Inspired by the acclaimed movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, the parents of Jessica Ghawi, who was among twelve people killed in the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting, are behind a campaign to use outdoor advertising to shame Representative Mike Coffman and other opponents of gun-control legislation.
The Coffman billboard, located near the intersection of Exposition Avenue and South Monaco Parkway, was unveiled on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School. As you can see by the photo at the top of this post, its focus is the amount of money (more than $112,000) Coffman has received from the National Rifle Association, an organization Sandy and Lonnie blame for bankrupting them after the failure of their 2014 lawsuit against the company that sold the Aurora theater shooter ammunition and more. It's one of thirteen billboards in congressional districts across the country, and plans are afoot to boost that number to thirty.
"It all started with Frances McDormand," says Sandy in reference to the star of Three Billboards, who earned a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a woman ostracized by her community for erecting placards chastising a sheriff for his failure to make an arrest in the rape and murder of her daughter. "When we were watching the movie, we thought, 'That's how we feel about Jessie. Wouldn't it be cool to do billboards across the country to make a difference about this issue?'"
Making this dream a reality was complicated by the financial circumstances of the pair, co-founders of an advocacy organization called Survivors Empowered.
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In Sandy's words, "We filed a lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, which sold 4,000 rounds of ammunition to our daughter's killer without so much as asking for an ID. [Lucky Gunner is an online company.] And we don't believe it's okay that dealers who sell ammo, body armor and tear gas canisters are able to do that with total immunity because of PLCAA" — the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a federal law that prevents firearms manufacturers and distributors from being sued when their products are used in crimes.
"We want that to stop," Sandy goes on, "so we sued them — not for any monetary gain, but to get them to change their business practices. That's all we were asking. But because of the PLCAA law, the suit was thrown out, and we were in a position where we had to pay their legal fees, which the NRA lawyers who were defending them said added up to $264,000. I don't know how it was possible that they spent $264,000 when the first motion was thrown out, but that's what they said."
The judge in the case subsequently reduced the amount of legal fees to around $204,000, but the total was immaterial. "We were never going to pay the people who helped kill our daughter," Sandy stresses. "So we filed bankruptcy, bought a used trailer and a used truck, and we've been traveling across the country making people aware of this issue."
Being put in this situation "made us angry," Lonnie acknowledges, "but it also made us very strategic in what we're doing. Fighting back has been our salvation. We couldn't just sit back and let the NRA win. We lost everything, but we didn't pay them."
That the NRA would press for payment from a couple who'd suffered such a tremendous loss "didn't surprise us," Sandy maintains. "Horrible, horrible people run that organization. They're out for blood, literally, and they don't care about the safety of Americans. It's all about the money. They like to punish people who go after them, and this was their way of punishing us."
"They use our names as poster children if anyone wants to fight or sue the industry," Lonnie allows.
These poster children have now upped the ante with the billboards, which have been financed by donations that began to come in more quickly following student protests of the February assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
"Since Parkland, there's been a national outcry," notes Lonnie, "and people are talking about the kinds of things we've been trying to accomplish. Since the day our daughter was killed, we've called for a ban on assault weapons. And we also want universal background checks on the sale of all guns — not just AR-15s and weapons like that. And we want victims of gun violence to be able to sue gun manufacturers and people who we believe were liable for these deaths."
The couple believe Congress's inaction on gun control is a result of members who are more interested in collecting NRA lucre than in doing what's right. The first batch of billboards on this theme include three aimed at California Representative Stephen Knight, two for Wisconsin Representative and U.S. House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, and one apiece for Alabama's Martha Roby, Idaho's Raúl Labrador, Iowa's Rob Blum and David Young, Nebraska's Don Bacon, Georgia's Karen Handel, Minnesota's Erik Paulsen, and Coffman.
The Colorado congressman stands out from this pack because Lonnie and Sandy had personal interactions with him after Jessica's death.
"We went to Washington and saw him," Lonnie recalls. "We sat with Mike Coffman, and he absolutely ignored any of the things we wanted him to do."
"We tried to be reasonable with him," Sandy interjects.
"We did," Lonnie agrees. "But face to face, point blank, he told us he wasn't going to do it — and that's because he's already in the pocket of the NRA. Look at how much money he's taken from them."
At this writing, Coffman hasn't responded to Westword's request for a comment on this subject.
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Post-Parkland, Sandy believes "the tide is starting to turn" when it comes to gun issues, because "there are now more survivors and victims of gun violence than there are members of the NRA."
Is that true? NRA membership is thought to hover in the five-million range — but Sandy points out that "every year, around 34,000 people die by guns in this country, including suicide, which is self-directed gun violence. Last year it was 36,000. Every one of those people had family and friends. Over a twenty-year period, that really adds up — and that's just counting survivors."
People like these have been generous since the Phillips's billboard campaign launched, and now, Lonnie reveals, "we're going to try to raise $1 million to put up the other seventeen and keep them up through the 2018 mid-term elections."
The pair, who spend most of their time in San Antonio, plan to bring this message to the Denver area in June. Until then, they hope the Coffman billboard will speak for them — and for Jessica Ghawi.