Parent Navigates Personal Grief In Broader Gun Debate

Tom Mauser's son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Mauser, who has been an outspoken advocate for gun control since then, speaks with host Rachel Martin.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The state of Colorado enacted three new gun measures this past week, going above and beyond federal law. Colorado's new laws go into effect in July. They expand background checks to include private gun sales. They also limit the size of an ammunition magazine to 15 rounds. Republicans have said the new laws infringe on the rights of gun owners, but at a signing ceremony last week, Democrats said the new laws would save lives. Rhonda Fields represents Aurora, Colorado in the state legislature. Last year, 12 people were shot to death in a movie theater there.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE RHONDA FIELDS: Gun violence is a problem nationwide, and sadly in the state of Colorado we've been all too familiar with some of these tragedies.

MARTIN: That is especially true for Tom Mauser. He's been an outspoken advocate for gun control ever since his son, Daniel Mauser, was killed at Columbine High School in 1999.

TOM MAUSER: Just two weeks before my son was killed, he asked me out of the clear blue sky, dad, did you know there were loopholes in the Brady bill? And then he was killed with a gun that was purchased through one of those loopholes.

MARTIN: You mention the Brady bill - that's the tighter gun control legislation that was passed after the assassination attempt against President Reagan.

MAUSER: Yes, it was 1994 and basically, it put a requirement that a person has to pass a background check in order to buy a gun. In 2000, we closed the gun sale loophole in Colorado and now we closed the private sale loophole. And that meant a lot to me to be able to, you know, to respond to what my son said to me.

MARTIN: I hope it's OK that we talk a little bit about how you were drawn into the issue. Your son, Daniel, as we mentioned, was one of 13 people murdered in the Columbine shooting. At what point were you able to move through your grief to a point where you started to see another path for yourself as an advocate for gun control?

MAUSER: It happened for me 10 days after the tragedy when a friend called and said, you know, the NRA is having its national convention in Denver - of all places. And there's going to be a protest of their convention. Are you going to go to that? I thought, I'm not ready for this, but I know who's responsible for those loopholes that Daniel was talking about. I have to do something. So, I went to that rally and that's what launched me.

MARTIN: Was that balance hard in the early days, to navigate your personal grief with the broader policy debate? I mean, as an advocate, you're kind of living with the loss of Daniel every day.

MAUSER: It was difficult, because in order to do your advocacy you have to tell your story. Telling your story is very difficult. You know, it was very common for me to lose it somewhat when I was speaking, especially saying those words. Even today I have trouble saying those words: my son died at Columbine. And then you're in the middle of this political issue, this heated political issue, you know, facing people who are very opposed to you. And it gets pretty nasty. But I felt that I had to have my son's strength to get me through it.

MARTIN: So, Colorado has passed this new set of tighter gun laws. But nationally, it's a different picture right now. We're looking at Senate legislation that will likely not require background checks at gun shows, will not ban assault weapons. How do you feel about the state of the gun control debate right now nationwide?

MAUSER: I'm really disappointed with what's happening in Washington. Clearly, the polls are showing - and I think that's what happened in Colorado, that our representatives responded to public opinion in Colorado, but it's also strong in America that they support background checks, they support some limitations on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

MARTIN: How do you make the case, though, when it's really handguns that are responsible for the most violence?

MAUSER: It's true that a lot more of gun deaths are with handguns, but I think most people accept that that's part of that basic right. But when we have people being mowed down with weapons the way that they are in a lot of these mass shootings with assault weapons, that's something that we can get a handle on and not make it easy for deranged people to mow people down like that.

MARTIN: But, you know, a lot of people have been very critical of the assault weapons ban of 1994 saying it actually didn't make much of a difference.

MAUSER: You know, and they especially say that about Columbine, that it was in effect in the case of Columbine. But the fact is that all of the existing assault weapons were grandfathered in. So, we didn't take them away from people, so they were still in existence. When you put this kind of ban in, you're going to have to accept that you're doing it for the long haul.

MARTIN: After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there seemed to be some kind of impetus for tighter gun legislation. There was momentum. A few months on now, that momentum is changing, seems to be fading. Is this a familiar pattern to you after Columbine, after the Aurora shooting? Have you seen this play out before?

MAUSER: Oh, absolutely. America is known for its amnesia on this issue. We get shocked and then we go onto the next issue and then we tend to forget about it.

MARTIN: So, how do you change that?

MAUSER: You know, I think you just have to keep working at it. You know, I think we'll be hearing more as we go along from parents in Newtown. I think they'll be joining with people like myself and victims from Virginia Tech and other shootings. Because what we really do when we speak up is that our message is, we didn't expect this to happen to us. It can happen to any of us. And unless we do something, it'll happen to more of us.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you one last question. You have a pair of your son Daniel's shoes that you wear when you're speaking about gun control. It's obviously a powerful statement, but can you articulate why you decided that that was something you wanted to do?

MAUSER: I thought they were very symbolic. They were the shoes that he was wearing on that terrible day. We had the same shoe size. My son was a very shy boy and yet he joined the debate team at Columbine. And to me it seemed that by wearing his shoes I was stepping into his shoes, the way he stepped forward and was willing to speak in front of people, that I could do the same.

MARTIN: Tom Mauser. He joined us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Centennial, Colorado. His son Daniel was killed in the shooting at Columbine High School. Tom Mauser has a new book out about his experience with that tragedy. It is called "Walking in Daniel's Shoes." Mr. Mauser, thanks so much for talking with us.

MAUSER: Thank you.

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