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Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 mass
shooting at Virginia Tech University and working with the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.

Boss: At what moment did you decide to work to prevent gun violence? I know you went through very intensive medical care and rehab. Do you remember that moment?

Goddard: I do. I do. It was April 3, 2009. It was two years, just about two years after the shooting that I was involved with. During those two years, I learned a great deal about what happened at my school.

Obviously anytime something crazy happens to you in your life, you want to know how did this happen, why did this happen, especially parents. You learn a great deal about the school policies; the fact that it took over an hour and a half to send out an alert to the student body as to what had happened in the dormitory before the shooting happened in the classrooms.

Mental health policies; the fact that this guy had actually been well known for the campus counseling center and well known to local law enforcement for stalking girls on campus, for making strange threats and writing morbid things in class and the gun policy because ultimately because of his behavior, he was brought in front of a judge and adjudicated to be a danger to himself and with that adjudication, that prohibits you from, under federal law, owning a firearm until you get that adjudication reversed.

He was told to get outpatient therapy instead of inpatient therapy. His record was never sent over to the background check system. So instead of getting the therapy, he walked into the gun store down the road from our school and went over the internet and bought the GLOCK and the 9 mm and a couple of hundred rounds and ultimately came on our campus. I learned something as simple as a file transfer of a record could have altered the outcome of that day.

I was looking for another job. Just finished clerking the House of Delegates in Virginia and was sending out resumes and flipped on the television just as a story broke of a shooting in Binghamton New York Civic Center. I think the way I naturally came to turn on the TV and see this, I didn’t turn away like I had been before. I sat there and I watched the entire shooting unfold throughout the entire course of the day as the police were running in and setting up the yellow tape, and the body count started to come in with two people, three people. At the end of the day I think it was up to 13 people.

It brought me right back to April 16, 2007. It brought me right back to being in my classroom knowing what these people were going through, knowing that their loved ones and their family members were getting a phone call saying that they just had a family member who has been shot, “Can you come to the hospital as soon as you can?”

I know that when I heard about people talking about gun policy in D.C., it was always considered dead on arrival. It wasn’t going to go anywhere. You couldn’t touch it, you couldn’t address it and I was just kind of like; what gives? Watching that, all of those emotions came back coupled with what I learned and the frustration of inaction in D.C., it just kind of all came together and it just snapped in me.

I called up the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at the end of the day and said, “Listen, I’ve followed what you’ve been doing. I couldn’t get involved, but now I want to help, I want to share my story. I want to talk about these issues so other people can learn about them. Is there any place for me?” They said, “Yes,” and I’ve been with them ever since.

Boss: So the debate over violence and mass shootings gets people talking about mental health issues, about broader ideas, about a culture of violence, violence in media. Why gun laws to work on rather than some of these other possible topics of conversation?

Goddard: Good question. Basically it comes down to this; after mass shooting events and after any sort of major mass trauma, mass violence incident, the first question is: “Why did this happen?” Why did somebody choose to do this?” “Why could someone act this way?”

In the case of Virginia Tech, the person who can answer that question killed himself in the front of my classroom. There is no solid answer to the “why” question, so what became more answerable to me is “how.” How did this happen? How did this person actually physically carry out these acts? What did they have with them? What allowed them to do this? It was pursuing the “how,” but at the same time always curious of the “why.” The “why” is, in my opinion, a much more broad area, particularly with gun violence. It can range from mental health issues to bullying to an accident of children playing together thinking a gun was a toy to depression, impulse suicide, things like that.

The “how” is always the same. The “how” is this metal object in their hands that fires a bullet with the twitch of a finger. The fact that background checks aren’t done minimally across gun sales in this country was just something so fundamentally wrong and unjust in my opinion that I wanted to address it.

We need to have a conversation in this country badly about what is responsible gun ownership. Not only when you own the gun and it’s yours keeping it safe locked at home away from children and those that might have problems.

But then when you sell the gun to someone, make sure that the person who is buying it from you can at least legally do so. That’s it and the quickest way to do that is with like a 90 second background check.

I have so many people come to the events where we show this film and think that this is some anti-gun, no one should have a gun in America kind of thing and they come up to me afterwards and say, “This is not what I thought this was going to be. I own guns. I was in the military. I hunt regularly. What are you talking about man, background checks? That’s cool with me. It’s not going to stop me from owning a gun, but if it’s going to stop some person with a felony record, I’m all for it.”

