Mother Of Mass Shooting Victim Becomes Gun-Control Advocate
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Sandy Phillips will travel this week from her home in Texas to Washington, D.C. She was on her way to lobby for gun legislation. She expected to testify at a congressional hearing but it was canceled due to the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Phillips stayed in Washington anyway.
So how many senators or representatives have you met?
SANDY PHILLIPS: Whoo, gosh. This week we'll meet with seven congressmen. The last time we were here, I think we met with about 20 senators. We've been lucky enough to meet with the president.
INSKEEP: The Texas woman's 24-year-old daughter was killed in the attack on a Colorado theater in 2012. She later became an advocate for the Brady Campaign, supporting measures like universal background checks for gun buyers.
PHILLIPS: We have an outlet. We have a purpose. We don't want to see other parents go through what we've had to go through.
INSKEEP: We talked with Sandy Phillips at a tough moment for advocates of gun laws. In Colorado, two lawmakers who backed their cause were just defeated in recall elections. In Congress, news of repeated mass shootings has not overcome support for gun rights. But Phillips says she keeps meeting with lawmakers who agree with her, as well as those who disagree.
PHILLIPS: Before this happened, I wouldn't ever have imagined that we would be active in lobbying our leaders. And now I can't wait to get in front of them.
INSKEEP: What were you doing before the shooting?
PHILLIPS: I was in tourism my whole life, so it's a very different world...
INSKEEP: What sort of tourism?
PHILLIPS: Well, I started my career with Disney - started out as Alice in Wonderland, believe it or not.
INSKEEP: What do you mean you started out as Alice in Wonderland?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I mean we dressed as the character. Worked there for 11 years, and when I left there I went to work for the convention bureau in Orange County. And that just kind of kept going everywhere I went. And I loved it, thought that that was going to be the rest of my life. And then this happened and my world was like Alice, turned upside down and through the keyhole. And it's not a world that seems real still.
INSKEEP: What made you decide to become an activist?
PHILLIPS: Huh, interesting you ask that. The day after my daughter was murdered my husband was standing at the sliding glass door that leads out to our courtyard. And I just simply said, you know, this is where our life is going to go now. And he said yes. We both knew it immediately somehow. And we both knew we weren't ready because the grief was just so intense at that point.
And a few months later we were getting the plane to go to Colorado - we live in Texas - and we were going to Denver to pick up our daughter's diploma. And as we were boarding the plane, the news about Newtown broke out. And we're watching it on the television as we're boarding the plane. And by the time we landed, I turned on my Twitter.
And the Twitter feed was saying at that point 18 children and our hearts broke. I couldn't even get off the plane. I mean I broke into tears and was sobbing so hard. And as soon as we picked up the diploma on that Sunday, we were on a plane to Washington and New York and then on to Newtown. So it happened that day.
And now we have another disaster right here in Washington with 12 more people losing their lives, and 12 more families being affected again by gun violence.
INSKEEP: Can I tell you a feeling that I have sensed from people since the shooting on Monday? A kind of despair...
INSKEEP: ...that we've heard this story before.
INSKEEP: We've heard it a bunch of times. We can make an argument about whether it's statistically worse than it used to be. But it's been shoved to our attention a number of times. And the despair comes from not really knowing what to do, or what we're learning, or what we should learn from this. Do you feel that you're learning anything?
PHILLIPS: Oh, we've learned so much. My husband and I own a gun. We assumed, and I think most Americans assume, that there are laws in place to protect us. But there aren't. And after our daughter was murdered, along with the 11 other people in Aurora, we started asking questions and saying: Well, how can you go on the Internet and order over 6,000 rounds of ammunition and not have a red flag? And the fact as any of us can, including felons, domestic abusers, and those who have been certified either mentally ill or insane. If you go to a gun show and somebody is selling a gun out of their trunk, you don't have to go through a background check. If you go to a private seller, you don't have to go through a background check.
INSKEEP: You said you and your husband own a gun.
SANDY PHILLIPS: Yes.
INSKEEP: What kind of gun is it?
PHILLIPS: We have a shotgun. It's been handed down from my father to me. I used to hunt when I was young with my dad and my mom. My dad would always, when I was dating a new beau, he would get his gun out to clean it.
INSKEEP: (Unintelligible) country song. So what kind of gun? Is it a pump shotgun, double-barrel shotgun?
PHILLIPS: It's a double-barrel, yeah.
INSKEEP: Okay. Two shots. And would you insist upon your right to have that gun?
PHILLIPS: Yes. We are supporters of the Second Amendment, but as the Second Amendment has been defined by the Supreme Court, there should be and needs to be, in my opinion, some restrictions on that.
INSKEEP: You focused for a moment on background checks and catching people that have some problems. In many cases it might be mental illness. Isn't this one of the hardest questions to answer in a useful and a practical way? There are so many people in this country who have had some form of mental illness, it's normal.
PHILLIPS: Right. We all have crisis.
INSKEEP: Yeah, and if you tried to catch everyone in that net, it would be a vast net.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, yeah, you couldn't. I don't think it would be possible.
INSKEEP: And once you start narrowing it down, then you start missing people.
INSKEEP: Is this really an answerable question?
PHILLIPS: You know, I'm not sure it is because within the mental health community they can't even agree. You know, they fight with one another. I mean they'll...
INSKEEP: And there are lots of mentally ill people who are not dangerous to anyone.
PHILLIPS: Absolutely. What we really have is a culture where someone gets angry, for whatever reason, and they react with that anger with the easiest mode of being able to unleash it. And that, unfortunately, is usually a gun. We have to look at why is that our first go-to when we get upset.
INSKEEP: You mentioned that you work with family members of victims from other shootings. I'm sorry to say there's another collection of family members now. You may well meet them.
PHILLIPS: Yes, we probably will.
INSKEEP: What advice would you have for them?
PHILLIPS: Oh, man. First of all, not to let anyone else judge the way you're grieving. And what is right for you may be abhorrent to someone else. We had a situation within our Aurora families where one of the families who actually live in Aurora went back to the theater opening and sat in the seat that their son had been sitting in before he was killed.
And we were just - oh my god. I could never do that. I mean my husband and I, we can't go to a movie. We'll never go to a movie again. I can't smell popcorn, I can't look at popcorn without gagging. This is the last thing my daughter ate. My life and their life are very different. That was where he and his son really bonded, was at the movies. They loved going to movies together.
And he knew that the only way he was going to get that 500 pound gorilla off of his back was to face it. So first of all, don't let anyone judge how you're grieving. Second of all, find an outlet, whatever that outlet is. Find an outlet that you can pour yourself into to help the process.
INSKEEP: Sandy Phillips, thanks for coming by.
PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me.
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