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.”
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.