Boss: What’s your response to the argument to arm teachers or to have more police in schools and public spaces or that people believe concealed weapons should be allowed on college campuses.

Goddard: Fundamentally, I don’t think we’re going to shoot our way out of our problem with shootings in this country. This idea that, if only we allowed more people to carry more guns in more public places in this country then we would all be in a safer place, if that idea was true then would the country that already allows people to carry guns on the streets, in their homes, practically everywhere in the country, a country with 300 million guns in circulation already. In theory, wouldn’t we already be the safest place in the world? If you look at the numbers, we are in fact just opposite of that.

You have to take public health approach and understand that any object that harms or kills another human being by its function, increasing your exposure to that object does not decrease the likelihood of injury or death. It increases the likelihood of injury or death. People should have that right. People should be allowed to purchase a firearm for their home if they’d like to. I support that idea. I support that concept. I support the Second Amendment. You have that right, but sometimes it might not be the best option when you have young children.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Annette Nance-Holt, whose 16 year old son Blair was murdered on a Chicago bus in 2007. A gang member fired into back of the bus missing his target, a rival gang member, but killing Blair and wounding 4 others.
Click to hear the complete interview.

Boss: Tell us a little bit more about Blair and what he was like.

Holt: Blair was a very handsome young man, very outgoing. A lot of people looked up to Blair. Blair, being in high school, would tell all his fellow classmates to make sure they got to class. He was very, very intelligent and he didn’t want a lot of people to know how smart he truly was, but he would inspire other people to do better in life.

I really didn’t know how big of an impact he had on so many people until he died because a lot of his friends came forward. Even his teachers said that if they had more students like Blair, it would be easy for them to teach in the City of Chicago.

Boss: I’m guessing it took you quite a while to find your way after Blair’s death. I had read in an article that it took you a year to move the pile of folded clothes he left on the dryer in your house.

Holt: Yeah, that’s true. As a matter of fact, his bedroom is still the same. It’s still exactly the same. I’ve not had enough energy to go up and there and tackle that. Every time I try to tackle it, it’s overwhelming. It really is and I really would like to donate his things to kids or young people who would really appreciate them because he has very nice things and he took care of his clothes. Everything is hanging or folded.

It’s just heartbreaking. I went from having a house full of life and energy and love to like nothing. Everything is just silence. It’s almost deadly to be in this house because I’m just so used to him and his friends being here or Blair trying to cook or saying, “Ma, take me here,” or “Let’s go there.” He traveled with me. We went to Vegas and Orlando and we got to do a lot of fun things together, but everything just suddenly stopped and I didn’t even have a warning. He wasn’t sick. He was snatched from me.

We invested all this into our child. We invested our time, our love, everything to make sure he was successful and he wasn’t. He’s lying in the cemetery.

Boss: Annette Nance-Holt, did you go to support groups?

Holt: Actually, when this first happened to me, the fire department recommended that I go to a counselor. So I went to this counselor about three times in a row and all I could do was cry the whole time until one time she asked me, “What do you love doing?” I was like, “I loved my son. I loved doing everything I possible could to make sure he was successful.” She said, “What activities were you doing before this?” I said, “I was learning to play golf.” She said, “Well, you should play golf.” That was it for me that day. I could not talk to somebody who told me that golf would solve my problem because golf ain’t solved my problem yet.

So I ended up going to a group called Parents of Murdered Children that’s headed by parents who have lost their children to violence. There I found other people like me and they could understand what I was going through and not thinking the answer is you might need medicine or you might need to keep coming to this therapist or do some kind of fun thing like golf. That wasn’t the answer. I needed someone to tell me that what I was feeling was okay and that the chest pains and the anxiety were all because of losing my child. I have no medical history like that.

I worried about forgetting things. Someone said, “We forget a lot because we’ve been traumatized and people don’t look at gun violence survivors as being traumatized. We talk about veterans being traumatized. We’re traumatized here in the City of Chicago. Imagine all the young people who are going to be traumatized from what they witness.”

We started a group called: “Purpose over Pain” where a group of parents got together and formed an organization of our own. We actually do outreach to parents who have lost their children to violence whether that be providing money for funerals or passes or whatever services they need; cemeteries they can afford if they want to cremate, buying flowers and just talking to them and saying, “Hey, you can call us anytime you need,” and eventually get them into the group of Parents of Murdered Children.

