always delighted to reflect on my own children. I nodded along, but felt a terrible sadness.
That night I kept thinking about Charlotte and Joey and Emilie, and the so many others. And of those little children’s siblings and parents, and their grief.
Let’s not forget. Let’s not forget those kids, and their families.
For many survivors of gun violence, the last thing they want to do is talk to another reporter. Especially for people who have been in a mass shooting that brings hoards of press to their community, it can be overwhelming. They need space to breathe, they need time among friends, and not with more strangers wielding a camera and audio recorder.
Why should someone who has spoken with multiple media outlets during the days, weeks and months following a horrendous, deadly event, talk to yet another person who wants to hear the story of the shooting, the post recovery, and the things that will never be the same?
As I travel across the country searching for survivors to interview, I remind myself this is not about my reporting project. Rather — and of course — it is about the people who are trying to rebuild their lives after being shot, or witnessing friends getting shot, or losing a child, parent, relative or friend in a shooting. They survivors come first and foremost, and I — and we — should always keep their welfare at the front of our minds and hearts.
Being a longtime journalist, however, and more recently a journalism teacher, it takes control, it takes humanity, to accept that some folks simply do not want to talk. And to remember that is their right and is often their road to healing.
That is the case for many people who went through the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where I am this week. The shooting took the lives of 17 people, and injured another 17.
In Parkland, the Broward County Public School District works to keep the media at a distance from survivors, holding journalists at bay when possible. In a note responding to my queries, the school district public information team wrote, “Our District remains committed to providing support to the MDS community as we continue to heal. We hope you understand our position and responsibility to respect the confidentiality and privacy of our students, teachers, staff and families.” I do.
But the local newspaper, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, has been on the scene since day one, doing a solid job of reporting. In fact, the paper brought home a Pulitzer Prize this week for the Douglas High School shooting coverage last year. Their stories are deep, investigative, and probing. Some, of course, are touching. Most are heartbreaking. The newspaper has an insider’s privilege of access to people hurt by the shooting. The 10 months of reporting created changes in law enforcement and school safety. Kudos to those journalists.
Some survivors seem to move toward their recovery by talking to people, even strangers like me. They want to tell their stories. They want to say and hear their child’s or friend’s name over and over to keep him or her alive in their memories, rather than have that name fade into the atmosphere of time.
Those are the people I have the privilege to interview, and whose stories I can share.
I interviewed three men, all in their 30s, who live in Orlando. One was at the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub the night of the shooting. He escaped soon after the gun shots rang out, and it was not until the next morning when his phone “blew up” that he learned of the 49 people who died. Another young man was with his two best friends and a former partner. He is the one who persuaded them all to go out that night. We have all heard of survivor’s guilt, but his is on the highest level. The third man did not go out that night, but several of his friends went to Pulse. Many of them find it difficult to talk about the shooting, or have moved away to, if not exactly forget, at least get some literal distance.
These three young men are all about my own children’s ages. I look at their faces, read their body language, and want to hug them and keep them safe. But it’s too late for that. Certainly, they are not as young as the Sandy Hook children who were murdered in Connecticut in 2012, but they still are young. They deserved more from life, from all of us.
As survivors across the United States work to create some sort of new life, some find purpose in activism or counseling or even yoga, they help themselves and others keep going. One day at a time, one night and the next.
When looking for survivors of gun violence, I often come across people I’m not expecting to find. Many, many — too many people.
In Charleston where I traveled to this week, for example, I went with the purpose of talking with people from the 2015 racist shooting at the famous African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Mother Emanuel Church. I went to Sunday service, and I interviewed a couple of church members while in town.
Most of the people I ended up speaking with about their tragic losses, however, were not from that well-known shooting by the white supremacist. Rather, they were mothers and fathers whose children have been killed by gunfire. A sibling who lost her brother to gunfire. Moms who ended up becoming part of a club they never wanted to belong to. Once people heard what I was doing in Charleston, word-of-mouth notifications began buzzing.
One woman I interviewed learned that her son had been shot dead in the wee hours of his 18th birthday. “He was 18 years old for every bit of 15 minutes,” she told me. The death is unsolved.
In another incident, a father was with his grown son when they were both shot by two young men apparently looking for beer money that Friday night. The father was shot five times and lived. The son was shot once and died. He left behind a wife and young daughter, plus his parents and sister and her children. And hundreds of friends, many of whom his parents only met at the celebration of life service. The family continues to search for ways to cope. God helps them, they say.
In fact, every single person I interviewed in this deep-south city told me it was their spirituality that helped quell the pain — somewhat.
From Charleston I travel to Orlando, then Parkland, and finally Newtown, Connecticut. Yes. I picked those specific places because of “big” shootings there. Famous mass shootings that murdered so many people, including high school students and grade school children. We all know that one could travel to any state in this powerful country, and find remnants of a big shooting. But there are also hundreds, no thousands, of smaller, “hidden” shootings. Happening one bullet at a time.
