It seems hard to believe that within an 11-day period last fall, two mass shootings occurred in the United States.
It should not be. In fact, many more people died in U.S. shootings during that time, though not generating the same media attention as the shootings in the Pittsburgh synagogue and the southern California bar.
Traveling the country since June 2018 to interview survivors of gun violence — from mass shootings, random shootings, inner-city violence by guns, and more — I have come to see this as almost ordinary.
In fact, it is.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit group that offers online access to
gun-violence statistics, the Thousand Oaks Borderline Bar & Grill shooting was the 307th mass shooting — taking place on the 311th day of 2018. That means an average of one deadly mass shooting happened every day last year.
As I transcribe the interviews I’ve gathered, a dark, sickening realization hits me: This is how the new normal feels. It is a tragedy that we have thousands of witnesses who can tell us exactly how a shooting feels, and about the physical and psychological pain that continues for years. And when I read the newspaper accounts or hear the radio and TV reports about the most recent shootings, I feel I almost know the latest survivors.
I’ve not yet met anyone who was at the Thousand Oaks, California, bar Nov. 7, when the murderer stepped inside with the intent to kill at “college country night.”
But I have met people who attended the Route 91 Harvest country western music festival in Las Vegas Oct. 1, 2017, when 59 people were shot to death and more than 500 were injured.
One survivor of this shooting, Mindy Scott, wept as she told me her story.
Scott had gone to the music festival with her 21-year-old daughter — the first country western concert they had attended together since her daughter became an adult.
“I didn’t sleep for two days. And she stayed in my arms for two weeks,” recalled Scott, a waitress. She and her daughter still flinch at loud noises, a common trigger for gun-violence survivors. Fireworks can be the worst triggers, even if the brain tries to assure the survivor all is well.
“On the Fourth of July,” she said, “me and her sat in my closet with headphones on, watching movies, with our dogs at our side. The dogs get us through this, to this day.”
Scott and her husband, an Uber driver, carried dozens of shooting victims from the shooting site to the hospital in their two vehicles for several hours following the shooting.
Not long before the one-year anniversary of the shooting, the family moved into a different rental house, because from the first one she could see the Las Vegas Strip where the shooting occurred — that was just too painful, Scott said.
I’ve not met the members of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where shots broke out October 27, 2018, leaving 11 dead and six injured Oct. 27.
I have, however, interviewed those who survived another hate-crime shooting, at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.
I spoke with survivor Satpal Kaleka, whose husband Satwant Singh Kaleka was the spiritual leader of the temple, and who was shot to death as he struggled with the gunman in 2012. Five other worshipers died, too. Satpal Kaleka is deeply spiritual, and believes “all is in god’s hands.” Still, she and others who hid from the gunman that Sunday, today find themselves imagining exit routes during the weekly service. Several people were injured, including a police officer who was shot 15 times, and survived.
I have not yet interviewed the Parkland students who witnessed the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, 2018, leaving 17 dead and as many injured. Since then, many of those who survived that shooting have become activists in the gun-reform movement.
Finding a new path is not unusual for people who survive shootings. After time, many survivors and those connected to shootings find a new direction for their lives.
For those of us who have not been disabled by gunfire, witnessed a fatal shooting, or had our loved ones murdered, this may seem a distant reality. It may seem surreal as we watch the news in the safety of our living rooms, or follow along on our smart phones.
One trauma surgeon turned policy-maker, however, says we ought not to fool ourselves.
Dr. Randall Friese was just coming off a 24-hour hospital shift when the calls came in about the Tucson shooting.
He performed surgery on 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, but was unable to save her. He then turned his attention to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a shot in the head in an assassination attempt Jan. 8, 2011. She has brain damage and is partially paralyzed, and has become active in gun reform.
After that very long day of blood, death and surgeries, Friese was changed. Over time, he decided he might do more as a legislator than as merely a trauma surgeon. He ran for office, and now is a state representative in the Arizona House, pushing for changes in gun laws. None of those bills he has introduced in his red state have made it to a hearing, however, even one that simply requested the creation of a study committee on gun violence. Still, he believes in pushing for reform.
“Just because it’s never touched you or your immediate family, it may have touched a neighbor, and you’re not aware of it. Or a child that goes to school with your child,” said Friese, who divides his time as surgeon and legislator.
“So I’m trying to get people to understand that it’s closer to you than you think,” said Friese, who was re-elected Nov. 6, 2018. “And if we don’t do something to change that trajectory, it’s going to eventually touch you, or someone very close to you.”
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.