Why Do We Keep Forgetting About Gun Control?

After the shootings in Newtown, there was a big push for national gun control legislation. But that legislation failed, and Congress is moving on. Host Michel Martin speaks with Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting and a gun control advocate, about where the movement is today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You've probably heard that the Supreme Court is set to rule sometime soon on an important case about affirmative action in higher education. We decided we wanted to find out more about the young woman whose name is on the case, Abigail Fisher. That's coming up later in the program.

But first we want to go back to a story that commanded so much of our attention last year - the shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. It was a little over six months ago, and it was a day that at the time seemed like a game changer. Even President Obama, known for his cool, could not hold back the tears when he spoke to the country about it. Since then, though, the debate on Capitol Hill has moved to immigration. A plan to strengthen background checks for gun buyers and limit magazine capacities failed in the Senate back in April. And this time when President Obama spoke to the country, he seemed angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand, if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights, we had an obligation to try.

MARTIN: But that got us wondering what some of the survivors of past gun violence and how they're reacting to the seeming stalemate. So we've called upon Colin Goddard. He's a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Now he's decided to work full-time on the issue as an activist. He's campaigns manager at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Colin, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

COLIN GODDARD: It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Before we get to the politics of the debate right now, I did want to ask about you, if you're okay. You were shot four times at the shooting at Virginia Tech years ago, and I just wondered if you still think about it.

GODDARD: Yeah. I would start with, physically, I'm okay. I have a soccer game tonight in D.C. to play, I'm looking forward to. Mentally, it's been much more of a roller coaster I'd say. There are some good days, there are some bad days. You know, kind of the nature of the experience that you have with gun violence. You know, it's also very sudden, very immediate, and very traumatic so you don't, kind of, process the memories of it normally, and you store it in random places so there can be random things that, kind of, make you recall - very traumatic experience. And, you know, like I said, ups and downs...

MARTIN: ...A smell...

GODDARD: ...A smell, a sight, I mean, movies, I mean, you know, songs, even conversations. People say, oh, you know, God, I just want to shoot myself and then they look at me - oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to say that. And it's like, you know, I understand there's, you know, figure of speech, but little things like that. But overall, you know, I found a way, you know, learning what I did about gun policy in this country and our current state - I found a way where I can take the negative experience that I had and try to put it towards something positive, and make a change that will help prevent other people from falling in the same situation I was in.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that - how it is that you decided to become an activist in this area, at least for this part of your life? I'm sure a lot of people would certainly understand if you decided to, kind of, finish your physical therapy and just move on and try not to think about it again. But by definition now because you are working in this area, you have to think about it. I wondered what was the - was there like a eureka moment, when you just - it clicked in for you that this is something you're going to have do right now?

GODDARD: Well, I had my, kind of, Newtown moment in April 3rd of 2009. The shooting at the Binghamton, New York immigration center was about two years after the shooting that I had been - I was involved with, and during those two years I had not watched the news of other shootings. I mean there was northern Illinois in 2008, and I heard about these things, I just couldn't bring myself to watch it.

And just how I naturally turned on the TV that morning when the Binghamton news story broke, I sat there in front of the television and couldn't turn away, and was flooded with all of the same emotions that I had from day one of getting shot. And now - and I had gotten to a good place, physical therapy, with my family, you know, two years later, and now I saw another group of 13 families on day one, going through everything that I had been through.

And by that point I - you know, my parents had naturally asked this question after their - you know, send their kid to college and gets hurt, like, how did this happen, why did this happen to my kid? That's a natural, you know, pursuit I think most parents would make. And in that pursuit, they learned about school policies, they learned about mental health, and they learned about the gun policies. And they educated me as to what they were learning, going through everything that they did through the Virginia Tech review panel, to the lawsuits, to things like that.

And, you know, what I learned that, you know, we don't even do a background check on every gun sale in this country, was just so fundamentally wrong in my opinion, that the kind of bucket - the drop that tipped the bucket over was Binghamton. And ever since that day, I've been working on this issue full-time, sharing my story full-time, with the goal of, you know, making sure we pass legislation to require a background check on every gun sale.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, the big push in policy for people on your side of the question seems to be for universal background checks. Why is that the priority?

GODDARD: For a number of reasons. I mean, background checks - I think, first of all, most people think we already do them on every sale and are kind of shocked to learn that we don't. I think there's the biggest kind of public support of it already. I mean, we haven't seen a poll with less than 90 percent of Americans supporting this policy however you break it down, from men to women, to gun owners, to left-handed people, to whatever. It's understood to be good policy, you know. It just makes responsible sense to know that the person who's about to buy a gun can legally do so. And the only way there is to really do that is to do a background check.

