WASHINGTON — Six and a half years after his daughter was killed, on an otherwise unremarkable November day, Lonnie Phillips turned on the TV and was met with news of another mass shooting. This time, 13 people were dead in Thousand Oaks, California, after a man opened fire in a popular local bar.
Lonnie turned to his wife, Sandy Phillips. In the years since their daughter died, Jessi, in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, the Phillipses have been traveling to the sites of other massacres, connecting with parents and families like themselves. This time, he told her, it was a short drive. The couple was already in California, about an hour away.
This week, they’re trying to be in three places at once: a retreat in Massachusetts with other people who have lost loved ones to gun violence, and the sites of two more mass shootings — one in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton, Ohio — that happened less than 24 hours apart last weekend.
“I don’t want to experience it again,” Sandy said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News.
“We’ve already said, ‘I wonder where the next one will be,’” her husband added. “We’re having public mass shootings hourly now.”
The last two years have been some of the most significant for the anti–gun violence movement. The 2018 election cycle marked the first in which the National Rifle Association was outspent by gun control groups, which have also had significant state-level successes.
But as the Phillipses reel in the wake of another brutal shooting, they believe the gun control movement and the big organizations that lead it, including Everytown for Gun Safety and the Brady Campaign, need to recenter. In their eyes, if anti–gun violence activists are ever going to be successful, they need to do more to build national support and reassess how they treat survivors.
“Here’s the deal: We really don’t have a true grassroots gun violence prevention movement in this country,” Lonnie said. “It’s not a true movement, in the sense that everyone is not working from the ground up. We have two organizations who have not accomplished something since the Brady Bill.”
Lonnie isn’t wrong; Republicans have blocked every significant piece of gun control legislation for more than two decades. The Brady Bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases and mandated federal background checks, was the last major gun control legislation passed at the national level. It was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in 1993.
The bill shares its namesake with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — both in honor of James Brady, a former assistant to president Ronald Reagan who was shot during an assassination attempt on the president.
After their daughter was killed, the Phillipses went to work for the Brady Campaign doing survivor outreach. “I would call survivors and they would say, ‘I haven’t heard from [Brady] in three years,’” Sandy recalled. “They don’t know what to do with survivors. They’re a business.”
The experience, she said, made her realize that survivors are often used as “backdrops.” The couple was also upset that the campaign didn’t want to talk more about banning assault-style weapons, a cause close to the Phillipses’ hearts, and was dismayed by how much money the organization’s then-head, Daniel Gross, was making. Gross served from 2012 to September 2017, and in 2016, his last full year on the job, he made $409,637.
“Their goal is to build their net worth,” Lonnie said. “They’re building themselves a lifetime job.”
In a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for the Brady Campaign said the organization works to support all survivors of gun violence and “lift up their stories through our educational, legal, and legislative efforts.”
The statement continued, “Our organization has been out front working to pass legislation to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, a solution that we believe is necessary to stop mass shootings like the ones we saw in El Paso and Dayton.”
Two years after they began working with the Brady Campaign — when they were “no longer a bright, new shiny object” — Lonnie and Sandy were let go. Now they see politicians and big organizations in Washington, DC, most often at the center of the gun violence conversation.
“This is the only social justice movement that is not led by [the people most affected],” Sandy said. “We feel that survivors need to take the lead in this. We can be a part and we can cooperate and build coalitions, but until survivors are on the ground in their communities … this is not going to be a true movement.”
The Phillipses also believe the movement needs to be pushing for more radical solutions, including banning assault-style weapons like the AR-15.
“That particular gun, [the right] will fight to the death for that gun to keep it,” Lonnie said. “We have a triangle built around it. We have the NRA, the politicians, and the big gun violence prevention organizations. The NRA says, ‘We’ll give you everything else, but don’t even try and take the AR-15.’ The politicians are saying it’s too hard to get the AR-15, and the big organizations, they’re saying, ‘Let’s take baby steps, the incremental steps,’ and they don’t even get the baby steps.”
Two years ago, a new, high-profile group of survivors emerged from the Parkland shooting as victim advocates. Students who survived the shooting that left 17 people dead at their Florida high school were prominent on cable television, calling for Congress to act.
