Death Watch

09.22.13

I've Written 51 Obituaries for Gun Victims in 18 Months

In the year and half since I came to work for The Daily Beast, I've written obituaries for all the people killed in mass shootings at Aurora, Newtown, and the Washington Navy Yard. I dread the 52nd.

In the 18 months since starting at The Daily Beast, I’ve written 51 obituaries--that’s one for each victim in three of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

Six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan’s was the first obituary I’d ever written, and by the time it was published, her mother still hadn’t been told of her daughter’s fate. Veronica had been brought to see the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises at Century Aurora 16 on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. She was the youngest victim that night, and in the gallery of a dozen obituaries I wrote the day after a gunman opened fire in the theater, she came first, pictured happily sticking her tongue in a waffle cone of ice cream.

I had started at The Daily Beast, my first real job in journalism, three months prior. And only 1 year 1 month and 27 days had passed since the Aurora massacre, when, on Monday, a gunman took aim at the Washington Navy Yard, killing another dozen. As I filed the victim’s biographies on Tuesday afternoon, my obituary tally more than quadrupled since Veronica and her ice cream cone.

Now, almost 18 months since my first day in this profession, the nation has watched three horrific shootings unfold, and I’ve written 51 obituaries, two shooter profiles, and countless mind-numbing updates on every morbid detail of the crime scenes. To put this into perspective, since 1949, only 12 shootings have each resulted in 12 or more deaths in America. Yet somehow, in my short career, I’ve reported on three.

The day after the Aurora tragedy was a Saturday, and the disheartening task fell to me. I compiled everything I could find about each of the 12 names, and I didn’t stop crying until I sent the story to my editor four hours later.

From the vantage point of my desk, the victims took shape from statements made by family, friends, teachers, neighbors, traces left online, and still images.

As I wrote those eulogies for Aurora, there was no way to foresee I’d be doing almost exactly the same thing on another Saturday night almost exactly five months later. This second time, I faced the agonizing task of drafting 20 obituaries for children Veronica’s age after a crazed gunman went on a rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Add to that victim count seven adults, and it made for the second deadliest shooting in American history.

As I began, I worried about finding enough to write about children who’d only been alive for 6 or 7 years. But online, the memories were pouring out, in the form of local and national papers, old newsletters, social media tributes. I would write about the girl who wore her Christmas outfit to school and the boy who’d just won his first mini-triathlon. Only a few were cut short by a lack of information available at publishing time. “Josephine Gay had just celebrated her 7th birthday three days before she was tragically killed in the Sandy Hook shooting,” I wrote. Others, like Principal Dawn Hochsprung, I memorialized with a full article.

From the vantage point of my desk, the victims took shape from statements made by family, friends, teachers, neighbors, traces left online, and still images. Aggregating the obituaries was a comparatively simple task and surely preferable to the task—and the heavier emotional toll—of on-the-ground reporting and cold-calling victims’ families during such personal tragedies. There are many who have been doing this for decades whose tallies far, far exceed mine.

But consider that, according to calculations by The Atlantic, a mass shooting has occurred on average once every 222 days for the past 30 years—So how did I come to the nauseating ratio of 51 obituaries in a mere 18 months in this profession?

My personal tally accounts for barely a fraction of those deserving of a post-mortem tribute. An investigation by Mother Jones shows that in the time between Aurora and the Navy Yard, there have been eight shootings that each claimed five or more victims. In the year since Aurora, 23 mass killings took 126 lives, and most of those never even made the national news. Between Newtown and now, Slate estimates 8,250 people have died from gun violence.

Muddling through LinkedIn profiles and yearbook photos in the aftermath, I, along with the rest of the world, watched each massacre inspire fresh despair and fury at the senselessness of it all. We heard the same calls to action. We read the new rafts of scathing op-eds citing similarities with the last shooting (after which nothing changed). And then, not long after all that, would come the same lull and an impasse of detachment. Reload, repeat.

I’m already dreading number 52.