‘I don’t have time to be sad’

How do sur­vivors of mass shoot­ings in the US, and the fam­i­lies of vic­tims, feel in the ex­cru­ci­at­ing hours af­ter each new in­ci­dent? Six of them speak to Lois Beck­ett and Jamiles Lartey

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They see the alerts on their phones, turn on the news – and then, like the rest of us, the sur­vivors of pre­vi­ous mass shoot­ings in the US watch the grim de­tails of the lat­est at­tack un­fold.

Last week, a gun­man killed 26 peo­ple at a ru­ral church in Suther­land Springs, Texas, just over a month af­ter 58 peo­ple were mur­dered, and nearly 500 wounded, in Las Ve­gas, the worst mass shoot­ing in re­cent US his­tory. The tragedies join a long, som­bre list of killings that dom­i­nate the head­lines and then grad­u­ally fade from pub­lic view.

We asked sur­vivors and fam­ily mem­bers of vic­tims in six pre­vi­ous mass shoot­ings – in­clud­ing some that were, at the time, the dead­li­est – what they do af­ter each new in­ci­dent. What do they want to see change?

How do they cope with the cov­er­age – and the si­lence when the news cy­cle moves on? Columbine Austin Eubanks Sur­vivor, Columbine high school shoot­ing, Lit­tle­ton, Colorado, 1999 In the record­ings of 911 calls, you can hear art teacher Patti Niel­son scream­ing at Eubanks and his friend Corey De­pooter, who were in their school li­brary, to get “un­der the ta­ble, kids!” As Niel­son screamed, the boys ducked down. Two of their class­mates then en­tered the li­brary and opened fire. A few min­utes af­ter the shoot­ing stopped, Eubanks saw other stu­dents run­ning and he ran, too, through a li­brary filled with smoke, the fire alarm blar­ing.

Out­side, he called his fam­ily from a po­lice car. It was only when his fa­ther ar­rived and jumped over a fence to get to him that his state of shock be­gan to fade. “I said: ‘They killed Corey,’ and I just broke down in his arms.’”

Eubanks had been shot in the hand and the knee. In hos­pi­tal, he was given his first pain med­i­ca­tion. His phys­i­cal

pain wasn’t too bad, but the opi­ates had a dra­matic im­pact on his emo­tional suf­fer­ing. “It was like some­body put a warm blan­ket over me,” he says.

He was sent home with a 30-day sup­ply. Within months, he was ad­dicted, ma­nip­u­lat­ing doc­tors into pre­scrib­ing him more med­i­ca­tion and then buy­ing on­line and on the street, mov­ing on to co­caine and ec­stasy and what­ever else he could find. His par­ents saw his be­havioural changes early, but at­trib­uted them to the trauma he had been through. It was 12 years, af­ter rack­ing up mul­ti­ple ar­rests for fights, theft and im­pul­sive be­hav­iour, be­fore he fi­nally got sober.

To­day, Eubanks is the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at a long-term res­i­den­tial treat­ment pro­gramme in Steam­boat Springs, Colorado, and has be­gun to speak more on the opi­oid epi­demic. At the root of Amer­ica’s ad­dic­tion cri­sis, he ex­plains, is “emo­tional pain and trauma”. About 80% of the clients in re­cov­ery he has worked with can iden­tify this as a cause. It doesn’t have to be as dra­matic as sur­viv­ing a mass shoot­ing. Painful events in child­hood, such as par­ents di­vorc­ing, can have a deep emo­tional im­pact.

Eubanks has watched the in­creas­ing pace of mass shoot­ings with fear. “Now we had a guy [the Las Ve­gas shooter] who com­mit­ted this crime for no known mo­tive other than no­to­ri­ety, and that is in­cred­i­bly scary to me,” he says. “Ev­ery time this hap­pens, the rip­ple ef­fect gets larger. I don’t think we have a five- or a 10-year so­lu­tion. I think we’re look­ing at a 25-year so­lu­tion.”

Aurora Caren Teves

Mother of Alex Teves, movie the­atre shoot­ing, Aurora, Colorado, 2012

Caren Teves and her hus­band, Tom, were on va­ca­tion in Maui in 2012 when they re­ceived a fran­tic phone call from Amanda Lind­gren, their son Alex’s girl­friend. Amanda and Alex had been at a movie. There had been a shoot­ing and she didn’t know what had hap­pened to him.

