New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 20, 2013
WASHINGTON » Moments after the Senate defeated gun legislation this week, Patricia Maisch, a 64-year-old Tucson, Ariz., woman who helped stop the 2011 massacre there, stood up in the gallery and shouted "Shame on you!" at the lawmakers below. The next day, still furious, she recorded "robocall" messages for the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Maisch has no background in politics. But she does have a passion for gun control acquired on Jan. 8, 2011, when she grabbed an ammunition clip away from the gunman who fatally shot six people and wounded 13, including her congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords.
"A lot of our legislators have blood on their hands," Maisch said Friday before leaving Washington on a train for New York, where she was scheduled to appear on a weekend talk show. "We will work to remove seated senators who choose to be the shills of the gun lobby."
Maisch, whose gallery outburst prompted Capitol police officers to escort her from the building, is among dozens of gun violence survivors and family members who descended on Washington to push for a measure to extend background checks on some gun purchases. Now that their lobbying blitz is behind them and the legislative debate is over in the Senate, the victims' advocates are forging ahead with new tactics and plotting their next moves. They hope to revive the bill, while pushing for new state laws and campaigning against politicians opposed to gun control.
Many, like Peter Read, 50, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel whose daughter Mary Karen was killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, have been fighting for stricter gun measures since long before Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., in December. They are accustomed to hearing lawmakers say no. "We are not going away," Read said.
Some, like Andrew Goddard and Lori Haas, Virginia residents who met after their children were wounded at Virginia Tech, have already been lobbying their state legislatures. On Friday, Haas was headed to a vigil outside the office of Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican leader, to recite the names of the dead.
Others, like Pam Simon, a former aide to Giffords who was wounded in Tucson, are still focused on Washington. Simon turned up Thursday in the office of Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., for a coffee intended for constituents. Ayotte voted against the background check measure because, she said, it would "place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners." Simon pressed Ayotte; a video of their encounter was posted by ThinkProgress.org.
And some, like Dan Gross, whose brother was shot in the head in 1997 on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, are looking inward, re-examining a strategy that has for decades been rooted in grief.
Gross, a former advertising executive, is the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. If gun legislation is to succeed, he said, groups like his must change social norms around guns, much like Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed norms around alcohol.
"As long as this is positioned as an issue that's just about victims, it's not going to work," he said. "Victims have been a very important part of the story, but so is, ‘Friends don't let friends drive drunk."'Not all the victims of gun violence and their families favor tighter gun laws. At least one Newtown parent, Mark Mattioli, whose 8-year-old son was killed, sided with the National Rifle Association in opposing the background check measure. But at least a dozen of the victims and family members who fanned out across the Capitol complex this week — organized by groups like the Brady Campaign and Mayors Against Illegal Guns — said they believed that the bill would have been a good first step.
They had arrived in Washington in an optimistic mood. The Newtown parents had practically shamed senators into bringing the background check measure up for a vote, and after decades of gun control losses, many believed that they were on the verge of a big victory. But they were soon reminded that in the complex gun politics of Washington, being a victim is not enough to get legislation passed.
For Read, that lesson was searing. Wearing a gray business suit with a picture of Mary Karen on his lapel, he arrived at a vigil outside the Capitol on Tuesday, the sixth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, to recite the names of the dead — including his own daughter, a clarinet player and an aspiring educator who was 19 when she died.
Hours later, traipsing through the hallways with other parents and victims, he stumbled on Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Flake had just announced his opposition to the background check measure, and when the senator cited Black's Law Dictionary in explaining his stance, Read grew testy.
"I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not a senator, and I don't have Black's Law Dictionary," Read told him. "But I do have this picture of my daughter."
Now Flake is on the gun control advocates' target list. One of the telephone messages that Maisch recorded Thursday, in which she said Flake had "buckled to extremists," was intended for his constituents.
Critics of the gun control movement say its advocacy groups are capitalizing on grief by courting vulnerable victims and families. But Gross, the Brady Campaign president, said his group tried to be "delicate and sensitive" in its recruitment efforts. He said the families often sought out the advocacy groups.
"They all feel like they're part of a club that nobody wanted to be part of," he said.
That is particularly true of Maisch and Bill Badger, a retired Army colonel, who met in the Tucson mayhem. Despite a gunshot wound to the head, Badger managed to subdue the gunman. Maisch grabbed the ammunition clip and ran into a grocery store to get a towel to clean Badger's wound. Today they are so close that people mistake them for brother and sister.
Maisch, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business, was on the way to the airport Friday to fly home to Tucson, she said, when MSNBC called to invite her to be a Sunday guest. As she changed course and headed for the Amtrak station, she reflected on the week's events. Mayors Against Illegal Guns was planning protests for Saturday at senators' home offices, as well as a Twitter campaign, with the hashtag (HASHTAG)shameonyou, based on her rallying cry.
The outburst was spontaneous — she had planned simply to walk out quietly, she said — but she said she had no regrets.
"Those senators disregarded the will of the people," Maisch said. "I feel like my disregarding that one small rule was nothing compared to what they disregarded."