The other two things we do is Common Sense Gun Legislation. We’ve been to D.C., we’ve been to Springfield and Chicago and even New York with Mayors Against Illegal Guns and The Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence. We’ve been everywhere talking about gun violence and how we can change it so that innocent people don’t die every day because guns are in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

The third thing that we do is actually go out to community groups. We go out to high schools and grammar schools and even parent groups and talk about what the long-lasting effects of gun violence does to families and communities.

Boss: Annette, what do you say to a mother who is going through what you went through; the murder of your child?

Holt: Really I can tell them I’m sorry because they became part of a sorority they didn’t sign up to join. I just want to say, “I’m sorry” because we failed them. If we keep getting more children murdered behind ours, we’ve failed. We’ve failed as people, as a society, as the United States of America. We have failed. We’ve failed to provide the most common right that we should offer people; the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We haven’t offered that.

Boss: Annette, not everyone can turn their pain out to be active. How did you personally make that transition?

Holt: The first day Blair was murdered, I think it was a Thursday, I remember coming home and I was numb. Then the reporters started calling and people started coming by. I immediately just set up and started speaking out because I’m that kind of person anyway. I’ve always been the kind of person who has spoken out against things that were unjust and unfair and to have your only child taken from you, and a good kid, I had to say something because Blair meant so very much to me, as I’m sure all kids mean a lot to their parents, but I just couldn’t suffer in silence. I really couldn’t.

People thought that the media took advantage of me. No they didn’t! They gave me a voice. They gave Blair a voice. Blair wasn’t just a African-American teenager who was a gang-banger like they want to tell us. Most black kids are gang-bangers or drug dealers or not in school. Blair was an honor student. He was respectful. He loved his parents. He worked. He helped other people.

Boss: Your group, Purpose over Pain, was active in the campaign over the last few years to urge President Obama to come to Chicago.

Holt: Yes, he finally came here in 2013 and he spoke at Hyde Park High School, yes.

Boss: I’m going to quote you right now from a newspaper article I read from a Chicago paper. You said, “It’s up to the community to take action now that Obama has visited.”

Holt: And that meaning that, in the individual communities, we know who has guns, we know who’s selling drugs, we know the people that don’t belong in our communities and I think we got this silence that we won’t speak up and we won’t speak out. I can understand people being fearful of being identified as a, as they say, “snitch,” but that’s not really a snitch; telling about somebody who is doing something wrong. If we don’t speak up in our communities, if we don’t take back what is rightfully ours from these, what I call “thugs” and “hoodlums” or whatever the word is – and a lot of people don’t agree with that, but that’s what they are because they’re terrorizing communities.

Boss: Does your group look at ways to keep these youngsters from becoming “thugs,” as you call them? What ideas do you have about that?

Holt: Yes, actually, we do. We actually go into high schools and we actually talk to young people about gun violence because a lot of young people think (and they’ve been put out front with the gangs) that they won’t get the same time as somebody who’s older. They think that if they’re minors they won’t be charged as adults and that’s not true. They sit there and they know that their friends have guns, they’re selling drugs and we’re telling them; “If you’re affiliated with them, you’re going to suffer the same fate they suffer.” We just try to change their mindset.

We also offer mentoring. We have what we call “Safe Saturday Nights,” and we bring in kids of different age groups, all the way up to 21, and we have a basketball, we have some games, we have some crafts. We see them and we talk to them about violence and making good choices.

Boss: Annette, on a personal note, I’m sure the pain never goes away. I’m wondering though with all that you’ve been doing and the impact of your work and the work of others, how does that make you feel? Do you find some happiness in that?

Holt: I don’t know if you find happiness. I think you find busy work and I think you want to keep moving, especially when you lose everything. When you lose your only child, you’ve lost everything I’m sorry to say. I know other people who have lost a child and they have other children and they feel bad, but I don’t have that driving force anymore to get up and do this and that; to take him places and make sure that he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, so by giving back and helping other people or trying to make a difference, it actually helps me on the other end. It’s a sort of a cathartic healing. It really is.

 

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Scott Cameron, an Albuquerque father of two boys who started the non-profit organization Families4Peace in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012.

