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.
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.