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Survivors Speak!                  August 2021
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Rest, Reset, Resolve

We started the dog days of August in a very pleasant way; it was the tail end of a lovely and restorative vacation to Mexico. We were so appreciative of the physical beauty, tranquility and good spirits all around us there. 

It was a challenge to shuck off the stress of a difficult year punctuated by ever-increasing gun violence, and July is a month that resonates with excruciating pain, but our trip was a healing respite.

We arrived in Mexico just as we marked the ninth year since the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that took our beautiful daughter Jessi. It was our personal calamity, and a calamity visited upon eleven other survivor families. No July 20 will ever be the same.

We needed those few weeks away to rest and recharge. And now we are resetting, preparing for a year with a chock-full agenda that will keep us on the road. We are resolved to make every minute count.

This month has been graced with a poignant and powerful piece of art inspired by the tragedy in Aurora. The play Screen 9 debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to excellent reviews! We couldn’t be happier for Kate Barton and her troupe at Piccolo Theatre. We can’t wait to see the show. In fact, we hadn’t intended to wait, but COVID restrictions kept us from attending the premiere. We are working diligently to help bring Screen 9 to the United States.

And we are girding again for the onslaught of new tragedies. We are heartbroken that just as Screen 9 was premiering, a gun massacre hit the United Kingdom, with five people killed. Here in the U.S., the losses keep coming. One of the hardest to bear: a little girl fatally shooting her 21-year-old mother. Children have a shocking level of access to firearms. 

As we think about the next 12 months, we look forward to being with many of you, and amplifying our collective voices about the danger guns pose, not just in mass shootings, but in suicides, in accidental homicides or injuries and in other forms of violence. When we think about emerging from one pandemic — not a sure thing yet — we cannot escape the other pandemic without concerted, sustained action and education. We hope you will join us on the road and at the stops we plan.

In solidarity, and with wheels beneath us,

Sandy and Lonnie

'Our Children Are Traumatized': Interview With Po Murray


Po Murray is the co-founder of the Newtown Action Alliance, an all-volunteer grassroots advocacy organization that formed after a shooter killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012. She is also on the advisory board for Survivors Empowered.

How did the Newtown Action Alliance begin?

My neighbor shot the 20 children and six educators. When that happened in our community, it was heartbreaking and we knew instantly that we needed to get involved. So, many of our community members came together to form the Newtown Action Alliance and we decided that we were going to work for legislative and cultural changes to end the gun-violence crisis in our nation. We sat around the library meeting room and spoke about what we needed to do. Most people said, “Ban weapons of war.”

In the wake of the shooting, what shocked you in terms of gun laws?

Many things shocked me. The shooter shot his mother in her bed before he went to the school. We live in one of the safest communities in the country. One of the reasons why we moved here to raise our four children is because we could feel comfortable that our children would be safe if they walked to a friend’s house up the road. So, it was shocking to learn that a fellow neighbor would stockpile weapons of war and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home. It was also shocking to me that we didn’t have universal background checks and that weapons of war, like the AR-15 that was used here, were readily available for civilians. I was shocked to learn that the federal laws and the state laws were so weak that civilians could own weapons of war that could cause significant harm to families and communities.

How much progress has there been on the federal level since Newtown?

Although we have not seen federal legislation passed in 27 years, there has been some incremental progress on the federal level. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and NIH [National Institutes of Health] are allowed to study gun violence and there has been a national conversation on gun violence prevention on a level that we have not had before the Sandy Hook tragedy. And the gun violence prevention movement is larger than ever before. More and more Americans are becoming single-issue voters on gun violence prevention and we can mobilize voters to come out and vote for this issue. During the 2020 election, Joe Biden put forth the strongest gun violence prevention platform in modern history. Right now, we expect results.

What results would you like to see?

We’ve always believed that gun violence prevention is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive solution, so we appreciate President Biden taking steps, via executive actions, to regulate ghost guns and provide significant funding for community violence-intervention programs. There are so many other actions that are needed to end all forms of gun violence, and legislative solutions are absolutely necessary. So, we have been pushing President Biden and the Senate Democrats to support ending the filibuster so that we can pass the universal background check bill that is supported by 90 percent of Americans and other legislative proposals such as an assault weapons ban and repealing the gun industry legal shield [the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act].

Why to you think the prevention movement is drawing more supporters?

I think what happened after Sandy Hook was the idea that this is not just an issue that impacts our Black and brown communities — that gun violence can impact people who live in white communities like Sandy Hook and Parkland and Aurora. With that recognition, I think more and more families, particularly moms and dads, are getting engaged on this issue, and more and more young people are getting involved. Our children are traumatized and living in fear of getting shot in their schools or malls or movie theaters. We have a whole generation that is being traumatized continually by gun violence.