What I’m realizing deeply, as I speak to an increasing number of survivors, is that gun deaths — by guns that are illegal, or legal and not locked up, or any number of other shooting scenarios — have become way too commonplace.
One survivor of the AME shooting that stole nine lives of her spiritual community including her dearest friend, said she went to seven of the funerals, but then simply could not make it to
One mom talked about the young people in her community, some barely teenagers, who have been to a dozen of their friends’ funerals. And then her son’s funeral became one more.
Because I’m on the road this month, this post is shorter than usual. Once I have time to sift through everything people have shared with me, I will again include more details, names and photos. So many stories of grief — along with the mixture of resilience and baby steps.
Approximately eight hours after Bill Badger’s head was grazed by a bullet, and after he had tackled the gunman at the Tucson Safeway Jan. 8, 2011, shooting, he and his family were sitting down together at their dining room table, grateful Bill had survived.
And praying for the gunman.
“He’d been shot in the head, and he’s sitting at the table. We sat here at the table that night, and I said, ‘Let’s pray for that man and his mother and father,’” Sallie Badger told Bill and their son Christian. “Christian, you are the same age. By God’s grace you’re right here with us. We have no idea what went on in his life. All I know is this is what happened, and we have to pray for that family.”
Sallie and Bill Badger, a retired Army colonel who was 74 at the time he tackled the shooter, were both significantly impacted by the shooting outside the grocery story at United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner event. After the shooting they became advocates for gun reform.
Gun-reform organizers especially appreciated Bill Badger’s perspective because of his military background, and because he was a conservative.
“He had great presence. He was a wonderful speaker. He stood up one time,” Sallie recalled, “and said, ‘I didn’t have to get shot in the back of my head to know that not every Tom, Dick, and Harry should have a gun in his hand.’”
Bill Badger died in 2015 at 78, approximately four years after the Safeway shooting. Sallie believes his deteriorating health was related to the rampage.
Within months of the shooting, Badger had a minor stroke near the area of his brain where the bullet had grazed his head, then had a fall — when shooting a rattlesnake on their property —and had spinal surgery. Then, adding insult to real injuries, he developed Parkinson’s disease.
Sallie said Bill became frail after a lifetime of health, running or swimming every day.
For years, the Badgers had traveled for pleasure, going to Europe for a month every summer as a family, and traveling throughout the U.S. After the shooting, the couple traveled the country for the cause.
Journalists and members of the public often referred to him as a hero because of his actions that day. But he declined that title.
“Bill immediately corrected them, ‘No. Anyone would have done this.’ And I would say, ‘Bill, anyone wouldn’t have done it.’”
She would point out his military training, but told him it was more than that.
“‘Most of the people over there, very wisely, if they weren’t shot, were down or behind a post, were hiding, were fleeing,’” she told him. ‘But you didn’t do that. You stepped up because that’s who you are.’”
And he would deny it again.
Sallie Badger said one result of shootings is the creation of bonds between survivors. She and Bill became part of a growing “family” of shooting survivors.
“We got to know the survivors from all these mass shootings. From Sandy Hook, from Aurora, from places that we never, maybe we have heard of before. And they have become our friends.
We developed a family outside of our family who we really look at as very close,” she said. “And that’s been a wonderful thing. It’s been wonderful, especially since Bill’s gone.”
Bill and Sallie Badger had the reputation of taking action with little fanfare, and of being listened to. This was clear on the day of the shooting.
In addition to the fact that Bill Badger took down the gunman that day with the help of another man, little things also reflected the Badger trait of getting things done.
When Sallie got the call from Bill that he had been shot, she was at home. She tried to drive to Safeway, but the car battery was dead. So she hitched a ride from her son’s roommate — by this time to the hospital where Bill had been taken — and when she arrived she found that her son had not be allowed in to see his father.
“Everything was locked down in town,” she explained. “Everything, every federal building, all that sort of thing, hospitals.”
Her son told her the authorities would not let her in to see Bill.
“And I said, ‘Christian, do you know who you’re talking to?’”
Within a few minutes, she was at Bill Badger’s side. For the first few moments, she could barely speak.
“Bill is sitting up, covered in blood. He’d just gotten there. Just pouring, all dripping down his head,” she said. “And he saw me, and just this big smile on his face. And I just couldn’t believe it. And it was really — I really couldn’t even say much of anything.”
After Bill Badger received CT scans, the hospital was preparing a room for him to spend the night. But he was having none of that.
“‘If I don’t have a concussion or any of that, then I’m going home,’” Sallie remembered him saying. “So they wrapped him up in bandages and he got in the front seat, and I was in back.”
Their son drove. Soon, the bandages were gone.
“He’s unwinding the bandages. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I don’t want anybody to see me with this thing on.’ I said, ‘Well, you know the view from back here is not too great.’”
She smiled and shook her head at the memory. “This huge wound. But he took that thing off. Yes. And we came home.”
Sallie Badger said initially her husband seemed unfazed by the shooting.
