VA Tech Victim Speaks Out on Newtown Massacre and the Future of Gun Control
The cycle is so familiar it’s sickening. Multiple people, sometimes dozens, get shot in a hail of gunfire: a congresswoman and her constituents, moviegoers at the theater, college students in class. The public grieves. Politicians pledge to “take action.” And then the pro-gun lobby gears up, the outrage dies down, and nothing ever gets done.
But what if it’s different this time? What if, in the wake of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week, that cycle is finally about to end?
It’s true, we thought this might be the case before. In early 2011, my colleague Pat Wingert and I wrote and reported an extensive feature story for Newsweek about the aftermath of the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and did kill six others who’d come to meet her in a supermarket parking lot. Our thesis was that, if one looked beyond the hoary Washington logic—the NRA is too powerful, guns are a losing issue, and so on—it was clear that the post-Tucson moment was peculiar enough, and the forces at work were potent enough, to produce real movement on gun safety—if advocates proceeded carefully.
Our prescriptions at the time were simple. “That means no outlawing specific guns,” we wrote. “No relitigating the Second Amendment. And no frantic liberal overreach. Just two precautions that a majority of voters favor, according to a new Newsweek/Daily Beast poll: background checks for every gun buyer (which 86 percent of respondents support) and a revival of the recently lapsed ban on the kind of high-capacity clips that [shooter Jared] Loughner used in Arizona (which 51 percent support).”
“The vast majority of us have [little] in common … with the two-dimensional culture warriors—the latte-sipping elites, the paranoid survivalists—who have dominated the debate for decades,” we concluded. “We respect guns, gun owners, and the Second Amendment, and yet we want gun violence to be as rare as possible. We know that guns can contribute to a community’s safety, and yet we acknowledge that none of the 18 mass shootings since May 2007 was stopped by a legal handgun carrier. If Obama recognizes this reality, and takes action, it’s possible to imagine us having a grown-up conversation about guns for the first time in almost 20 years.”
And then, as usual, the conversation petered out—and neither Aurora, Oak Creek, nor any of the dozens of other mass shootings around the country in the past 18 months alone got it started again.
Which is why the response to the Sandy Hook shooting has been so remarkable. The conditions for change are, after all, no different than they were in January 2011. But something fundamental seems to have shifted. In the last week alone, California Democrats introduced a bill that would require background checks and one-year permits for ammunition purchases, the Republican governor of Michigan vetoed legislation that would have permitted concealed weapons in schools, and a private-equity firm announced that it was selling Bushmaster, the company that manufactured the deadly assault rifle used in Newtown.
“The reactions,” wrote The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, “were considerably more broad-based than what had followed previous mass shootings, coming from Republicans as well as Democrats, from gun-control advocates and those who have favored gun rights in the past, and even from the corporate and retail worlds.”
Meanwhile, President Obama declared on Wednesday “that he would make gun control a ‘central issue’ as he opens his second term, promising to submit broad new firearm proposals to Congress no later than January and to employ the full power of his office to overcome deep-seated political resistance.” Among the promised reforms? “Support for new limits on high-capacity clips and assault weapons, as well as a desire to close regulatory loopholes affecting gun shows”—precisely the measures that seemed so tangible back in early 2011, at least before Obama decided he wouldn’t win that fight.
So what has changed, and why? Or will these early signs of reform reveal themselves to be a mirage? Seeking answers, I called Colin Goddard.
Goddard, whom I first interviewed in 2011 for the aforementioned Newsweek article, is one of the few people to experience America’s gun debate from every angle: first as a young firearm user who passed the Army’s basic rifle-marksmanship course; next as a member of the ROTC at Virginia Tech who visited the local shooting range with his fraternity brothers; finally as one of 49 people shot by fellow student Seung-Hui Cho in 2007, and one of only 17 who survived. It took a titanium implant and months of physical therapy before Goddard, who was hit four times, could set aside his crutches and cane and stand on his own two feet. Today, Goddard is a gun-safety advocate with the Brady Campaign, where he’s worked for the last several years.
Goddard’s verdict? This time really is different.
In 2011 we said, basically, that after the Tucson shooting the conditions were such that we might actually see movement on some consensus gun-safety issues. Were we wrong to think that?
No, we weren’t wrong to think that. A sitting member of Congress got wounded in a public shooting. Everyone thought something would change, or a discussion would be had. But unfortunately, the forces that always try to keep that discussion at bay succeeded.
Why didn’t we see any movement on even the simplest and most obvious responses: the gun-show loophole, high-capacity clips, assault weapons, and so on?
I think there was a lack of sustained public outrage, frankly. At the time, Americans were still in the same old cycle: expressing immense sympathy and condolence for what happened, and sending teddy bears and lighting candles, and then forgetting and getting on with their lives. And then repeating that cycle again when we had shootings a little after Tucson, like the shooting this summer in Aurora.
As someone who’s been through this, and obviously in a more personal sense, does Sandy Hook feel different to you?
Yes. We heard that old refrain—that “now is not the time to talk about this”—much more after Tucson than we’re hearing it now.
