After the May 18 assault at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, in which eight students and two teachers were killed and thirteen were wounded, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, who became gun-law reform activists following the murder of their daughter, Jessica Ghawi, during the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, traveled to the scene to use their experience to help prepare those who lost loved ones for the many traumas to come.
But they've had trouble breaking through the natural suspicions of the small town's residents about new arrivals — even ones who know firsthand about tragedies like this one.
"The message is 'Don't come for our guns' and 'We got this' and 'We don't need the outside world,'" Lonnie notes via phone from Santa Fe. "I ran into a deputy at a Whataburger and tried to get him to open up, and he said, 'I get home and turn on the television and sit down, and I'm alone with my family and my thoughts. And I don't think about it.'"
In recent weeks, the couple had been focusing on a campaign inspired by the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — raising money to erect billboards in the districts of Congress members, including Mike Coffman, who routinely oppose limits on firearms and have accepted huge donations from the National Rifle Association. But they put these efforts on hold as soon as word of the Santa Fe shooting broke.
"We just happened to be in San Antonio, visiting friends and family," Sandy says. "When this happened, we got a phone call and they told us what was happening. And we said, 'We're on our way.'"
The drive to Santa Fe took them about five and a half hours, but they're accustomed to travel. Indeed, their home has been a used truck and trailer since their unsuccessful lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, an online company that, in Sandy's words, "sold 4,000 rounds of ammunition to our daughter's killer without so much as asking for an ID." The suit was tossed, and Sandy and Lonnie were saddled with $204,000 in court costs — but rather than pay it, they declared bankruptcy and began traveling the country to spread their message about the need for legislation banning assault weapons and requiring background checks for all gun purchases, among other things.
Counting Aurora, Lonnie reveals that Santa Fe High is "our ninth mass shooting" and second in Texas, following the shooting at a Sutherland Springs church last November that left 26 parishioners dead; the shooter, Devin Kelley, had previously lived in Colorado Springs. He adds that "all of them have been different. But Sutherland Springs and this one are similar. They're both rural towns, they're both very tight-knit, they're both in Trump country in Texas, and they've drawn into themselves."
Many Santa Fe residents have tried to keep their distance from the media hordes that descended on the area after the shooting, which may explain why Sandy and Lonnie have gotten so much attention. During their Westword interview, they were being shadowed by a crew from This American Life, and over the weekend, they made an appearance on MSNBC, as seen in the following segment, which prominently highlighted their nonprofit, Survivors Empowered.
"We do so much survivor-to-survivor support when we go into these communities," Sandy points out. "We try to prepare them for what's coming afterwards. Forewarned is forearmed."
The post-shooting horrors that compounded the Phillipses' pain included money raised in Jessica's name that either never reached them or only arrived after long, emotional efforts, hurtful attacks from supporters of the Aurora theater shooter and terrifying threats from a young man from Portland, Oregon.
"He was obviously severely mentally ill," Sandy says of the latter individual. "He went to jail for a while, but he's back out, from what we hear. So far, he's left us alone, but we don't know if he's threatened other people who are victims of gun violence. There are so many troubles that come out on social media, and people don't know how to respond to it."
As an example, Sandy mentions the time they spent with a couple who'd lost a child at the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February.
"They'll never get involved politically, or it would shock me if they did," she acknowledges. "I don't think that's where their hearts are. But we needed to tell them about the truthers and the people raising funds and warn them about people who will threaten them — and they were so shocked by everything we were telling them. Now it's an ongoing dialogue, and they thank us. They'll say, 'That just happened, and you were right. We wouldn't have known if you hadn't told us.'"
Their efforts to pass along this same kind of information in Santa Fe have moved in fits and starts.
"We stopped in at the victims' services building and told them why we were there, and they've been very helpful and very supportive," Sandy allows. "And we know we'll eventually make contacts and be able to talk to these people. This is the first time we've come to one of these [shooting sites] so early, and we'll probably be coming back in a month or two if we're able — because they'll know by then that, 'Oh, my gosh, I wasn't prepared for this and I wasn't prepared for that.'"
Reaching those in need of assistance can be tricky, she concedes: "You can't go up to a survivor's house and knock on the door and say, 'Will you talk to me about this?' We often go through other organizations on the ground, and here, that might be the school board, it might be the fire department, it might be the kids who participated in the March for Our Lives. But even though we know it will happen, we also know that if we could have talked to them earlier, things would have been a little easier."
As she points out, "This is all new for them — and how would you feel? I always have to stop myself, because I get so anxious about wanting to protect them or help them. I have to say, 'Remember when this happened to you. Would you have been open to some stranger coming in and saying what your life would be like in the next two weeks or two months?' The answer is: probably not, because I was in shock. The family we were able to help in Parkland, they had a best friend who was there taking notes, because we told them, 'You're not going to remember of a lot of what we're telling you.'"
At the same time, Sandy doesn't want to reduce their advice into pamphlet form.
"People say, 'Do you have this written down?' But giving people a piece of paper and saying, 'This is going to happen to you,' well, they won't believe it," she stresses. "They need to have someone holding their hands and saying, 'Your life is going to be altered forever in more ways than you're aware.' Right now, they're thinking, 'I've lost my child. What the hell do I do the rest of my life?' The re-traumatization is like a form of PTSD. It's an added violation."
Sandy and Lonnie are still planning to come to Colorado in June for a number of events, and while visiting the state dredges up awful memories, it also renews their sense of purpose. Lonnie cites Tom Mauser, whose son was killed in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting: "He is our hero. He is the guy that we try to emulate. He's never backed off, and neither will we."
In the meantime, though, they have work to do in Texas. "If people yell and scream at me and kick me out the door, it's still worth it if we can give them a little bit of preparedness," Sandy says.
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