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Sandy Phillips' daughter, Jessi, was one of 12 people killed in the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting. It was only this month that Phillips was strong enough to read the autopsy report.

Gone too soon

Mother of Aurora shooting victim on gun violence: “Get involved before you lose someone you love.”

By Abigail Pesta on July 27, 2015

by Sandy Phillips as told to Abigail Pesta

A few minutes before my daughter died, she sent me a text message. “I can’t wait for you to come next week. I need my mama,” she said. I replied, “I need my baby girl.” Moments later, she was gunned down in the Colorado movie theater where she sat with a friend. Later, I wanted desperately to know if she had received my final message. Her friends looked at her cellphone for me to check. I couldn’t bear to look at it myself since her phone was such a part of her. Her friends confirmed: She had received my message. I could picture her reading it, a smile on her face.

My daughter, Jessi, was 24 years old, finishing a college degree in journalism and sports broadcasting in Denver when her life was cut short. A hockey fan, she was looking forward to a job interview at Mile High Sports, the multimedia sports company, scheduled for the day after the movie. I was planning to visit her just a few days later, flying in from Texas. We were so close, she called me her best friend. I often wonder how different our lives might have been if she had made it to that job interview. She would have been on her way in her career now, doing what she loved.

I was surprised to hear that Jessi had gone to the theater at midnight to see the premiere of a Batman movie. She wasn’t a late-night moviegoer or a Batman fan. But her best childhood friend, Brent, was in town, visiting from her hometown of San Antonio, and he loved Batman. She had bought tickets to treat him on his last night in town. And she had tried hard to get those tickets, scrambling to find them after being told the movie had sold out. Brent managed to call me from the theater during the shooting, and he told me the unbearable news: Jessi had been shot. I could hear the chaos in the background, people screaming. I screamed in pain myself. Brent survived, with a bullet just missing his spleen. Jessi died in a police car on the way to the hospital.

My son, Jordan, a paramedic, rushed to my home and gave me some pills so I could sleep. When I woke up, I told my husband, Lonnie, “We need to get involved in this movement, you know.” He knew exactly what I meant. He said, “Yes.” Since then I have become an activist in the fight against gun violence, meeting with families of victims across the country and pushing for laws to help prevent these massacres.

We’ve made some progress. A number of states have passed expanded laws on background checks. But there is a long way to go. We need universal background checks on gun sales. Right now there are federal checks on sales by licensed dealers—but not on private sales, which can occur at gun shows, between acquaintances, or via online classifieds. Online sellers of ammunition need to take responsibility too. They fail to scrutinize questionable transactions—like the one in which my daughter’s killer bought more than 4,000 rounds of ammunition for the assault weapon that took so many lives. This is not the way we’re meant to be living in the land of the free.

Today I’m in Denver for the trial of the man who killed my daughter and 11 others three years ago this month. I will not say his name. When a mass shooting occurs, the news reports go overboard focusing on the killer, devoting round-the-clock attention to the gunman and his past, his family, his manifesto. It’s what the killer wants—and research has shown that it helps inspire the next killer to seek the same kind of fame. My husband and I recently joined the FBI and Texas State University in the “Don’t Name Them” campaign, urging the media to avoid giving so much publicity to mass killers.

As we await the sentencing in Denver, I honestly do not care whether the gunman gets the death penalty or not. I have never believed in the death penalty, but if anyone deserves it, he does. He planned and calculated this deadly attack and showed no remorse. Whatever happens to him, he will never be in society again. Hell is for eternity, and that’s where he is ultimately headed.

I don’t waste my energy thinking about him. I think about the victims and their families. I think of the two young women, Jillian Johnson and Mayci Breaux, who died in the shooting in a movie theater last week in Louisiana. My heart goes out to their families. I know what they are going through, the shock, the confusion and heartache. I always feel a degree of PTSD when I hear about mass shootings, but the one in Louisiana felt close to home since it was in a movie theater. I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, there were only two people killed in that shooting.” When I hear things like that, I think, “What if one of them were your daughter?”

This month, amid the trial, I gathered the strength to read my daughter’s autopsy report for the first time. I knew, of course, about the six gunshot wounds that killed her, about the armor-piercing bullet that slammed into her head. But I did not know the details. I felt it was time to know. On the autopsy, my husband and I didn’t look at the photographs. We looked at a diagram of what was done to my beautiful daughter’s tiny body. Her right leg was ripped apart and rammed into her left leg. Her abdomen received four bullets and additional fragments. Fragments were lodged in her right wrist and other places. Her left clavicle was broken by a bullet. In her head, a bullet left a five-inch hole. The bullet entered through her left eye, ripping apart her brain.

A month before Jessi was gunned down, she had just missed being caught in another mass shooting, at a mall in Toronto. She was there for a visit and had bought a burger at a food court just three minutes before a gunman opened fire in the same food court, killing two people. The killer stood right where Jessi had stood just moments earlier. She was understandably shaken. I was working in the garden that day when she called. I reassured her, telling her, “You have seen the worst of humanity today. You will never see it again.” I said all the things a mother should say to make her daughter feel safe. I can see now that I should have told her, “We need to be worried. We need to get involved.” And that is my message to everyone today. Get involved. Get involved in the fight against gun violence now. Get involved before you lose someone you love.