We’re still not there. We’re still not at the place we want to be. But we’ve never had our website crash after a shooting as often as we’ve had since Friday. we’ve never had the outpouring of activists and donors. We’re seeing a significant amount of contributions, just gifts to our organization. we’ve never had this many offices and senators and congressmen from Capitol Hill, people we’ve never spoken with before, come and request a meeting with us. we’ve never had this many celebrities reach out to us and say, How can we help your work? It’s been phenomenal. It’s been incredible. To the people who are reading, I say, “Let’s keep it up.” That’s what I’ve always thought was the missing piece. we’ve expressed our sympathies and our condolences and it ended there. There was never this sustained reaction, this sustained outrage. Which is what I think we’re seeing now.
What are the factors that have seemed to change the climate so much in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting?
There’s a general crescendo that’s been building with these types of shootings, but the fact that the so many of the victims in Sandy Hook were 6- and 7-year-old kids—that’s played a big part. Christina Taylor-Green, for example, was one of the most remembered victims of the shooting in Tucson because she was a young girl. But last week we had 20 Christina Taylor-Greens in one morning.
Also important is the fact that these mass shootings have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. I mean, I can name several mass-shooting events since August alone—since Aurora. Aurora was followed by the Sikh temple shooting, which was followed by a very high-profile shooting at the Empire State building, which was followed by a mass shooting at a salon in Oregon, which was followed a shooting at a mall in Oregon, which was followed by a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. That’s part of it too.
Finally, the media have come a long way in terms of how they report on these issues. The conversation is no longer, “Should we get rid of everyone’s gun or should we give guns to everybody?”. The media are now able to focus on tangible solutions like background checks on all guns sales and [the banning of] high-capacity assault weapons. Those are specifics. The more we can focus on actual specifics, the more we can get away from the hyperbolic, unrealistic extremes of “guns for everybody” or “guns for nobody.”
You lived through Virginia Tech and the response to it—the outpouring of grief and condolences, and then the inevitable national forgetting.
I wasn’t focused on any of that. I didn’t pick up on any of this advocacy work at the time. I started listening to it about a year afterwards, and didn’t get involved myself until two years after. I think people who are directly involved in these incidents, it takes some time to set their personal lives right, to pull it back together again, and then to find a way to either continue what they were doing or move in different direction. It’s great to see someone like Stephen Barton, a guy who survived the shooting in Colorado, now working with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. I don’t feel like I am doing this alone anymore. There are other young people, other survivors, who are getting involved.
That raises the question of Gabby Giffords. Are there ever any conversations about her and Mark Kelly becoming publicly engaged with the Brady Campaign?
She’s had an immense amount of physical therapy, and that should be her focus. And it has been. But in the past six months, we have had conversations with Mark Kelly. Even at the sentencing of Jared Loughner a month or two ago, he came out and said our politicians are not addressing the elephant in the room, which is gun violence. He has now started to speak out. It’s taken two years. I understand that totally. It took me the same amount of time.
Did Obama do enough, after Tucson, to push for reform?
No. He wrote a piece in the Arizona Daily Star where he said that it’s ridiculous that, at a gun show, someone can be denied when he tries to buy a gun from one seller, then literally turn right around and buy a gun from another seller. He spoke with surprising clarity on the issue. But that was it. That was all we got.
So how would characterize President Obama’s response after Tucson compared to his response now?
I think he’s come a long way. Earlier this week, the Brady Campaign had 20 victims of gun violence in the White House meeting with Valerie Jarrett, from Columbine to Newtown. They met for over an hour. A lot of these people had taken a lot of meetings on Capitol Hill, and every single one of them said that was the best meeting they’ve ever had in their entire life.
The amount of attention they were given individually. How receptive the White House was to their ideas, not just on policy but on changing the culture. I don’t think it could have gone any better. And the next day, Obama announces this task force and says he’s going to push for concrete reforms.
Why has Obama’s approach changed? Is it just the nature of this particular shooting? Or has the political context changed as well?
This is the fourth time that Obama has had to address the nation about a mass shooting; the fourth time he’s had to meet with victims and survivors. I think he’s personally getting a little fed up. And you can’t deny the fact that the election is over. He doesn’t have another one to worry about. So when he says something like, “We have to come together for meaningful action, despite the politics,” that’s a statement he can feel more comfortable making now. I hate to acknowledge the politics here, but you have to acknowledge it, to a certain extent. Our politics are so bad that some people are now demanding that we arm teachers to stand up to attackers instead of demanding that politicians stand up to the gun lobby. It’s pathetic, but it speaks to the dysfunctional nature of politics in the country at this moment. So, frankly, I think Obama is fed up with having to give these speeches. He’s heard the debate. He’s heard both sides. And he’s seen how the response has fallen flat and stagnated.
Have you been surprised at how quickly the White House has moved to put concrete reforms on the table? It seems like a stark contrast to Tucson.
I hoped it was going to happen. I’m just saying, “Thank God.” Thank God it’s really coming together now. Unfortunately, we live in a society where it takes horrible events for us to get up off our asses.
How do you think the current push for reform is going to turn out?
We have a major holiday vacation coming up. I think the major question will be how intense the outrage is in the beginning of January. We’re aware of that. That’s our main goal. It’s not to have policy talks on the Hill. It’s to maintain that public indignation.
But the bottom line is that I began this work knowing that we would succeed in passing specific policies, such as background checks on all gun sales. That’s why I’m in this fight. It’s not a career. It’s for a specific endpoint. I believed it was just a matter of time before we got there. And now I believe it’s going to happen a lot sooner rather than later. This is not something we have to accept as normal. And I think Americans are coming to see that.