Cameron: This is from an organization called the Center to Prevent Youth Violence. ASK and stands for Asking Saves Kids. Just as you would if your kids go on a play date and somebody has a pool, you’re going to ask them if they keep an eye on their pool, if they have a fence around it, what they will do to keep my kids safe.

The idea here is to get people in the mode of asking people about things like: “Do you have a gun in the house and if you do have a gun in your house, what do you do to keep it away from your kids?” “Do your kids know how to handle gun safety?” “Does it have a lock on it?”

A statistic that I saw said that 40% of households with kids have guns in them and just having the gun in the house in and of itself increases the chances of somebody getting killed by that gun exponentially either by suicide or homicide. So the idea here is to build some more safety around that.

Ingles: Then next after the vigil, we tagged along at Cameron’s toy gun buy-back event in Albuquerque.

Cameron: And so as you come in, on our right, we have the registration and sign-in and there’s a big box over here where we are collecting the guns from the kids. A lot of the stuff is made by Nerf or it looks like it’s made by Nerf. A lot of them are plastic, brightly colored and some of them pretty realistic. In terms of this one, it holds a bunch of different bullets just like a real gun does. As you shoot, it spins. As we walk over this way, there are more. We took a bunch and hung them on the fence into the shape of a peace sign. There are a few on there that are particularly realistic and seemingly pretty aggressive, pretty violent looking.

The people who are sitting here determine whether what people turned in is a small, medium or large gun or if they turn into more than one gun, then that determines what kind of incentives the kids would get for that. We have passes from [0:02:00], from Cliff’s Amusement Park, from I Scream for Ice Cream, swim passes to city pools, just a really wide variety of stuff for the kids to get in exchange for their guns.

Ingles: Tell me your full name.

B. Cameron: Brendon James Cameron.

Ingles: And how old are you?

B. Cameron: Nine.

Ingles: All right, so your dad is involved with this bit about the toy guns. How do you feel about giving up your guns? Are you giving up your guns?

B. Cameron: I know it was good and I know it was the right thing, but I did feel a little tiny bit sad because the times we did get to play with them and nobody got hurt were pretty fun, but it’s just the right thing to do. You don’t want to get it in your head.

Ingles: Tell me more about that “get it in your head.” What do you mean?

B. Cameron: Well, you want to get it in your head so you have it when you get older and you don’t want to go to jail, you don’t want to shoot somebody, you don’t want to get shot. With the violent video games, that’s like you’re cop. That’s just messed up.

Ingles: So overall, you don’t think you’re going to miss the guns too much? You’ll have enough fun with other stuff huh?

B. Cameron:
Yeah, and I got a Cliff’s pass and an ice cream thing, but I turned in like six or seven guns. It’s a good turnout. I think my dad had a good idea.

Cameron: I guess I would say that what keeps me active in this is that I wake up every day and I see my own kids and I think about them. They’re the same age as those in Newtown. So there’s that.

I think about what kind of world I want my kids to grow up in. I think probably every parent has that feeling, almost that obligation to try and make things better for them.

I think on a broader scale, just a real sense of interdependence and feeling part of this bigger picture and this sense of responsibility to the world, my children, my family, my neighborhood, my community and then just expanding out from there and really feeling like this is an issue where there’s a real opportunity to try and do that and so why not?

Peace Talks Radio Producer Paul Ingles talks with Diana Dorn-Jones, Executive Director
of United South Broadway, co-sponsor of Toy Gun Buy Back event.

Ingles: What is your name?

Jones: My name is Diana Dorn-Jones. I’m the Executive Director of United South Broadway.

This is what we see as an educational event. There’s a lot going on about gun control and those kinds of things. We’re not taking a position necessarily on that, but we have concerns. We know that we need to start early and start with children. We want them and their parents to understand the implications of the message that needs to take place and it starts at home.

In the end, parents make the decisions about the kinds of toys that they allow their children to have and so we’re asking parents to think it through a little bit. What are the long-term impacts, especially in the society that we live in today?

We’re very happy that we have a really good turnout. We’ve been supported by the business community. United South Broadway and Families for Peace came together and said, “We need to do something.” It’s a community response to these issues because we cannot wait around for legislation to take place. Our children are dying every single day from accidents.

There is not a good understanding about what this thing means. Guns are not toys. It’s high time that, across this country, there is something that each of us can do. It starts in our own communities and our own neighborhoods.