WASHINGTON – The mass shootings that have rocked communities across the country in recent years — from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Tuscon, Arizona, to Aurora, Colorado, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to Newtown, Connecticut — have left a well-documented trail of carnage and grief.
But those tragedies and others like them also have produced what could prove to be the most formidable, fervent advocates in the looming fight over U.S. gun-control policy: Survivors who know what it feels like to be in the crosshairs of a mass murderer and outspoken families who have lost a loved one to gun violence.
Stephen Barton is among them.
He had planned to spend much of 2013 in Russia, teaching English on a prestigious Fulbright grant.
“I was expecting to be freezing in Siberia right now, drinking vodka,” joked Barton, 23, who graduated from Syracuse University last spring with a triple major in economics, international relations and Russian studies.
Instead, after surviving a shotgun blast last summer inside a movie theater in Aurora, undergoing emergency surgery and the physical therapy that followed, he decided on a different line of work. Six months after the shooting, he is a full-time outreach and policy associate for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nationwide coalition that pushes for stricter gun controls.
“I said to them, ‘I’ll do anything and everything. I just want to help out,’ ” said Barton, who has filmed commercials on behalf of the group and crisscrossed the country from Colorado to Newtown, speaking with lawmakers and gathering public support for stricter gun controls. “It’s been empowering and, in a way, therapeutic to do this sort of work.”
He’s not alone.
Barton is among the growing number of victims who have put their previous lives on hold to push for better background checks, restrictions on assault weapons and other measures intended to prevent more deadly killings in the future. Some have met in recent weeks with the gun-violence task force led by Vice President Joe Biden and, like Barton, attended President Barack Obama’s rollout of gun-safety proposals last month.
Others have lobbied lawmakers in their states, pressured retailers that sell certain types of weapons and held news conferences to call for changes and give voice to their outrage. New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat, decided to run for office after a shooter killed her husband and five other people on a Long Island commuter train in 1993 and remains one of the most ardent gun-control advocates in Congress.
America has a long history of influential movements that grew out of personal grief and tragedy.
Candice Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving the year after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in California. Nancy Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure after her sister died from breast cancer. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is named for James Brady, the White House press secretary who was seriously wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
“I never thought I’d be doing this,” said Colin Goddard, 27, who was shot four times during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and is now one of the most visible faces for the Brady Campaign, doing everything from lobbying on Capitol Hill to speaking at rallies to appearing in a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. “Getting involved in this work has been part of the therapy. . . . It allowed me to turn it into something positive.”
Perhaps the most high-profile survivor-turned-advocate is Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman who was shot in the head outside a Tucson supermarket in 2011 during a massacre in which six people died.
Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, announced last month they were forming a Washington-based political group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to take on the powerful National Rifle Association. The couple has said the group will advocate for measures such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and universal background checks. “These are common-sense solutions,” Kelly told The Washington Post last month. “If you can just prevent one of these incidents from happening, isn’t it worth it?”
Many survivors and family members of victims who have turned to advocacy say they were motivated to act after researching gun laws in America and being surprised by what they found.
“Like most Americans, I had assumed we did everything we could to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Goddard, “and frankly, I was shocked to learn that in some cases you don’t even have to go through a background check.”
Christian Heyne, 26, made a similar discovery after a California gunman severely wounded his father and killed his mother and another man as his parents were returning a boat they had borrowed from a friend on Memorial Day in 2005.
“He owned three guns, though he shouldn’t have,” Heyne, who now works as a legislative assistant and grassroots coordinator for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said of his parents’ shooter. “People don’t know how insane our gun laws are, and to be fair, neither did I until it came knocking on my front door.”
Gun-control advocates say they have no illusions about the fierce opposition they face in trying to alter the country’s gun policies. Even with backing from the White House, they recognize that Congress remains divided and that the NRA has deep pockets and many allies. Most easily recall the dismay they felt when nothing changed after the shootings in which they were involved.
But they also say the mood feels different after Newtown.
“It feels like what happened in Connecticut has changed the conversation. I see public sentiment shifting in our direction,” said Barton.
“It’s not a matter of if anymore; it’s a matter of when,” said Goddard, who Biden mentioned by name at the White House gun-control announcement last month.
Heyne said he probably never would have chosen such a career had gun violence not upended his life. But now, with the most vehement gun-rights debate in decades unfolding, he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I won’t feel fulfilled until real change is made, until I feel like I’ve done something,” he said.
Despite his unlikely path to advocacy, Heyne said he’s glad to be fighting alongside so many others who share his fervor after their own brushes with tragedy.
“Unless it happened to you, you just can’t understand,” he said. “It’s this weird little inner circle of understanding — we’ve all been through it together, and we’ve all turned to the same kind work. . . . It’s hundreds of people I love, that I wish I never would have met.”