For the next 12 hours, the fam­ily des­per­ately tried to lo­cate Alex. In be­tween fran­tic phone calls to the po­lice and lo­cal hos­pi­tals, they watched the sen­sa­tion­al­ist TV news cov­er­age about the mass shooter who at­tacked the au­di­ence at a mid­night view­ing of The Dark Knight Rises. Pho­tos of the per­pe­tra­tor, with his dyed red hair, kept ap­pear­ing on the screen.

Lind­gren would later de­scribe how Alex had pulled her down and cov­ered her body with his own. He was killed try­ing to shield her. In the days af­ter the shoot­ing, Tom Teves chal­lenged news an­chors to re­port on his son’s hero­ism – and the brav­ery of other sur­vivors and first re­spon­ders – in­stead of try­ing to delve into the mind of the shooter.

It was an up­hill bat­tle. Some TV seg­ments sim­ply can­celled in­ter­views with the Teves fam­ily over their re­quest that the per­pe­tra­tor’s pho­to­graph should not be dis­played. “I wish I had not done that,” Caren says, be­liev­ing now that their prin­ci­pled stance only had the ef­fect of si­lenc­ing them.

Since 2012, the fam­ily has launched a cam­paign to pre­vent me­dia cov­er­age from fo­cus­ing on shoot­ers’ pho­to­graphs, body counts and rank­ing dif­fer­ent shoot­ings against each other, prac­tices that they be­lieve play into the per­pe­tra­tors’ crav­ing for fame.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in Suther­land Springs, Texas, last week an­nounced they would fol­low a sim­i­lar ap­proach. “If you no­tice, I use ‘shooter’ in­stead of the sus­pect’s name. We do not want to glo­rify him and what he’s done,” Free­man Mar­tin, a spokesman for the Texas Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety, said last week.

But many me­dia out­lets still ig­nore the “no no­to­ri­ety” prin­ci­ples. Erik Wem­ple of the Wash­ing­ton

Post has called look­ing into a killer’s back­ground and try­ing to un­der­stand mo­tives as “a pub­lic ser­vice, not some ne­far­i­ous ‘glo­ri­fi­ca­tion’ quest”.

Teves is scathing about this point of view. “Their ar­gu­ment boils down to: you’re not go­ing to tell us what to do,” she says. “It’s a money-maker for them. Sen­sa­tion­al­ism sells.”

To­day, she wor­ries that the sheer hor­ror of mass shoot­ings is a bar­rier to po­lit­i­cal change. “A lot of peo­ple don’t want to grasp it be­cause it’s that aw­ful.” But if af­ter mass shoot­ings 20 years ago, “we [had] all stood up and said: ‘Enough is enough,’ Alex would still be alive. He’d still be here.”

‘I don’t think we have a five- or a 10-year so­lu­tion. We’re look­ing at a 25-year so­lu­tion’ Austin Eubanks

Sandy Hook Erica Laf­ferty

Daugh­ter of prin­ci­pal Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook ele­men­tary school shoot­ing, New­town, Con­necti­cut, 2012

Laf­ferty was barely awake one morn­ing at the be­gin­ning of last month when she saw a Face­book alert from a child­hood friend who had re­cently moved to Las Ve­gas, mark­ing her­self “safe”. Laf­ferty called her im­me­di­ately. The friend had wanted to go to the coun­try mu­sic con­cert the Las Ve­gas shooter had tar­geted, but “it was sold out by the time she had tried to get tick­ets”, her friend told her.

For Laf­ferty, the first hours af­ter a mass shoot­ing are the most ex­cru­ci­at­ing. She knows that fam­ily mem­bers of the vic­tims of a new at­tack are wait­ing, as she once did, for news, and “they’re still hold­ing out this lit­tle bit of hope”.

Five years ago, her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, an ele­men­tary school prin­ci­pal in Con­necti­cut, had been in a meet­ing when she heard gun­shots. She came out into the school hall­way and was shot by a dis­turbed young man with a mil­i­tary-style ri­fle who had forced his way in­side. Laf­ferty had to wait un­til the early hours of the next day be­fore she was told her mother had been mur­dered.

Af­ter the Sandy Hook ele­men­tary school shoot­ing, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion en­dorsed a slate of gun con­trol re­forms, with the main push in favour of bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion that would ex­pand back­ground-check

‘She would want me to stand up and speak out for her, so that’s just what I did’

Mal­colm Gra­ham

re­quire­ments on gun sales.

The con­gres­sional vote on the leg­is­la­tion “was my big­gest mo­ment of hope”, and when it nar­rowly failed in the Sen­ate, “also my big­gest let­down”.