“My sister, she’s a freshman, and she had two of her best friends die,” said David Hogg, who was a student at the school, in an interview with CNN in the hours after the massacre. “And that’s not acceptable. That’s something that we should not let happen in this country, especially when we’re going to school.”
“We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers,” Delaney Tarr, another survivor, said at a rally days later. “To every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. No longer can you fly under the radar doing whatever it is that you want to do. … We are coming after every single one of you and demanding that you take action.”
The teenagers organized the March for Our Lives, which brought thousands of people to Washington, pushing for stronger gun laws. They were active on social media, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers and speaking out about gun safety issues around the country.
And then they went underground. As BuzzFeed News recently reported, the students have been largely absent this year as they’ve worked to address diversity issues. At a summit earlier this month, survivors of the Parkland shooting gathered with other young activists to assess their missteps and decide how to move forward.
Of course, it seems at this point that no matter what anti–gun violence activists do, they’ll hit a wall in the Senate. With Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the helm of the chamber, no gun control legislation has ever had a real chance of passing.
Activists and survivors like the Phillipses have been going to Capitol Hill for years, only to be disappointed. In 2013, they looked on as a bipartisan bill championed by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey that would have expanded background checks failed by a vote of 54–46.
Four years later, when families whose children were killed in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, came to the Hill, the Guardian reported that just a single TV camera showed up, and the only lawmakers who spoke at a press conference with the families were from Connecticut.
In addition, according to the Guardian report, members of Congress reportedly agreed to set up meetings only with survivors from their district, and many offered to let advocates meet only with staffers.
But survivors say they’re undaunted — in large part because they have no other choice.
“There’s no way I’m going to give up,” Maria Wright, whose son, Jerry Wright, was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “They took what was most precious to me.”
While she’s hopeful, Wright’s anger was palpable when she spoke to BuzzFeed News, just two days after the Dayton shooting. For now, she wants to see the Senate return to DC and pass a bill to expand background checks, which has already passed the House. They could do it “right this minute, right this instance,” she said, “if they just got their asses back to Washington and did it.”
Every shooting is traumatic for Wright and other families of victims, but Wright said the Dayton shooting was particularly difficult because of how many similarities it had with the Pulse shooting.
“It was a Sunday morning again with news of a shooting. I felt like everything went out of me,” she said. “It was early in the dawn hours where things were closing down, and a place where people go to have fun.”
Wright didn’t know what else to do except to get up, take a shower, get dressed, and get to work.
“This is the only thing I can do for my son now. I loved him with all my heart, and most parents want to do everything they can for their kids, and I can’t do anything else,” she said. “You love them more than anything. … Our leaders act like that doesn’t matter at all, that they’re worthless.”
The country’s most high-profile victim advocate is former representative Gabby Giffords, who started her own gun violence prevention group after surviving a shooting in 2011.
“I’ve seen what makes America special. Fighting gun violence, like my recovery, hasn’t always been easy,” Giffords said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “But we are making progress in saving lives because people who experience unspeakable tragedy are uniting in saying no more. I draw strength from every person I meet who has the courage to share their story and stand up and call out the failure of our politicians to address this crisis. Gun violence survivors are not backing down and they are what gives me hope that change will come.”
Cathy Marino-Thomas, an activist working with Gays Against Guns, told BuzzFeed News she understands some of the hesitation around putting families at the center of the conversation because doing so inherently requires them to relive their trauma. But if they’re willing, she believes it’s the most powerful thing the anti–gun violence activists could employ. It has been historically successful, too, she said, pointing to the fight for marriage equality.
“The movement for marriage equality was making no impact when we were discussing the actual legal position of marriage, which of course was actually what won it for us, but in the court of public opinion, that was making no impact,” Marino-Thomas said.
The marriage equality movement, she said, only really started to pick up speed when people started to hear the stories of people affected and to see what happened to families without a marriage license.
“You could see people glaze over when you talked about inheritance rights and tax implications and housing and employment,” Marino-Thomas recalled. “You could watch people actually glaze right over, but the second I made the first speech holding my then-infant daughter, it was like, ‘Wow, she’s a mom. There’s a kid.’”
It’s a tricky line to walk with gun violence, though.
“Gays Against Guns is gently advocating for showing pictures of what a gun did to the body,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many of these gun violence groups recoil back when you suggest such a thing. ‘Isn’t it horrific?’ It is, but that’s the point.” ●