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My Daughter Was Murdered in a Mass Shooting. Then I Was Ordered to Pay Her Killer’s Gun Dealer.


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At 24 years old, my daughter, Jessi, was sparky, beautiful, and ambitious, with red hair that mirrored her fiery spirit. In summer 2012, she was finishing her final year of college in Colorado and looking forward to pursuing a career as a sports journalist. On the night before she had an interview for a dream job, she went with her close friend Brent to a midnight movie.

I was up late that night, unable to sleep, and texted her just to say hi. I was set to travel from our home in Texas the following week to help her furnish a new apartment.

“I can’t wait for you to come visit,” Jessi pinged back. “I need my mama.”

Less than an hour later, Brent called me from inside the theater in Aurora where they’d gone to see the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. “There’s been a shooting,” he said, breathless. I could hear people screaming in the background. 

“What are you telling me?” I asked. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been hit. Twice, I think.”

“Where’s Jessi?” My heart was racing.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

When the gunfire had erupted inside the theater, Jessi and Brent leapt out of their chairs to flee. Jessi got shot in the leg. “I’ve been hit!” she yelled as she fell. “Someone call 911!” The bullets kept coming—bullets with the power and velocity to penetrate walls and seats, bodies and bones. She was hit five more times, including in her head. Brent stayed by her side. He got hit as well, with one bullet just missing his spleen. Jessi was one of 12 who died. Brent was among the 70 others who were wounded or injured in the attack.

I can’t remember the moments right after I realized Jessi was gone. My husband, Lonnie, later told me that he awoke to the sound of my screams and caught me as I crumpled to the floor. I recall little else from that night, except that my son, who is a paramedic, rushed over to the house and gave me some pills so I could calm down and eventually rest.

In the fog of those first few days, I was too distraught to really sleep, bathe, or think. We learned that two police officers had driven Jessi to the hospital after she was shot, with one holding her in the backseat. She was pronounced dead at 1:10 a.m. I felt a sense of relief that she didn’t die alone on the theater floor. I also remember feeling that I would never know happiness again. At one point, a friend suggested that it might be good to take a shower. Apparently I headed to the bathroom. As Lonnie tells it, he soon heard guttural howling. He rushed into the shower fully clothed and embraced me.

Less than two months earlier, Jessi had narrowly missed another shooting, at a mall in Toronto. Just a couple minutes after she and her boyfriend left the food court, a gunman opened fire, killing two people and wounding several others. I was working in the garden when Jessi called, her voice shaking. I reassured her. She went home and wrote on her blog, “Every second of every day is a gift.”

It was five years ago today that Jessi was killed. On that day, I entered an inescapable nightmare. A fire also began to burn inside of me. The following morning, I told Lonnie, “We need to get involved.” He knew exactly what I meant. We knew that we needed to try to save other families from this unthinkable pain. What followed was a tumultuous journey we never could have anticipated. We were thrust into the media spotlight and the world of activism against gun violence. We came face to face with powerful political leaders, including President Obama. We spent four grueling months in a Denver courtroom, bearing witness to the trial of Jessi’s killer. This spring, we traveled to Congress to testify against President Donald Trump’s ardently pro-gun Supreme Court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch. 

There was one experience that showed us, more than any other, how warped America’s relationship with gun violence is. It came when we decided to sue the dealer that armed our daughter’s killer. The gunman bought more than 4,000 rounds of ammunition before his shooting spree—no background check, no questions asked. But a judge dismissed our case. Gun dealers are shielded by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a controversial law that protects them from liability when crimes are committed with their products.

Worse, in accordance with the law, the judge ordered us to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees to the defendants. In part because of that ruling, Lonnie and I were forced this year to file for bankruptcy.

There are so many thoughts that haunt you when the worst happens. For weeks I thought about how Jessi almost ended up in an adjacent sold-out theater where no one was killed. I dwelled on the strangeness of the near-miss at the Toronto mall. I remembered how Jessi never liked the sound of fireworks; she thought they sounded like gunfire. I hated the fact that gunshots were the last sounds she heard.

Five months after Jessi’s funeral in Texas, which drew nearly 2,000 friends and supporters, Lonnie and I headed to Colorado to pick up Jessi’s diploma and speak at her university. We managed to joke that of course she would get her degree without having to take any final exams. As we boarded the plane, we heard about the breaking news: A gunman had attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. By the time we landed in Colorado, people were checking their phones, talking in hushed, stunned voices about 20 dead children. Lonnie and I were sitting near the back of the plane. I lost it. “Shut up! Stop talking about it!” I screamed. Lonnie tried to console me.


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