She was dev­as­tated again af­ter Hil­lary Clin­ton, who was “con­stantly talk­ing about gun vi­o­lence and how it’s plagu­ing our coun­try – and her ac­tual plan to do some­thing about it”, lost the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Asked what ac­counts for Clin­ton’s loss, she says: “I still don’t know. I feel like I lost all faith in hu­man­ity af­ter that one.”

Laf­ferty, who now works for the lobby group Every­town for Gun Safety, says she is com­forted by the peo­ple who have made the is­sue a pri­or­ity, even with­out be­ing per­son­ally af­fected by it. “If they can get up, and do it out of the kind­ness of their hearts, I had bet­ter be able to do it for my mother,” she says.

Af­ter the shoot­ing at Pulse night­club in Or­lando last year, Laf­ferty could not func­tion. She lay on her couch, watched the news cov­er­age and cried. But this year, af­ter Las Ve­gas, she felt stronger, and be­gan to rally other peo­ple to call their elected of­fi­cials and get in­volved in fight­ing for tougher gun laws.

“In the wake of the elec­tion, my anger is just a lot more in­tense than it used to be. I don’t have time to be sad,” she says.

San Bernardino Tina Meins

Daugh­ter of Damian Meins, San Bernardino shoot­ing, Cal­i­for­nia, 2015 Damian Meins could just as eas­ily not have been in the of­fice that Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. Work­ing in a new job as an in­spec­tor with the San Bernardino health depart­ment, Meins was ex­pect­ing to be out in the field un­til he got last-minute word that he had to come into the In­land Re­gional Cen­ter for a meet­ing. But, with his wife suf­fer­ing a bad case of the flu, he con­sid­ered stay­ing home be­fore think­ing bet­ter of it and go­ing in.

These are the types of “what ifs” that rack the minds of peo­ple such as Tina Meins, Damian’s daugh­ter: the small choices that place a loved one in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ac­cord­ing to Damian’s co-work­ers, he had been stand­ing by the Christ­mas tree at the of­fice party when a mar­ried cou­ple en­tered the build­ing with semi­au­to­matic ri­fles and hand­guns, donned tac­ti­cal gear and fired off rounds in rapid suc­ces­sion. The shoot­ers man­aged to kill 16, in­clud­ing Damian, and in­jure 24 be­fore be­ing killed by po­lice.

Tina, then 33, re­mem­bers show­ing up with the rest of her fam­ily a few hours af­ter the news broke and be­ing hus­tled off to the re­uni­fi­ca­tion cen­tre, which was set up a few blocks away.

Bus­load af­ter bus­load of sur­vivors pulled into the lo­ca­tion, each bring­ing with them a mo­ment of hope fol­lowed by a lit­tle bit more dread.

“Fi­nally, the last bus came and he wasn’t on it,” Tina says. “It’s really weird be­cause you hold on to hope even if you know …”

“There’s the emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma of try­ing to deal with the fact that you no longer have a dad. But there’s also the prac­ti­cal side of you that thinks: ‘OK, well, what does this mean? Fi­nan­cially, is my mom go­ing to be able to live in this house?’ You find a dif­fer­ent way to live, but it takes a long time for things to even feel OK.”

Part of that new life for Tina, her mother and her sis­ter has been as ad­vo­cates for what she calls com­mon­sense gun con­trol – things such as univer­sal back­ground checks on gun pur­chases na­tion­wide.

“You won­der with ev­ery pass­ing shoot­ing, what will be the prover­bial straw that breaks the camel’s back. They [Congress] have al­ready had two peo­ple in their own ranks shot,” she says, re­fer­ring to Steve Scalise and Gabrielle Gif­fords.

“But I do feel some op­ti­mism that things will change even­tu­ally. I don’t think it’s a short path, but I think it’ll change.”

Or­lando Bran­don Wolf

Sur­vivor, Pulse night­club shoot­ing, Or­lando, Florida, 2016

For Bran­don Wolf, ever since he came to Or­lando as a young man, the Pulse LGBT night­club was a refuge, a haven.

“Pulse was a place where I met peo­ple who were like me – who were young and had moved here to find them­selves,” says Wolf, who was among the hun­dreds in the crowd the night a gun­man en­tered the club and be­gan fir­ing in­dis­crim­i­nately.

Wolf was in the bath­room get­ting ready to leave when he heard the first gun­shots. He re­mem­bers see­ing more than a dozen peo­ple fran­ti­cally run in and pin them­selves back against the cor­ner of the wall. “A few sec­onds af­ter

this group of peo­ple was the smell of gun smoke … and you could al­most get a hint of blood be­hind it.”