“He took everything so much in stride,” she said. “It did bother him later. But in that first week or two, I was just amazed at how he handled everything.”
Like many shooting survivors, however, it did not prove to be easy — for either of them.
After the shooting, Bill became much more protective of his family, and was frustrated when his health began to decline.
For Sallie Badger, who does not reveal her age, the shooting altered the course of her life, too.
“My life is changed forever because of this. Whether you were there or you were injured or you were a spouse at home. It changes your life.”
The surprising part for her was that the shooting impacted her own feelings of security.
“There’s no question that it — it just changes everything. It changes your physical and mental outlook. It does,” she said.
“Because I wasn’t there, why would I have any lasting issues?” she recalled thinking. She never thought she would be personally affected by post traumatic stress disorder. Now she acknowledges that she has been impacted.
“For two years, I knew every single time that I got in my car, other than at my home, that there was going to be a man, that I was going to put the key in the ignitIon and start it, and look, and there was going to be a man with a gun. I knew that. Two solid years of that. Everywhere I went. Every drugstore, every grocery store, the movies, and I’d get in and then I’d look for him.”
She recalled one incident where she and Bill were attending their son’s adult city-league basketball game not long after the shooting.
A young man wearing a black hoodie ran up behind them as they walked to the building, and Sallie started running away, full speed.
“I had no idea I could run that fast. And I’m screaming at Bill to run, run, run,” she recalled. “I ran and got myself in. It was one of the guys playing basketball with our son.”
Sallie said the Tucson shooter wore a hooded sweatshirt.
While that incident did not affect Bill, other things did.
The Badgers went out to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. They had forgotten about the reenactment of the OK Corral Tombstone shootout.
“Bill almost collapsed. We had to leave,” she recalled. “‘Cancel the order. We have to go.’”
Like many gun violence survivors, the Badgers were on high alert for months, even years.
“You’re constantly vigilant. I’m still very, very hyper-vigilant. And Bill was as well. We were always very comfortable in this home. We sit here alone on two acres.”
Sallie Badger recalled traveling out of town after the shooting, without Bill. They talked on the phone.
“He said, ‘I really don’t like being here anymore without you. I am so uneasy,’” she said. “And it made me feel terrible that this man that was, you know, the man jumped up and tackled the gunman, is feeling uneasy,” she said quietly. “Those were the things, the everyday things, that just crept in.
“It was just an ongoing ripple effect.”
And then there was having to reassure others.
“People constantly asking, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yeah. We’re fine.’ Because everybody says, ‘We’re fine.’ But inside, you’re just always wondering if something’s going to happen.”
Like other survivors, the Badgers were offered counseling. They declined, almost without meaning to. In retrospect, Sallie Badger thinks therapy may have helped her husband.
“I wish he had. Bill just put it off and put it off and put it off,” she said. “He wanted to do it. But there was always some place to go that was more important for somebody else. ‘They want me to speak here. They want me to come in here. They want me to —’ And he never did it.”
When asked why she, too, did not got to counseling, she hesitated.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “Life goes on.” And she laughed — seemingly at herself.
“So I’m doing fine. But I’m also a very, very strong person. When something needs to be done, I take charge and I do it. Bill was the same way,” she said. “He never hesitated in anything. Because you can’t be an Army commander and be, you know, trying to figure out what you’re going to do.
“And both of us were the same in that respect,” she said. “And so whatever needs to be done, we just do it.”
Once considered a beacon of inspiration, a call to tourists and natives alike to gaze upon Austin’s skyline, that all changed on August 1, 1966. On that summer day, a gunman with an intricate plan to kill as many people as possible shot hapless students, professors and civilians 28 stories below.
At the end of the slaughter from the University of Texas Austin Tower, he had killed 14 people (including an unborn baby), and wounded more than 30 others. He was shot and killed in the tower after holding the campus hostage to his gunfire for more than an hour and a half.
Since that day — one that whispered the beginning of mass shootings in the United States though none followed until decades later — for some people the tower carries them back to that terrifying incident every time they glance upwards.
“Any time I look at the University of Texas Tower, I automatically look to make sure there’s nobody up there,” said Forrest Preece, who witnessed the shooting when he was a 20-year-old student. “Every time I see it, I relive that day.”
Preece, 72, who worked in the advertising field in Austin for many years, said the shooting changed him.
“I will say there hasn’t been a day in the last 53 years or whatever it is here that I haven’t thought about it,” said Preece, who said he has read everything he could find about the event, has talked with other people who were there that day, and has met with many survivors and relatives of the victims.
Brenda Bell, a longtime journalist for the American Statesman and a 20-year-old student who witnessed the Tower shooting from a classroom window, agreed that Monday in 1966 changed the significance of the Tower for those who were there.
“We never, we never, never, never look at the Tower without thinking about that. You know, it’s impossible,” said Bell, 73. “But for most people now, I don’t think it’s in their mind. I think it’s just, you know, the remnant population that’s left that was there. [For them], that will never be gone.”