How important are gun violence survivors to spurring change?

Survivors being front and center in the fight to create legislative and cultural changes are critical. It’s important to get more of their stories out to change hearts and minds. I find that’s the best way for us to try to create change. Often, when we go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress, we bring families who have been directly impacted by gun violence because their stories are compelling. 

The Price of Freedom: CNN To Debut New Film on NRA

The Price of Freedom documents the impact of the National Rifle Association on gun policy for the last 50 years.

CNN acquired the movie, which had premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, and originally scheduled it for broadcast on August 29 (preempted by Hurricane Ida coverage), to be followed by a panel discussion. 

If you haven’t already seen it, it’s a terribly disturbing but valuable contribution to the truth about our nation’s gun laws and policy, as influenced by a lobby that has, for decades, been protecting gun sale profits at the expense of people’s lives. We applaud our friends and allies shining a light on the dark forces that have made it so difficult to enact sensible gun safety reform.

But we would like to go even farther. It’s not just the NRA. We need a culture shift that will begin to vanquish the many misconceptions perpetrated over time. Having a gun in the home isn’t the key to safety. The presence of a firearm in the home is associated with a much higher risk of homicide, suicide or accidental shooting.  

Does that mean we must abolish all gun ownership? No. But we can abolish assault weapons designed for war and prevent people from stockpiling bullets. 

Furthermore, even if the NRA, badly managed and in trouble, were to cease existing, they are not alone in their pernicious behavior. Right alongside is the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun and ammunition manufacturers and has been amassing  political and cultural power for decades. Is an AR-15 a sporting rifle? That’s what the NSSF puts forth, and their spin influences policy. As we try to get enacted the gun safety measures so widely endorsed by the vast majority of Americans, let’s not be lulled into thinking battling the NRA is enough.  

Rave Reviews for Play Inspired by Aurora Tragedy

The reviews are in, and Screen 9 is a hit.

The play, which premiered in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, is based on the shooting that took the lives of Jessi Ghawi, the daughter of Survivors Empowered founders Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, and 11 other innocent moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. The play was written and directed by Kate Barton and produced by Piccolo Theatre in association with Survivors Empowered.

According to a review in Theatre Scotland:

The play “is a powerful piece of verbatim theatre which explores the horrific shooting during the Colorado premiere of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ in 2012” and the four cast members “deliver truly breathtaking and devastating performances.”

The review also praises director and playwright Kate Barton: “As a British audience, we find it hard to feel in danger while sitting in such an innocent setting, however, Kate placing the performers in the audience while describing how the events unfolded, removes all security. The audience feel on edge as if they are re-living those moments with the characters.”

According to a review in the British Theatre Guide:

“Drawing from real-live verbatim accounts, interviews and conversations, Screen 9 interweaves the recollections of four survivors, their thoughts, fears, and horror at what takes place, casting a light over the events preceding and immediately following the massacre, but never becoming bogged down in luridness or trying to make entertainment from the horror.”

“There are no loud bangs or yells, nothing so crass. Simply a story told, and the names of those lost remembered. At one point, one of the speakers mentions that only one name should be forgotten here. A sobering thought, in a powerful and thought-provoking play.”

See our earlier story about Screen 9 here

In the News

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips are among the survivors interviewed for "After the Gunfire Stops," a features article published by The Progressive Magazine on Aug. 26. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would have repealed a requirement that people obtain a permit before buying a pistol. 

Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, installed a memorial to victims at Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Aug. 24. 

A Cincinnati woman paralyzed in a shooting talks about healing and becoming an activist in the movement to prevent gun violence. 

The editor of the San Antonio Report predicts that new gun laws in Texas, including one allowing people to carry a pistol in public without a permit, will lead to more violence

Patience Carter, one of the survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, is now chief visionary officer for the Gun Violence Survivors Foundation, which provides resources and services to survivors and their families. 


 


Published in October 2019, Tragedy in Aurora: The Culture of Mass Shootings in America, is Tom Diaz's account of the death of Lonnie and Sandy Phillips' daughter, Jessi, and the political polarization and stagnation behind the country's failure to enact common-sense policies to stem gun violence. 


The book can be found on Amazon here.  
 

Help For Survivors
  • Survivors Empowered has a roster of dedicated trauma therapists who help survivors of gun violence heal from the aftermath. Visit our website for more information. 
  • We continue to look for volunteers across the country who want to help build coalitions and work with survivors of gun violence in their states. If interested in supporting our efforts, please contact us here.
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