It’s Time Survivors Lead the Gun Control Movement

In 2003 I was twenty-five years old and studying to be a veterinarian — a career I’d chosen at age three. Returning home around 8am after an overnight emergency shift, my phone began ringing off the hook. Everyone in my life KNEW that I’d be sleeping that Monday morning. But, the calls continued. I sleepily grabbed my phone to check the numerous voicemails. The first was from my dad, “Your aunt Shelley was shot this morning. In downtown Minneapolis. She’s in emergency surgery and you need to get to the Hennepin County Medical Center now.”

I’m not sure that I even finished listening to that voicemail before my body went into shock. With trauma, you are at the mercy of your physiology. My body began to shake uncontrollably, as I somehow found my way to the downtown hospital and parked my car. I began a desperate search for my aunt Shelley. My dad had said, “emergency surgery,” didn’t he? I was frantic. I headed for the surgery wing — she wasn’t there. I noticed my Rabbi also wandering the halls, directionless, and together we made our way to the emergency room. My dad stood near the check-in desk, waiting. As soon as I saw his face, I knew. He grabbed me in a tight hug and whispered in my ear, “She’s dead.” My knees gave out, as an inhuman scream escaped from the depths of my body, somewhere previously hidden away. I was ushered into a private family room where my entire family sat. Bewildered. Devastated. Raw.

Shelley had worked as a geriatric care manager. The daughter of an elderly client had been harassing and threatening her for months. Shelley had only confided in her husband and her attorney — she didn’t want to alarm her family. Shelley had reported the threatening behavior to police several times. I believe there is a cultural double-standard, police believe women won’t become shooters.

This woman had been mailing threatening letters, leaving long, rambling voicemails, stalking Shelley and leaving dead cats on her doorstep. She had also begun using the courts system to harass my aunt and filed somewhere around 200 frivolous legal actions before Ramsey County banned her as a frivolous litigator. So, this woman filed another frivolous legal action in neighboring Hennepin County. That Monday morning, Shelley and her attorney, Rick Hendrickson, requested that security accompany them to the seventeenth floor where the courtroom was. They arrived a few minutes early and Shelley needed to use the restroom before court. Seeing her harasser had already arrived, Shelley asked the security guard to stand outside the bathroom door, don’t let anyone in. With Shelley around the corner, this woman approached her attorney, Rick, and shot him in the neck at point-blank range. As he lay there bleeding, an armed sheriff’s deputy was twenty feet away. The shooter then turned the corner for the women’s restrooms. The security guard saw a woman approaching with a gun and ran for help. The shooter then entered the restroom, kicked the stall door open, and shot my aunt Shelley four times. She dropped the 5-shot, .38 caliber, antique firearm on the floor beside Shelley and calmly walked away. Shelley died at the hospital a short time later. Thankfully, her friend and attorney survived the shooting with a paralyzed vocal chord.

My family learned during the criminal trial that the shooter had purchased the firearm she used to murder my aunt through a private sale at a Minnesota Gun show. She paid $60, with no paperwork or background check required by state law, and took the gun to the range to practice shooting in preparation for the morning of September 29, 2003.

I cannot possibly explain the pain of having a loved one shot to death to someone who hasn’t experienced this worst type of preventable hell. The things that mattered to me — vet school, a career working with animals — no longer mattered. I self-medicated with alcohol and sleeping pills to survive the trial and the first year. I was directionless and broken. It wasn’t until I gave birth to my first child in 2012 that I found my legs again. Gun violence is rampant, random, and unpredictable. Having one person I loved ripped away by guns did not rule out or decrease the chances that this could again, randomly and devastatingly, steal someone else I loved. And meanwhile, it was happening to tens of thousands of families all across the country each year.

I joined the gun violence prevention movement, initially with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which became Everytown for Gun Safety. The two merged with Moms Demand Action for GunSense in America — all funded by New York City Mayor Bloomberg. I spent years working with gun violence survivors nationwide but, found it problematic that the group seemed to be comprised of primarily wealthy, white, suburban women, unimpacted by gun violence. I felt uncomfortable and isolated at events. My parents had a difficult divorce and I grew up with a single mother in project housing. We didn’t always have enough to eat. Guns and drugs were prevalent in the development I grew up in.

Everytown failed to take a stand against police gun violence when Jamar Clark was murdered, when Philando Castile was murdered, when Justine Damond was murdered. The organization later partnered with the Fraternal Order of Police, a racist organization who’d endorsed Donald Trump for President. When I began to ask questions and took a vocal stand against police violence, I was banned from the organization and their lobbyist came after my family and career.

I’d transitioned to my local state gun violence prevention group, Protect Minnesota. I spent a year as their Director of Outreach and Communications before deciding I could make a bigger difference if I organized to turn the Minnesota legislature Democratic again and worked to elect trauma survivors.

I founded a 100% survivor-led gun control organization, Survivors Lead. We are an inclusive, groundbreaking, survivor-led, violence prevention organization. We take a municipality-based approach to curbing gun violence, focused on survivor-led efforts to end gun violence in our cities. We work with families and assist them in advocating for their murdered loved one in unsolved/active cases, provide survivor peer support throughout the trial process and beyond. We also work with law enforcement to address police violence and mass incarceration in communities of color, and offer political trainings to assist survivors of violence in running for public office.

Survivors Lead was born out of mainstream gun reform’s ideology that moderate messaging and politically safe talking points would advance the cause. Year after year, survivors parroted politically safe messaging that we didn’t feel in our hearts was working. And we failed.

At Survivors Lead, we take a different approach. We are not afraid to show the truth of what bullets do to bodies. We are not going to quibble about background checks, we want serious gun control legislation: licensing, registration, safe storage laws, assault weapons bans, and we want it now. We know stricter gun laws are key in reducing gun violence but, so is addressing the scarcity in our communities, decriminalizing addiction, dismantling mass incarceration, providing wrap-around services, meals, and youth programming through our public schools. We are developing retreats between law enforcement and survivors of police violence. These retreats will allow cops and survivors to cook meals together, share stories, and find healing in humanizing one another.

Survivors are organizing to provide support and advocacy for new survivors in unsolved cases. We knock doors, share flyers, and assist survivors in demanding answers from law enforcement and our elected leaders. When your loved one is stolen by gun violence, there are absolutely zero trauma-informed resources for you. IF you know who murdered your loved one, you’re provided with a county victim’s advocate, and as soon as the trial ends, they’re gone. We are survivors walking with our fellow survivors, searching for justice, providing support, and advocating for change. Survivors will win the fight for gun control, and we will do it together.