Neal Spelce reported from the scene that day for the radio station KTBC. He agreed on the significance of the Tower, which stands at 307 feet and was completed in 1937.
At other shooting sites, he said, there may be a memorial to remember shooting victims, but those are not like the looming building seen from the university grounds and from neighborhoods across Austin, the state capital.
“But here, the tower dominates everything. Everything,” Spelce said. “So it has maintained, that is one of the things I think that has kept the story out there, that equates to surviving — a surviving story.”
Preece, who grew up in Austin, said as a child he considered the Tower inspiring. But that was ruined by the shooting.
“As a lifelong Austin resident, I resent this fact,” Preece said. “My whole childhood, I was full of the expectation of one day being a UT student and enjoying my classes there. Before the incident, the tower was a symbol of hope and aspiration for me.”
Preece said his mother told him years ago that after she gave birth to him, she reflected on the fact that he was born in the shadow of the UT Tower.
“How ironic that the existence of that tower almost cost me my life 20 years later,” he said.
Still, the tragic event also enhanced his gratitude for life. He recalled a bullet literally whizzing past his ear.
“The randomness of the universe landed in my favor that day.” Preece said. “It’s…made me appreciate what I was given through sheer luck that day--a second chance to get out there and make something out of myself.”
While thousands of people have died at the hands of mass shooters in the U.S. since 1966, at the time it seemed a one-off — an unimaginable and never-to-be repeated killing spree. When the Columbine High School shooting happened three decades later in 1999, killing 12 students, a teacher, and wounding more than 20 more people, that shooting became known in the collective consciousness as the first such event. But it was not.
“There was no precedent for this,” recalled Bell of the Tower shooting. She went on to write about the shooting several times on its various decades’ anniversaries. “You know, we didn’t even have a movie. We hadn’t read the book. We didn’t get the memo. So there was no, there was nothing that we could compare this to except a movie that we hadn’t seen. So the shock and all was just universal that day.”
The uniqueness at the time of the evil act was true for journalists, too.
“There was no plan for coverage. Zero. Nothing like that had ever happened before,” recalled Spelce. “Now I’m sure newsrooms have their disaster plan — what to do, who to call, send the word.”
Many heroes emerged on that hot August day in Austin. People pulled the injured off the mall area below the tower, risking their own lives. Journalists covered the event as bullets rained down. One student risked her life by lying on the sweltering concrete next to a pregnant woman — the first person shot, whose baby died from the wounds — just to talk until help arrived.
It was a life-changer even for those who witnessed it from nearby, like Brenda Bell.
“It was this seminal event,” Bell said. “And from the day it happened I was just consumed with, kind of curiosity — maybe morbid curiosity — about the whole thing. And about what other people were thinking, and how they were dealing with it.”
Bell said watching the shooting from the window of an English class classroom influenced her choice of careers.
“It did have a lot to do with me being a journalist,” she said. “I’d never seen suffering like that. I’d never seen someone die in front of me. I’d never seen people bleeding, you know. A pregnant woman lying in front of you. I’d never seen those things. And so I became, I wanted to know more about that. And so it kind of became a minor obsession, you know, through the years when I did become a journalist.”
She took away something else, too.
“I'm not brave,” she said, she realized when she stayed at the window, unable to move outside to help others during the gunfire, feeling like a coward. She remembered watching a student run out to help carry the wounded pregnant woman off the mall.
“It was just so human, and so brave, you know. And so opposite of me,” she said. “He was like this super hero as far as I’m concerned.”
Bell said she’s observed through the years how the ripple effect has impacted people differently.
“What it felt like to me was a ripple. A ripple, ripple, ripple that never stopped,” Bell said. “There is a shore, a far shore, but it never reaches it. It just keeps going.”
She referred to families that ended in divorce partly due to the impact of the shooting, people who swore off guns, and people who seemed unaffected.
“I remember the father of one of the victims. He sold all his guns. He had guns. He sold them. He never wanted another gun in his house,” she said.
But one wounded man had a different reaction.
“He’d been shot,” she said. “And he seemed to go on as if nothing had happened. But other people, you know, there are some people in town who are obsessed with the Tower thing. And if you ever run into one at a dinner party, everyone leaves the room because the obsessive conversation starts.”
Bell said the ripples have now moved on to the children and grandchildren of people who were there in 1966. A daughter of one of the police officers who shot the gunman that day became an Austin police officer.
Bell believes the difference between a shooting and a bad accident is the intent, and the weapon.
“The gun aspect of it,” she said, “I think it makes it different from something like a 30-car crash on the highway, or, you know, a tsunami. I think it makes it different because of the malice involved. You know, and the intention. It’s not an accident.”
Ironically, or perhaps tellingly of the times, for years most people referred to the Tower shooting as “the accident.” That is, if they talked about it at all. For many people at the shooting — and the University of Texas itself — not talking about it seemed an attempt to make the whole tragedy go away. For years, there was never even a marker or even a historical note on campus about the shooting.
