'You are never the same'

Parents of young woman killed in Colo. movie theater shooting went to Las Vegas to console families of victims

Sandy Phillips, one of the most powerful voices fighting gun violence, and her husband, Lonnie, have launched a new initiative to give survivors a voice

Lonnie, left, and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, and 11 others, were fatally shot five years ago at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. (Matthew Staver/The New York Times)

When Sandy Phillips heard that a gunman had opened fire on a field of concertgoers in Las Vegas, she and her husband jumped on a plane from Denver and headed there to comfort the families of victims. “We knew their hearts were broken,” she says in an interview with Women in the World. “We were there to say, ‘This is the start of a new life for you. We’re here for the rest of your life, should you want us to be.’” She knows how it feels to lose someone in a mass shooting: Her daughter, Jessi, was gunned down five years ago at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.

Sandy had been texting with her daughter in the minutes before the massacre. Jessi was a 24-year-old college student, looking forward to an upcoming visit from her mom. “I need my mama,” she texted from the movie theater, before she was shot six times, including in her head. Just a few weeks earlier, she had narrowly missed another shooting, at a mall in Toronto. When Jessi died, Sandy got up the next day, facing unthinkable grief, and told her husband, Lonnie Phillips, “We need to get involved.” He knew exactly what she meant.

They sold their house, bought a camper, and began crisscrossing the country, meeting survivors and pushing for stronger firearms laws, such as limits on the number of guns and rounds of ammunition that can be sold to an individual. In 2014, at the urging of the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the couple sued Lucky Gunner, the gun dealer that sold more than 4,000 rounds of ammo to the man who killed Jessi and 11 others, and injured 70 more. A judge later dismissed the case, ordering the couple to pay the dealer’s legal fees — more than $200,000. Gun dealers are shielded by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a controversial law that protects dealers from liability when crimes are committed using their products. Unable to pay, Sandy and Lonnie filed for bankruptcy this year. “Even if we could afford the dealer’s legal fees,” she says, “we would never pay.”

Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, the parents of shooting victim Jessica Ghawi, speak after a verdict was delivered in the trial of James Holmes at the Arapahoe County Justice Center on July 16, 2015 in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes was found guilty on all counts in the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images)

This month, Sandy and Lonnie are taking their activism to a new level, launching the nonprofit Survivors Empowered, which aims to help people navigate the healing process after a mass shooting. “You never get over it,” she says, but the group will help people cope in various ways, such as connecting them with therapists, trauma specialists, and support groups. “We will help them find the tools they need,” she says. For those who want to become activists, the organization will help them contact local or national lawmakers and tell their stories. Sandy says she will encourage people to “speak authentically and from the heart,” noting that “some of the larger gun-safety groups try to control the message” by scripting what people say. “We’re not going to try to control what people say,” she says. “It has a bigger impact when people tell their story how they want to tell it.”

The group has also started a “rapid response” fund, which will be used to dispatch teams of volunteers to help survivors and the families of victims in the wake of a shooting. Sandy notes that survivors are in such shock in those early days, they don’t necessarily remember anyone they meet, but at least they know that they are not alone. She adds that it can be difficult to gain access to survivors immediately after a shooting, because victims’ services centers are off-limits to outsiders. She and her husband find their way to people through word of mouth on the ground. “You just start asking questions. Once you meet with one, they tell someone, and they tell someone else,” she says.

“In Las Vegas, we met a young girl who was with her friends in the middle of the field when the shooting started, with nowhere to run. They lay down, and could feel bullets landing all around them. They saw a woman get shot. Later, her male friends picked her up and brought her to the medics, but they don’t know what happened to her. This is the kind of trauma people face: Did we save someone, or did she die?” she says. “These things impact people on such a visceral level. One guy, his wife was killed, and he held her until she died. He wouldn’t leave Las Vegas until her body was released. He was there for five days, waiting.” Sandy and her husband listened, and cared. “We can’t fix it,” she says. “But we can let them know they have our love and support.”

Sandy Phillips and her late daughter Jessica Ghawi. (Family photo)

For Sandy and Lonnie, survivors often become family. “We help them understand what to expect,” she says. This includes harassment from conspiracy theorists, also known as “truthers” or “hoaxers,” who claim that mass shootings are staged by the government in a bid to push for gun control. “They will find you on Facebook and Twitter and call you names,” Sandy says. She has experienced such abuse herself, with bloggers claiming her daughter is a fraudster who is still alive, living it up on an exotic island. She and Lonnie were once confronted in person by notorious conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones. At a gun-safety event in San Antonio, Texas, in 2013, he marched up and accused them of working for the government. Then he posted an edited video of the confrontation on his website, InfoWars, calling them “idiots.”

Sandy also warns survivors and the families of victims about PTSD, as well as the insensitive things others might inadvertently say in the years to come. “You are never the same after this, but people don’t always understand. They expect you to get over it. People say unbelievable things. They have a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s shoes,” she says. “We have very few friends from our past; our friends are mainly victims and survivors.”

Her group will also focus on the people who are wounded in mass shootings — people who are often overlooked, she says, simply because they managed to live. “Some struggle for the rest of their lives. Some will never walk again,” she says, citing standup comedian Caleb Medley, who was paralyzed in the Aurora shooting that took her daughter’s life. Sandy is currently talking with universities about partnering on a project that would involve interviewing the wounded on film, and archiving the videos for future study. “We’ll let them tell their stories, show their wounds,” she says. “They were in a war zone.”

Related

When her daughter was killed in a mass shooting, Sandy Phillips’s passion for gun reform was born

Mother of Aurora shooting victim on gun violence: ‘Get involved before you lose someone you love’

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