When people are killed or injured by gun violence, a ripple effect moves beyond the individuals who were shot. It is not just those who were killed, or the survivors and witnesses to shootings who are affected. Also affected by shootings are the relatives, friends, and even people they do not know at the time of the shooting.
Ron Barber was District Director for U.S. Representative Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, who represented southern Arizona, including Tucson. Barber was shot twice — once in the face and once in the leg — during the attempted assassination of Giffords. Giffords was outside a Safeway store in Northwest Tucson at her “Congress on the Corner” event meant to bring her in contact with constituents who had comments or complaints. The shooter was a mentally ill young man who had become obsessed with Giffords. She survived, but retained serious brain damage from the bullet to her head. She struggles to put her thoughts into words, and is partially paralyzed.
During Barber’s long recovery, which included dealing with physical and emotional pain and PTSD, his wife Nancy quit work as a doula to take care of him full-time. They said it was a rough road, and even their grandchildren were affected.
“My oldest granddaughter, she’s 14 now. She is still dealing with it. Whenever a family member is missing in action, if you will, or doesn’t came back on time, she gets very, very anxious,”
Ron Barber said about the youngster who was 7 at the time of the shooting. “For [her] it’s been a terrible thing ever since.”
Nancy Barber added that they turned to a helpful technology, one that might seem invasive but is essential to the health of their granddaughter.
“On our phones we have an app called 360. And we, the whole family, all of us, the other grandparents” have the app, Nancy Barber said. “And you can go on that app and know exactly where everybody is. Pull it up and you can even see the buildings they’re in. So that was crucial to her anxiety.”
The Barbers said their 14-year-old granddaughter and 17-year-old grandson still struggle with anxiety as a result of the shooting. Their grandson was the same age as Christina-Taylor Green, who died, their birthdays just five days apart.
Suzi Hileman was Christina-Taylor’s friend and neighbor, and was holding her hand when they were shot.
Hileman still grieves the loss of her young friend, and not long after the murders, she contemplated getting involved in the gun-reform activist movement.
That’s when she learned how much the shooting had devastated her husband and grown daughter. Her husband Bill had asked her to hold off on putting herself into public spaces.
“I paid no attention to it because I was pretty excited about myself,” Suzi said, imagining being in the spotlight, helping the cause. “And then my daughter Jenny called.”
Jenny said she and her father did not want Suzi to become active in publicly speaking out against gun violence.
Then Suzi asked her daughter, “Honey, what are the chances?”
That’s when her daughter exploded on the phone.
“Don’t, God damn it! Don’t you ever say, ‘What are the chances of you getting shot?’ How can you say that? What would I do if you got shot again? I can’t go through this again.”
Her husband Bill Hileman explained.
“It wasn’t just the fact of what happened. But there was a visceral side to it for Jenny and me, seeing her laying unconscious in that emergency room, the ICU. Tubes coming out everywhere. Filleted, you know, her torso opened up just like a fillet,” described Bill Hileman, fighting to contain his emotions. “And she looked so little and beat up. She was so bruised everywhere. She had all this internal bleeding and she was purple all over the place.”
Since then, Hileman has focused her post-shooting energy on working with elementary school children in memory of Christina. Mentoring 6-year-olds in gardening and reading, she considers it her second career.
For Bill, his life’s purpose has changed, too. After decades in a high-profile career, he had retired years before the shooting, choosing a quieter life with more time for the family.
“I’m very private now, and happily so. But this pushed that process along,” he said of his new perspective. “I just want to protect the family. It’s my overriding sense of things. I just want to protect Suzi.”
He said he was happy when Suzi turned her attention to young school children instead of the gun-reform movement.
“While we are supportive of it,” he said of those carrying the gun-reform torch, “I just didn’t want the love of my life to be front line on that. Selfish on our part. But my overriding reaction to the entire thing was to protect my wife.”
He said after nearly eight years since the shooting he’s not necessarily afraid at home, but careful.
“I don’t like anyone coming to the door without checking to see if there’s a bulge at their hip,” he said.
And neither Suzi nor Bill is completely comfortable in public, and do not like to sit with their backs to the door. And if there is a gun present, the psychological alarms go off.
“We’ve left restaurants and other such things when people come in carrying,” Bill Hileman said. “I don’t want to be around guns. I just don’t want to be around the randomness of human behavior armed with the power over life or death. I just think it’s a bad combination.”
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.