Unlike the reaction to the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that birthed the students’ political activism, the 1966 Tower shooting was nearly swept under the Texas rug.
But not for the survivors.
“I’m just trying to get rid of this ghost,” said Preece.
Last week, on March 15, a White nationalist gunman in New Zealand shot to death 50 people and injured approximately 40 more at two Christchurch mosques. He videotaped the shooting, live-streaming it on Facebook and Twitter. Before he began the massacre of Muslims at Friday night prayers, he sent out a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto to government officials and the media.
As people across the globe mourned with the families of those killed, and with the survivors, the New Zealand prime minister vowed to take action.
Jacinda Ardern said the country’s lax gun laws needed to change.
“They will change,” said the prime minister at a news conference. She added that her Cabinet planned to reassess the country’s policies on gun control immediately.
According to media reports, compared to many countries, New Zealand has fewer restrictions on shotguns and rifles, while handguns are more tightly controlled.
Yet the country, unlike the United States, has relatively few murders by gunfire each year, and before this March 15 massacre, few mass shootings.
Here’s what The Atlantic magazine reported after the New Zealand shooting.
“This is the deadliest shooting in the modern history of New Zealand, a country where gun violence is rare and annual gun homicides don’t usually reach the double digits. The most recent mass shooting was in 1997, when six people were murdered and four wounded in the North Island town of Raurimu. Until now, the deadliest mass shooting in the country had been in 1990, when a gunman in the small township of Aramoana killed 13 people and injured three. After that shooting, the country amended its laws to limit firearm access. Since then, New Zealand has experienced approximately four incidents of gun violence in which more than five people were killed,” reported Atlantic writer Isabel Fattal the day of the shooting. “According to an open-source database that Mother Jones created, 103 mass shootings have occurred in the United States since 1990, 90 of them since 1997. Overall, the shootings resulted in more than 800 deaths.”
Hate-crime shootings are, simply, all too common in our country. The Sikh Temple shooting outside Milwaukee in 2012. The Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018. And on and on and on.
Of course for victims and survivors, there is little difference between losing a loved one or losing the use of your limbs or organs at school, at a concert, in a movie theater, or in a church. But, somehow, a gunman filled with racist hate entering a place of worship and killing because of the worshipers’ very faith — where believers are on their knees praying, or reciting from the Bible, or welcoming believers into their house of God — somehow, that feels especially dark.
There is no telling exactly what will happen with the gun laws in New Zealand.
But imagine what the U.S. would have been like today if this country’s leadership had this type of reaction after the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting, or after Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Las Vegas or the Pulse? (Let alone in a reaction to all the people shot to death in U.S. murders that are not mass shootings.) How many people who were shot dead would be living full lives today?
“To make our communities safer, the time to act is now,” said Prime Minister Ardern on the other side of the world.
Let’s hope New Zealand moves beyond “thoughts and prayers,” the phrase our own politicians are quick to spout.
Running late. For most or us, it can mean irritating the more punctual people, or messing up a day’s calendar, or simply triggering feelings of urgency.
For some, however, tardiness changed the course of their lives. When it comes to shootings, either random, mass or other types, there is a fine line of fate when it comes to who gets killed or wounded. But even those who are not shot, or do not witness shootings, can be affected.
Two families that were late to temple on August 5, 2012, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, may have avoided death or physical injuries because of being behind schedule. By late morning, six worshipers were dead, including the Sikh temple president and three priests, and four other people were wounded. One of those wounded remains in a nursing home with brain damage more than six years later.
Pardeep Kaleka was driving his son and daughter to temple that morning when his 8-year-old daughter announced she had forgotten her Sunday school notebook. He turned the car around and drove home, she ran inside to get the notebook, and they drove back toward the Sikh Temple. Just as he was approaching the highway exit to the temple, however, about a dozen police cars, lights flashing, sped up behind him. He pulled over to let them pass. A former police officer, Kaleka noticed several police jurisdictions were responding. He knew that meant something big was happening.
Nirmal Kaur and her family were also behind schedule — due to her own actions. She and her husband, with three small children in tow, reached the temple after the shots rang out. When they arrived “I remember there was all [these] cops blocking all the area,” she said.
“If we were not running late, if I was not, you know, spending more time on my makeup — my husband was arguing with me ‘Come on, hurry up,’ — we would’ve been inside there,” she said. “I think about that day all the time. If we were in there, I think, I would have got shot. My husband would have got shot. My kids would have got shot.”
That morning at the suburban Milwaukee temple, a neo-Nazi into the white power music scene may have mistook the Sikhs for Muslims. He shot as many people as he could before turning the gun on himself. He died at the scene. The first responding police officer was shot 15 times, and survived, though his injuries forced him to retire from police duty.
Pardeep Kaleka knew his parents were inside the temple, but he could not get to them. He received a call from his mother, who spoke quietly because the gunman was still in the temple. She was hiding in the kitchen pantry with about a dozen others. She asked him to get help. He also got a call from his father’s phone — but it was a priest telling him his father had been shot, was in serious condition, and needed help.
