February 2021 Newsletter

Breaking The Ice Floes

We’ve been plunged into deep winter across most of the United States this February, with dire consequences. Texas, where we once lived, is freezing, and its people endangered. Valentine’s Day, that romantic holiday, brings grief to so many survivors, and we felt that acutely a few weeks ago as we observed the third anniversary of the Parkland massacre. But hope is also stirring. And for us, hope is wedded to action – positive action. President Biden has a massive agenda. We are thrilled that moving gun legislation is high on it. After our daughter, Jessi, died, we were overcome – nearly flattened by grief. We were able to emerge by transferring our heartbreak into productive behavior. 

We were ready and willing to seek help from all quarters, even then-Senator-elect Ted Cruz (R-TX). We invited him to share Thanksgiving dinner with us and sit in Jessi’s empty chair. That didn’t happen, but we did meet with him and pressed our views on sensible gun control. He gave us “thoughts and prayers,” but no positive action. In fact, gun legislation he introduced was more harmful than helpful. We, however, were undeterred.

Now we have a more substantial opening. We’re not looking to Senator Cruz (when Texas freezes over he runs for the border), but we are looking for allies who might now have the energy and opportunity to press ahead and make us all safer. We know there are good people of conscience and determination, and some, like President Biden and Congressman Jamie Raskin, who have suffered grievous loss and yet pressed on. We want to see pain become power, and loss lead to legacy.

We’re also continuing to address the emotional well-being of gun violence survivors through our first-of-its kind mindfulness program at University of California at San Diego. Once the participating survivors  complete the initial eight-week training program, they are trained violence interrupters and will teach traumatized survivors of gun violence the tools to cope with their PTSD. (We continue to follow Brenda Mitchell, a student in the program, in this issue.) We are so glad that we can participate in, and help grow, activities that really do make a difference. 

We can’t tell you March will come in like a lamb, but we’re wishing you all peace, love and spring before too long.

Sandy and Lonnie

Sharing Lessons From Communities Beset by 'Slow Motion' Mass Shootings

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips know about rapid response - that's what they've been doing after mass shootings for years, and that's a key function of Survivors Empowered. But they're excited about expanding their approach, sharing their insights, creating new partnerships and resources, and learning from others across the spectrum of people affected by gun violence.  Sandy Phillips recalled a conversation she had with a woman in the wake of the shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 — five months after her own daughter, Jessi, was killed in a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Phillips said she was initially stunned when the woman told her, “Your kids are more important than ours,” highlighting “a lot of resentment that these 'white' shootings get a lot of attention,” unlike shootings in minority neighborhoods. “And then I thought, I need to listen to her because she really feels that way,” Sandy said. “I made up my mind then that we’re not going to be those people; we’re going to be the people that build the bridge.” That bridge includes connections with gun-violence survivors in diverse communities around the country, and Sandy and her husband, Lonnie, are tapping those connections for a new initiative to disseminate what they know, and gather best practices from rapid-response teams in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia to be shared with youth from March For Our Lives San Diego and other organizations. Read more here

Program Helps Survivor 'Reinvent' Comfort Zone

Brenda Mitchell couldn’t be more pleased with the mindfulness meditation training she’s been pursuing since January. Now that the initial eight-week session is more than half over, she is looking back with satisfaction, and forward with eagerness. 

The program is being offered by the University of California at San Diego, in collaboration with Survivors Empowered and mindfulness meditation expert Shelly Tygielski.

Brenda appreciates the camaraderie among the students, all of whom have been directly affected by gun violence. "Each one of us brings something different, but we bring the same thing as well – the one commonality." Despite the painful bond, they laugh together and draw strength from the “diversity in the commonality,” which includes both men and women of different ages and backgrounds, Mitchell says.

The program has "helped me not take the easy way out, move outside my comfort zone, and reinvent my comfort zone,” Brenda said. "While moving from point A to point B, I realize B is OK.” Brenda is planning to participate in the full two-year curriculum. She is grateful for what she’s already learned. "It has taught me to transcend myself, and flow in the moment I'm in." 

Read more here

Legislation Roundup

A state Senate committee in Oregon narrowly approved on Feb. 25 a bill that will allow cities, counties, colleges, school districts and other entities to ban people with concealed-carry licenses from bringing weapons into their buildings. The bill heads to the state Senate for a full vote.  The Vermont Supreme Court upheld the state's ban on large-capacity firearm magazines in a ruling issued on Feb. 19. The court ruled that the ban did not violate the Vermont Constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms and was a “reasonable regulation” of that right. The state approved the ban in 2018 and defines large-capacity magazines as ones containing more than 10 rounds for a long gun and more than 15 rounds for a handgun. The case was brought by a resident appealing a lower court ruling refusing to dismiss charges against him for unlawfully possessing two 30-capacity magazines for a rifle.   The New York Senate passed on Feb. 10 two bills regulating “ghost guns,” untraceable weapons made from parts sold separately and then assembled by buyers.   The Jose Webster Untraceable Firearms Act “criminalizes the sale of ghost guns and requires gunsmiths to register and serialize firearms, rifles, shotguns and unfinished frames or receivers they assemble, manufacture, fabricate, build, or if they fit together the component parts of a firearm, rifle, or shotgun.” Webster was 16 years old when his life was taken by two gunmen in the South Bronx on Sept. 15, 2011.   In July 2020, the Senate passed the Scott J.  Beigel Unfinished Receiver Act, which bans the possession of frames or “receivers” fabricated for unfinished weapons and criminalizes their sale. Beigel had his life taken while protecting students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and two other staff members were killed on Feb. 14, 2018. Both bills await action in the state Assembly.   The Maryland Senate voted on Feb. 11 to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that provides $6.6 million of community violence intervention initiatives, including $3.6 million for Baltimore’s Safe Streets program. Maryland lawmakers also overrode Hogan’s veto of legislation that closes a loophole by requiring background checks for private sales and transfers of rifles and shotguns.

Published in October 2019, Tragedy in Aurora: The Culture of Mass Shootings in America, is Tom Diaz's account of the death of Lonnie and Sandy Phillips' daughter, Jessi, and the political polarization and stagnation behind the country's failure to enact common-sense policies to stem gun violence. 

The book can be found on Amazon here.    

Help For Survivors
  • Survivors Empowered has a roster of dedicated trauma therapists who help survivors of gun violence heal from the aftermath. Visit our website for more information. 
  • We continue to look for volunteers across the country who want to help build coalitions and work with survivors of gun violence in their states. If interested in supporting our efforts, please contact us here.

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