‘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
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’
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
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