Because of his former ties with law enforcement, Pardeep was able to speak with the officer in charge. He was finally allowed into the command center at a nearby parking lot, leaving his children with friends. He found his mother, who had escaped the temple with others in an armored police vehicle. She was scared and upset, but not wounded. It was several hours before Pardeep and his brother Amardeep found out that their father, Satwant Kaleka, had been shot dead while fighting the gunman.
Nirmal Kaur’s family did not stay at the scene when they learned of the shooting. Stories were flying, and nobody knew exactly what was happening inside the temple, other than someone had been shooting.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Kaur said, adding that her young children were frightened.
Some members of the temple decided to go out to lunch and stay together for support until answers could be found. But Nirmal wanted to protect her young children from hearing too much.
“I told my husband, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ Because the kids were crying. They were getting scared. I said, ‘Let’s take the kids out of here. I don’t want to get them traumatized from this.’”
The family drove across town to another Sikh temple in Brookfield, Wisconsin, about 25 miles away. She said people there wanted to hear about what had happened, but she and her husband knew few details. She made sure her children had something to eat after the service, though she and her husband had little appetite.
“It was a really sad day,” she said.
Since then, many members of the temple have found new directions for their lives.
Pardeep Kaleka enrolled in graduate school to become a counselor. He specializes in holistic trauma-informed treatment with survivors of assault, abuse and acts of violence. In his men’s counseling groups, he often addresses male toxicity and anger. He also co-founded the group Serve 2 Unite, which engages youth and communities to create peaceful communities and address violence and trauma. He and former skinhead Arno Michaelis met after the Sikh temple shooting, and they wrote the book, “The Gift of Our Wounds,” about the transformational power of friendship and forgiveness.
Kaleka also became a more conscious family man.
“I found a new appreciation about fatherhood, and being a husband. And so I started to hug my kids a little bit longer,” he said. “Make love differently — that sounds weird.” Kaleka laughed.
“And just generically not taking things for granted. I think a lot of us do that, you know. Because we think we’re going to live ’til tomorrow. And this really showed me that nothing is promised.”
Even though Nirmal Kaur had no immediate family members killed that day, the deadly incident that impacted the entire Sikh community pushed her to her re-examine her life and religion.
“Since 2012, a lot of changing. I got more involved in my community. I used to stay away. I didn’t care much. Me and my husband got baptized after, in 2015,” said Kaur, who is now the temple community liaison, public educator and greeter. “And then I said to myself, ‘Now I want to do something. I want to educate people.’ It really needs to be done, and we need to do something to show people who we are.”
Both Nirmal Kaur and Pardeep Kaleka feel partly responsible for many non-Sikhs in Milwaukee and beyond not knowing enough about Sikhism. She believes if the gunman had known more about them and their religion, he may have left them alone.
A chilling fact: The murderer visited the temple a few days before the shooting, and learned the building’s layout for his killing spree.
“He took the tour of the temple,” she said, adding that she did not meet him. “All we need to do is talk to them. And sometimes I wish that the shooter came in here, instead of having doubt about who we are, should have talked to us, asked questions. Who you guys are? What are you guys? What do you believe in? What do you guys do for prayer? Nothing. Anybody would answer those questions.”
Pardeep Kaleka still mourns his father’s death, yet most days finds himself full of hope. He tries to make the most of every day he is alive — thanks to a forgotten notebook.
“We believe in Chardi Kala,” he said of a basic Sikh tenet.
That means relentless optimism.
Dogs, large or small, service or strictly pets, can be a gun violence survivor’s best
friend — a coping tool hidden beneath four paws and a bunch of fur.
When Jennifer Longdon was injured by a random shooter in Phoenix, Arizona, 15 years ago, she was paralyzed from the chest down, her life forever altered. Her canine pal Pearl, a Doberman pinscher service dog, helped Longdon negotiate her new world. The two learned together.
“I got Pearl as a puppy about a year after my injury. I raised her, I trained her. She was amazing. She actually kind of brought me out of my shell. Because I took her out and walked her,” said Longdon of their ventures into the neighborhood, the human on wheels, the dog loping alongside. “And she was also a bridge to people. So people who didn’t want to talk to me, wanted to talk about the dog. And she became a great connector back to humanity for me.”
In addition to helping Longdon ease back into the world, Pearl also gave her human tremendous physical support.
“Dobermans have this bad reputation, but they bond to a human. And they’re very smart, and they’re very loyal,” Longdon said. “A lot of other animals are food driven. And a doberman just loves you. They will put down their life for you. Pearl would pick up things that I dropped, she would hold me in my chair, and she watched my transfers. And she would realize before I did that that transfer is not going to work,” she said of transferring herself, for example, from her wheelchair to a couch, or a bed to the wheelchair. “And she would be there and catch me and ease me down, rather than me breaking something.”
Before Pearl entered Longdon’s life, Longdon fell out of her wheelchair and fractured a leg. That is not uncommon for people with spinal cord injuries.