Wolf and his now part­ner, Eric, made a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion. They locked hands, ran out from the bath­room through the caus­tic smoke un­til they saw an exit, then they kept run­ning for sev­eral blocks un­til the panic and shock took over.

“My legs were like ce­ment and I couldn’t run any more, and I just col­lapsed on the side­walk,” Wolf says. It struck him that his close friends, Christo­pher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guer­rero, were still in­side.

Af­ter a sleep­less night, Wolf’s worst night­mare was con­firmed. Leinonen and Guer­rero were among the 49 killed in what was at the time the dead­li­est mass shoot­ing in mod­ern US his­tory.

Wolf shut down. For days, he could barely even make it out of bed. Even as he re­sumed work, he de­scribed liv­ing in a deep fog for months. “I was a zom­bie. I was go­ing through the mo­tions.”

It was largely through speak­ing up and out about his ex­pe­ri­ences that Wolf was able to re­build a new nor­mal. “Words are my cop­ing mech­a­nism. I use words to heal my­self as much as to spread the mes­sage.”

Wolf says he has lost track of the num­ber of speak­ing en­gage­ments he has at­tended to lobby for gun con­trol. They have in­cluded speak­ing on stage at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion and ad­dress­ing Jan­uary’s Women’s March in Wash­ing­ton DC

And as for how he feels in crowded places such as night­clubs now: “I think it’s dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one, but I feel pow­er­ful. I feel em­bold­ened to be able to go into a pub­lic space and be my­self,” Wolf says. “He wanted us to feel afraid. He wanted us to feel small, and so to be able to have that power back is really free­ing for me.”

Charleston Mal­colm Gra­ham

Brother of Cyn­thia Gra­ham Hurd, Mother Emanuel AME church shoot­ing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2015

The Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina feels like part of Mal­colm Gra­ham’s DNA. He was bap­tised there, he sang in the choir as a young man and watched a num­ber of rel­a­tives get mar­ried there, too. So it was no sur­prise to him when he dis­cov­ered that his sis­ter, Cyn­thia Gra­ham Hurd, was one of the nine peo­ple killed at Bi­ble study when a white su­prem­a­cist pulled out a gun and be­gan fir­ing dur­ing a round of prayer.

As is so of­ten the case for the fam­i­lies of vic­tims, Mal­colm first learned about the shoot­ing from the news. “I called Cyn­thia be­cause she was well known in the com­mu­nity and she at­tended Emanuel, so she was my source of in­for­ma­tion down there. She didn’t an­swer. Then an hour went by and I started get­ting con­cerned.”

Mal­colm, then liv­ing in North Carolina, fi­nally got word from a niece that his sis­ter was miss­ing. He knew a num­ber of of­fi­cials in Charleston law en­force­ment and learned from po­lice that she had been killed be­fore of­fi­cial word of her death was re­leased.

Mal­colm, a vet­eran politi­cian who had spent 16 years in elected of­fice, took on some­thing of a spokesman role for his fam­ily as ques­tions from the press be­came a ma­jor part of their lives through the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math and the two tri­als in which the killer was found guilty and sen­tenced to death.

“That was my ther­apy, if I can use that anal­ogy,” Mal­colm says. “She would want me to stand up and speak out for her, so that’s just what I did.”

In 2016, fuelled in part by his sense of loss, he launched an un­suc­cess­ful bid for a US con­gres­sional seat. He hoped to use that po­si­tion to ad­vo­cate for “com­mon­sense gun laws” and for fam­i­lies like his who have been for ever changed by this type of vi­o­lence. “It’s a strange fra­ter­nity to be­long to,” Mal­colm says. “When I saw Las Ve­gas and Or­lando I could re­late to how the fam­i­lies felt. I could re­late to how the com­mu­nity was hurt­ing. I could re­late to peo­ple not un­der­stand­ing and ask­ing the ques­tion why.

“It’s aw­ful for any com­mu­nity to have to bear that name: Charleston strong. Or­lando strong. Las

Ve­gas strong.”

Caren and Tom Teves at a ded­i­ca­tion ser­vice for their son, Alex; Austin Eubanks with his girl­friend af­ter the shoot­ings in 1999, and to­day (top right)

Erica Laf­ferty cam­paign­ing against gun vi­o­lence with Hil­lary Clin­ton; Tina Meins with her mother and sis­ter speak­ing about her fa­ther, Damian

Top: Bran­don Wolf (left) with Chris­tine Leinonen, Drew’s mother; Mal­colm Gra­ham af­ter the South Carolina at­tack

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