“He tried to shoot my daughter in the head through me, through my arm.”
Mary Reed was one of the 13 people wounded after Jared Loughner opened fire outside a supermarket in a well-manicured suburb of Tucson, Ariz. The bullet grazed Reed’s arm, exploding the wall behind her and sending jagged pieces of concrete into her body.
“There was really no place for us to go,” she told me over the phone earlier this week. “I threw my daughter against the wall and I covered her with my body as he went down the line shooting people.” Six people died that day, including a nine-year-old girl who was shot through the back as she tried to run away.
Reed still has one of Loughner’s bullets embedded near her spine, inoperable and untouched. It took two years of physical therapy to recover from the injuries she sustained, and Reed remains in what she described as permanent pain from the three gunshot wounds.
But the pain of survival is also the pain of a Sunday morning when she learned, along with the rest of the country, that a man armed with a Sig Saur MCX had killed 49 people and injured at least 53 others at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
“I feel completely hollowed out,” she said of the largest gun massacre in recent U.S. history. “Another mother is just weeping at her child’s funeral, another person is profoundly injured and having to walk that path of recovery.”
This experience is unique to the people who have lived through mass shootings only to see them repeat—and repeat, and repeat—while the federal policies that dictate how people access guns go unchanged. But the United States leads the world in mass shootings, so it is still less unique than it should be.
As the number of mass shootings continues to rise, as the casualties rise, so too does the number of people who have lived through them—the men, women, and children who know the acrid smell of gunpowder and have seen blood wash over the floors of their churches, movie theaters, and schools.
I spent a week interviewing other survivors, from Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Sandy Hook, to talk about what it’s like to watch a cycle of violence that feels so familiar.
Some people described the feeling as a kind of protracted grief. Others talked about it like a time machine that brought them back to the early days of their own trauma. But every person I talked to spoke about the anger that comes with watching the body count rise while the stalemate in Congress drags on.
“They had a popular elected official gunned down in her home district at a suburban Safeway and that did not move them. They had first graders mowed down, murdered in cold blood, and that did not move them. Now we have 49 young, vibrant people murdered while celebrating," Reed said of the inaction in Congress.
"We’ve had murders in churches and mosques, businesses, malls, theaters. I despair of their coldness. That nothing will move them.”
The timeline of modern mass shootings in the U.S. starts in 1984, when an out-of-work security guard named James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people and injured 19 others at a McDonald's in Southern California. The next one happened two years later, killing 14 people and wounding six others at a post office in Oklahoma. Then another in 1989, this time on a playground in California, that killed five children and injured 29 more.
But these deadly incidents are no longer separated by a stretch of years. It is now often months, and sometimes only weeks, between them. All told, there have been 133 mass shootings—defined as a shooting event in which four or more people are injured, not including the shooter—since the start of 2016.
“The anger comes quick,” Abbey Clements, a former second grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., said of the repetitive violence. Huddled in her classroom, Clements and her 17 students could hear each of the 154 shots Adam Lanza fired in a span of five minutes, killing 20 children and six of her colleagues.
She was able to escape, and she described that fact as luck, nothing more: “I was just trying to figure out what to do in that moment because it was so terrifying.”
Clements, like Reed, has become an advocate for gun policy reform in the years since the shooting. Both of them are active with Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-reform nonprofit, which is how I got in contact with them.
But Clements’ work to push Congress and state lawmakers to expand background checks and close loopholes that allow, say, convicted domestic abusers to purchase weapons sometimes has to take a backseat to her own recovery, she said.
It can be a difficult line to walk. “It shakes me to the core when I hear about another shooting,” she said. “I have to just prepare myself, like, This is happening again, get ready.
“The anger is just, like, visceral. You just can’t believe—” Clements continued, pausing a moment. “You can’t believe it’s happening again, even though you know it can.”
For Colin Goddard, who was shot four times during the Virginia Tech massacre—which was, until Orlando, the largest mass killing in recent U.S. history—learning of another mass shooting often requires walking away for a little while.
Goddard, who is now a senior policy advocate at Everytown, doesn’t do interviews in the first 24 hours after a mass killing.
“I refuse to do them because there’s nothing really to say at that point except for expressions of empathy and sadness,” he told me. “The media, they just want a sad face on the TV. I don’t say anything until there are details out.”
In the early hours after a shooting, the information circulating is often speculative or attributed to unnamed sources. People guess at motives, politicians perform their sadness on Twitter, the country expresses its disbelief even though the repetitive frequency of these shootings should no longer shock us.
“I take a day to myself to get ready for what I know will be days and days of intense conversations like this one, of going through my own story,” Goddard said.
It’s a story he has been telling for nine years. The smell of gunpowder and the slowness of time. The sharp wetness of the first shot that turned into a body-consuming numbness. (“I learned later that it was my body releasing endorphins and redirecting blood to my vital organs,” he said.) The years of physical therapy and counseling that it took in order to feel like he had found his new version of normal.
It’s emotional labor, and Goddard is among a growing number of survivors turned advocates who must perform it with a kind of head spinning frequency.
“Because you can’t leave it at despair and anger,” he said of his advocacy. “You have to find a way to put it somewhere, to strengthen your resolve to find a way out of this madness.”
Daniel Hernandez was just 20-years-old, and two weeks into his internship at then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office in Tucson, when the shooting happened. “There was no time. Within 10 hours of the shooting, I had done my first interview,” he explained.
He had held Giffords, who was shot in the head, upright while they waited for an ambulance to arrive, recalling medical training he’d received in high school and television shows he’d seen where people with potential brain injuries needed to be kept engaged.
The press descended almost immediately: “I wasn’t ever given a break, I wasn’t given a chance to process before I was in front of a camera talking about what had happened.”
The cycle of coverage, the telling and retelling of what he had witnessed and what he had done to help, delayed his own grief, but it also helped him cope, he said. Doing interviews, telling the story, felt like his responsibility because he was lucky that day.
“It’s why I keep doing this work, even though it’s really emotionally draining,” Hernandez told me. “As an openly gay man, what happened in Orlando, with most of the victims being Latino—for me, every time, it’s very personal.
“When I speak out, it’s because I want people to know that it’s not clean, it’s not sanitary, it’s very gruesome what happens,” he continued. “We’ve kind of gotten acclimated. And when the cameras go away, and no one is paying attention, there is a community that is left.”
In the nine years since Virginia Tech, in the six years since Tucson, in the three years since Sandy Hook, Congress has acted once—just once—to tighten restrictions on guns. (The 2008 bill, introduced in response to the Virginia Tech shooting, enhanced the screening of gun buyers and then-President George W. Bush signed it into law.)
This is madness, Goddard told me, but it is not the whole story. While Congress refuses to act, there has been some progress made at the state level—states have passed more than 100 pieces of legislation to strengthen gun laws.
And this is where Abbey Clements puts her focus on the days when despair seems like it’s winning. “As much as it feels like nothing has happened since Sandy Hook, I think a lot is changing,” she said. Still, progress can feel slow. “It’s one person at a time, one state at a time.”