“Pearl saved me from a lot of fractures. And she would recognize that, ‘You’re not doing so well,’” Longdon said.
One of the effects of a spinal cord injury is clonis — a neurological condition that creates involuntary muscle contractions, causing uncontrollable shaking movements.
“Sometimes clonis will be so bad that it pulls you out of your chair. And for me, the drugs just weren’t the answer,” Longdon said, adding the condition does not bother her as much as it did in the early days of her injury. “If it got bad like that, sometimes she’d just come and put her head on my leg. And just the warmth and the gentle weight would make it stop.”
And then there was the intimidation factor of a 110-pound canine escort.
“She was amazing. And everyone who knew her loved her. And she was as intimidating as hell, which didn’t hurt.”
Longdon, who goes by Jen, since January 2019 has held a seat in the Arizona State House and is an advocate for gun reform. Pearl died in 2016, and Longdon currently lives with two non-service dogs named Porter and Kuma who valiantly bark at strangers and, Longdon quipped, are both “pro floor-holder-downers.”
For another gun-shot survivor, a new puppy helped him move back toward life during a horrific and long physical and emotional recovery.
Ron and Nancy Barber lost their golden retriever the year before Ron Barber was shot, and decided, in their 60s, they were done with dogs, certainly with puppies.
But that resolution dissolved not long after Barber was hit by two bullets in the January 8, 2011, Tucson, Arizona, Safeway shopping center shooting. District Director for U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, Barber, Giffords and 11 others were wounded by a man obsessed with Giffords. At the public “Congress on Your Corner” event, six people died.
For months after the shooting, Barber felt survivor’s guilt, knowing that he was alive while others — including a 9-year-old girl and his assistant, a 30-year-old man, were not. There were months of painful physical therapy, and the emotional work of someone suffering from PTSD.
One day at home, he was lying on a chair with his injured leg propped up. His recovery had been slow-going for his body and his mind.
“Nancy came home and she said, ‘I’ve got something to show you.’
“She had three puppies in her hand. Three little tiny dots, right? And I said, ‘Oh, Nancy, you didn’t. We said we’d never do this again.’”
“Well, there’s only one for us,” Nancy responded, telling Ron to pick between the three.
“And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’”
“So she put her on my chest. That was the end of that,” Barber recalled, laughing.
“And she cuddled me forever. We were inseparable for quite a long time. And I believe that she really had a healing aspect to her.”
The tiny bundle of fur named Tipper helped Ron’s wife, too.
“If one of us is hurting for whatever reason, you know, she’s all about licking us, making sure we’re okay.”
Barber turns back to the dog, a small poodle terrier mix who offers emotional support, but is not a bonafide service dog.
“And she’s the best, aren’t you, girl? Yes, she is,” he said, petting Tipper, who perked up. Obviously, they were both still smitten, seven years later.
“She was a very important part of me getting better,” he said.
For two survivors of the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting of October 1, 2017, their two pit bulls are there for them during their ongoing recovery.
Mindy Scott and her 21-year-old daughter attended the festival, their first concert together after her daughter became an adult. Neither were hit by a bullet, but the aftermath has been intense.
Scott’s daughter moved back home for a couple of weeks after the shooting, and it was the dogs the young woman turned to.
“When she went home, it was when one of the dogs would walk with her,” Scott said of her daughter’s place, about a block away. “She just did’t feel safe at that time.”
Las Vegas is big on fireworks, which can trigger survivors of gun violence. The sound can take them back to the scene of violence and death.
New Year’s Eve is often celebrated in Vegas by fireworks over the strip, as is, of course, the Fourth of July.
“I hid in my closet,” recalled Scott, a waitress and painter. “I sat with my dogs, my pit bulls,
as they snuggled with me.”
She and her daughter put on headphones, watched movies on their laptop, and held tight to their rescue dogs.
“Roxy just sat there with me. She just laid in my lap,” she said of one of the dogs. “And that’s how we did it through the night,” she said. “It was just getting over that little hump.”
For one gun-violence survivor, his dog was there for him after the shooting, and later when he went through his final illness. Now the dog is there for his widow.
“Kirra was Bill’s absolute pride and joy,” said Sallie Badger, widow of Bill Badger. A retired Army colonel, he was shot during the 2011 Tucson Safeway shooting, and is credited for helping tackle the gunman that day. “She adored him.”
Kirra had been shot and stabbed as a puppy, but found a good life with the Badgers.
Bill Badger lived for about four years after the shooting, and the Badgers became advocates for gun reform, traveling across the country to support the cause.
A few years after the Safeway shooting, Bill Badger’s health declined.
“When Bill was sick, he slept in a guest bedroom because he was in pain and flailing,” Sallie Badger said. “And he said, ‘Is it okay if Kirra sleeps in here with me?’”
The huskie-lab mix had never been allowed on the furniture.
“I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So she slept on the bed with him. And it was very, very comforting for him.” She paused, and smiled. “I’d go in, and Bill would have this much room [she mimes a few inches] and Kirra was sprawled out, of course.”
