They never quite get over it.
Whenever there’s a mass shooting, a tragedy that occurs with depressing frequency, survivors of earlier events have their own memories brought back vividly and horribly.
Kristina Anderson, one of dozens of people who was shot at Virginia Tech in 2007, now works across the river from Washington, D.C. When the news of the Navy Yard shootings there broke on Monday, her day melted into tears.
It’s hard to feel safe when massacres can take place seemingly anywhere — a movie theater or school or even a government building that’s supposedly secure.
“For me, it’s pretty close to home,” Anderson says. “Quickly, I start thinking about the families who are about to be called and the people who are in lockdown in the buildings. I can identify with the feeling of not knowing what’s happening.”
Not Just About Guns
As the news broke about Monday’s shootings, residents of several previously traumatized communities — Aurora, Newtown, Tucson, Oak Creek — were traveling to Washington to lobby Congress for broader background checks on gun sales.
“It brings you back to Square A when you see something like what happened at the Navy Yard,” Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed in the Sikh temple shootings in Oak Creek, Wis., last year, told a local television station. “You just start to unravel at your core because everything you thought couldn’t happen is happening.”
The Navy Yard shootings came a week after much of the political media had run obituaries on gun-control efforts, given the recalls of two Colorado state senators who were ousted for having supported stricter gun laws.
“We can debate endlessly about gun issues, but frankly we might get nowhere on it,” says Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi.
But he says something has to be done about recognizing “patterns of violence” in people who might be mentally unstable and potentially capable of going on a murderous rampage. Scaffidi says he and other mayors of towns that have experienced massacres are working on a set of proposals that they hope to present soon to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“It’s disappointing and discouraging that a country with as many great minds as we have can’t lessen the impact of things like this,” he says.
Bringing It All Back
Scaffidi says memories of the immediate aftermath of the killings in his town come flooding back after an event like the Navy Yard shootings.
“Obviously, being in Sandy Hook, there’s heightened anxiety anytime there’s news about shooting,” says Candice Bohr, executive director of Newtown Youth and Family Services, a mental health center.
Phones there have been ringing pretty consistently this week, she says. But there’s nothing new about that. She notes that a number of teenagers have been killed recently in car accidents in the area.
“It could be anything,” Bohr says. “It’s not necessarily a mass shooting that triggers what people have anxiety about.”
‘Don’t Have The Answers’
Survivors of such events are, for the most part, remarkably resilient. Art McDonnell says he’s been able to create a “psychological safe zone,” a part of his brain where he stores his memories and locks them away.
McDonnell, who is the mayor of Kirkwood, Mo., was serving on the city council of the St. Louis suburb in 2008, when a gunman entered the chamber at City Hall and began firing, killing McDonnell’s predecessor, two colleagues on the council and three other individuals.
Almost any loud noise — a car crash, cannons shot off at historical reenactments — can bring back memories of the shooting Art McDonnell experienced.
“It does come forward when you have incidents like this,” McDonnell says. “It comes back to you like a quick flashback of everything that happened.”
McDonnell belongs to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, but he’s not convinced that even ridding the country entirely of guns would end this kind of violence.
“It’s not just the gun,” he says. “How do we find a way to reach these individuals who perpetrate these horrible crimes? I don’t have the answers. I wish I did.”
Danger Of Becoming Inured
There’s a danger of becoming inured. There have been so many mass shootings, McDonnell says, that there’s a risk individuals and the media will shrug them off, as they already do with car crashes and individual killings in large cities.
Anderson, the former Virginia Tech student, says every successive mass shooting is horrific, but also offers a call to renew her commitment to do something to address the problem.
In her case, she cofounded a company called LiveSafe, developers of a personal safety mobile app that allows people to interact directly with law enforcement agencies.
“It keeps happening and you see more people being traumatized,” she says. “History has shown if you push it away, it’s only going to keep happening.”