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.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.