And I think there's also the biggest amount of political will. I mean, despite the bad headlines, you know, last month in April out of the Senate, we had a majority of U.S. senators vote in support of expanding background checks. We had six NRA-aided - NRA A-rated members vote in support of background checks. Today we have 182 co-sponsors of the background check bill in the House, I mean, more than I've ever seen since I started working on this.

So you know, despite the fact that, you know, that maybe the three major media TV outlets aren't talking about this on a daily basis like they were before, you know, I am busier now than I ever have been at this job. And we are so - there are so many more people now trying to get involved and wanting to help out and make their voices heard. So it's just a matter of getting to all those people and engaging them, in a, you know, positive way and making their voices heard directly to their elected members.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the gun control or gun safety movement. We're speaking with Colin Goddard. He is campaigns manager for the Brady Campaign. He's a survivor of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech where he was shot four times.

When the legislation failed in the Senate in April, as it has so many times before, did you feel discouraged and how do you feel now?

GODDARD: That was a tough day, for sure. I can't lie about that. That was really tough. We, you know, I knew, kind of, a day before that the vote was going to be really close. You know, I just, I thought people in the Senate would vote their conscience - vote, you know, on behalf of their law enforcement officials, you know, vote on behalf of their constituents, not on the behalf of an industry. And it was disappointing.

You know, there was a lot of victims and survivors of gun violence in the gallery watching the vote go down that morning and one of them was Sarah Brady. And she immediately turned to a lot of the folks who had just got up and had this very, just lost look on their face and she said, you know, when we tried to pass the Brady Bill, which set up this background check system, it took six major floor votes. It took, you know, three different Congresses and three different presidential administrations. She's like, sometimes a good loss will do you some good.

And I've heard so many times since Virginia Tech, you know, if this shooting isn't the one that changes things or causes something to be done differently, I don't know what is. And I don't think there is a number of people or children that are going to get killed in one single incident that will do that. I think the tragedy that the American people needed to see was when a minority of politicians blocked the will of the majority, as they did in the Senate in April. And that was what woke a lot of people up, got a lot of people upset with this whole process and ultimately got a lot of more people engaged on this issue.

And as a result, I think has strengthened our movement, strengthened our resolve, strengthened our numbers, to get to the point where, you know, we will continue to do this. We aren't going away. We've changed the public understanding of this issue and like I said, 90 percent of people support it. Now we just have to clean up the politics.

MARTIN: But what about the fact, though, when you ask people to rate the issues that matter to them. I mean, one of the arguments that people make is, well, there are two arguments that people make on the other side. One argument that they make on the other side is they just don't agree with you that that's the right issue. They argue that it's something cultural, that it's something cultural about this country's relationship to violence. They argue that it's really a broken mental-health system that's really the issue.

But other people say that the intensity is on the other side, that people who prefer the status quo and they don't want restrictions on gun ownership and all these other things, that they are the - they have the intensity around the issue, that everybody else may agree with you philosophically, but they're not prepared to give it the hierarchy that the other side is. What do you say to that?

GODDARD: Well, I do acknowledge that the intensity has been predominantly on the, quote, other side, so to speak. But you know, our intensity is matching that. I mean, this is not like a light switch to flip. This is like a battleship to turn that takes over time. I mean, when we saw the vote fail in the Senate and then we saw senators who voted against it lose 15 percent point approval rating overnight. I mean, that was what we hadn't seen on this issue in decades. I mean, you know, we didn't even have a vote in the Senate in over two decades and the only reason we had this vote was because the American people stood up and demanded it.

And we wanted to know, you know, why - what people think about background checks. Why are you opposed to expanding background checks? You know, we deserve a vote was the refrain the president used, and that we took all the way through and ultimately got us that vote. You know, the intensity is being matched now and this is like, this is a long-term thing, like I said, not something that happens overnight. But, there are a lot of issues and, you know, we acknowledge that, you know, it was a setback in the Senate. But, you know, we're still putting a lot of pressure on switching those five members. We're now looking at the House, as well, to make progress there, as well as in state legislatures across the country. A lot of states have done good things.

MARTIN: You seem like a happy guy. I mean, you know what I mean, you mentioned that you're doing well physically and stuff like that. What's keeping you going? I mean, as you mentioned, this could be very discouraging for a lot of people. What's keeping you going? As briefly as you can, if you would.

GODDARD: Well, as much as when you hear a breaking news story, you just kind of want to crawl up into a ball and not talk to anybody about it, you know, 'cause you're going through, you're being retraumatized yourself. Ultimately, it strengthens your resolve, 'cause you understand that this is an issue that is literally life and death and making solutions - finding solutions to this issue, commonsense solutions, are going to save lives. And I know that this is good public policy. I know this is the right thing to do, and I know that we have changed the paradigm from if something will be done about background checks to when. I mean, it really is just a matter of time before the politicians catch up with the general American public.

MARTIN: That was Colin Goddard. He is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. He's now serving as campaigns manager at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Colin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GODDARD: Thanks for having me.

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