Bill Badger died in 2015, and Sallie went into mourning. So did his dog.
“After Bill died, oh gosh. Kirra went in there and she was in that room 24 hours a day, other than to be taken outside and to eat,” she recalled of the dog in Bill’s final bedroom. “And she was in, this is her pose with the head between her legs and she absolutely would not leave the room. It was the most pitiful thing I have ever seen in my [life]. I didn't know that dogs or any animal could grieve that way.”
Sometimes, Sallie would talk to the dog, sharing their mutual grief.
“So about three weeks after Bill died I went in there, and I was on my knees next to the bed and I said, ‘Oh Kirra, where's our Bill?’ And she jumped up and went right to the door, flew to the door. I never mentioned his name around her again. But at that point I knew I had to change things. I let this go for quite a few months. She was getting thinner and thinner, losing all this weight.”
After six months of the dog mourning, Sallie Badger made a drastic change. She stripped the guest room of bedding, pillows, and mattress. She had the carpet removed and the room redone.
“I brought her out and I closed the door and I ended that. And she became my dog. And I had to. I had to. She couldn't, I didn't know how long that would go on. But that was the six-month period. She missed him terribly. And now she is my beloved dog.”
Sallie is not someone who appears to live with remorse, but there is one thing she wishes she had done differently.
“I really regret that when he was in the hospital at the end that I didn't take her in. They told me I could bring her in. But she's so shy. She’s so skittish. She was an abused dog.
“Now most people come, she roars. She really barks. If men come, she really barks. And I'm very happy with that.”
Today, Kirra is Sallie Badger’s dog, and the two of them help one another move through the grief of losing their man, Bill.
“I’ve read that after a life-changing incident — it doesn’t have to necessarily be seeing six people dead on the sidewalk and 13 wounded — but after a life-changing incident you either become more of who you were — whether to the good, the bad — or you make a 180-degree,” said Pat Maisch, who witnessed the 2011 mass shooting outside a Tucson Safeway store. “And [you] change your life in some way. Good or bad. You know, it’s unpredictable.”
For Maisch, the shooting pushed her toward activism, and into public speaking against gun violence and in favor of reforming gun laws.
“I think I've become more of who I was, which is compassionate, activist, wanting to see change, working for change,” Maisch said. “It has enriched me in that way, making me more active.”
Maisch, who is credited for grabbing the bullet magazine before the shooter could reload, certainly helped stop the rampage on Jan. 8, 2011. Two men tackled the young man who was set on killing Giffords and innocent bystanders.
The gunman came to the U.S. Representative Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords “Congress on Your Corner” event that invited constituents to talk, and or to share grievances and greetings. He shot Giffords in the head, leaving her with a brain injury and partial paralysis, injured 12 others and killed six people, including one of her staffers and others who were waiting in line to speak with their representative.
After the shooting, Maisch, then 68, became a vocal member of Everytown for Gun Safety (formerly Mayors Against Illegal Guns).
On Jan. 8, 2019, Maisch traveled to Washington D.C., and with Giffords and other survivors of shootings, she stood in solidarity as House Bill 8 was put forward in memory of the Tucson shooting on its eighth anniversary. The bill calls for universal background checks of people purchasing firearms, including sales at gun shows.
Maisch has spoken out for gun reform outside National Riffle Association rallies, testified in front of various state senates, and backed the signings of gun legislation.
“Until or unless you already know how horrible the gun laws are that the NRA and the gun lobby have been working like for 40 years to quietly change legislators in states [and] then to change them federally, you don't realize how poor the gun laws are and how easy it is to access firearms,” she said. “And when I did find that out, I wanted to help change that. Testifying before the Senate in D.C. was my first opportunity.”
Maisch became well known for her advocacy in 2013 after she yelled “Shame on You” at U.S. Senators from the gallery after they refused to pass a bill on gun reform in response to the 2012 slaughter of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. After her angry outburst, she was questioned by law enforcement for nearly two hours before being released.
In 2016, the silver-haired Maisch was arrested in Washington D.C. after she and other gun-violence protesters staged a sit-in on the floor of the Capitol rotunda.
“I used to call myself an advocate. But since things have politically changed so drastically, most of us call ourselves activists now,” Maisch said. “We don’t have the patience for advocacy.”
Maisch, who with her husband owns an air-conditioning business in Tucson, also has no patience for the NRA or the politicians who are beholden to the organization.
“I call him Mitch-bitch-to-the-NRA McConnell,” she said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has reportedly received $1.26 billion from the NRA over his political career, and in 2016 said he would not endorse any Supreme Court candidate who did not receive a nod from the NRA.
“We have to get the dirty money out of our elections,” she said.
In the meantime, Pat Maisch plans to continue her new roll as a gun-reform activist, traveling across the country to advocate on behalf of others, some of whom can no longer speak for themselves.
Many are survivors too traumatized to speak. Others are victims who were shot dead.