From Bullet to Bullhorn
by Lois Schaffer
Columbine, Tucson, Newtown, Charleston, Roanoke. Every time we hear about random acts of gun violence we are distressed—and yet, detached. We think, or like to believe, “This could never happen to me.”
But in my case, it did. On December 16, 2008, my beloved daughter Susan, 48, was murdered by burglars in possession of a stolen handgun.
How does a parent survive the death of a child? How does anyone make meaning out of total meaninglessness? I could do nothing to bring my Susie back. But as I came to see, there was a great deal I could do: I could keep her memory alive, honor her, inspire others in Jewish acts of social justice, and maybe even prevent future tragedies such as the one our family experienced.
Everyone called her Susie. Her personality was a mix of sensitivity and grit, compassion and passion. She was on the high school swim team and ran two marathons. She took classes at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York and fell in love with the artistry of movement. She was always on the go, body and mouth. Her sixth-grade teacher wrote on her report card: “l keep her extra busy, so she won’t have time to talk.”
In later years she became certified in Gyrotonic, a training modality founded on principles of yoga, dance, tai chi, and swimming. A year before her death, Susie finally realized her dream of opening her own Gyrotonic studio in St. Louis, Missouri. She was also an attentive single mother of three and a caring volunteer who read to nursing home residents.
One cold December day, Susie came home after teaching and grocery shopping, deep in conversation with her oldest daughter, Rachel, 23, a paralegal living in New York. Susie was alone in the house, or so she thought; her other children, Daniel, 17, and Sarah, 15, were in school.
Suddenly, Rachel heard strange noises. She lost the phone connection.
A little while later, Daniel found his mother lying in a pool of blood. The paramedics could not revive her.
Our tragedy felt surreal, like a nightmare. We tried hard to be outwardly calm and just do what we had to do. Rachel, my husband, David, our son, Eric, and I flew from New York to St. Louis. We stayed at a friend’s home, which overflowed with people who loved Susie. We decided that Susie’s ex-husband, Peter, and his second wife would best care for Susie’s teenage children, Sarah and Daniel. They lived nearby in St. Louis, so the kids could continue their lives as normally as one could hope for under the circumstances.
The police told us two 17-year-olds had broken into Susie’s home. When the one with a stolen handgun spotted Susie, he shot her three times. (Both were tried and pled guilty. The shooter was sentenced to 60 years and the non-shooter to 20. Both may become eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of their sentences.)
We held the funeral back in New York, at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, where Susie had grown up. Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson’s eulogy was about solace and hope. But my sadness was overwhelming, an infinite void I felt could never be filled. What was I going to do?
My thoughts turned to our friends Bette and Frank Phillips, who had lost a daughter to cancer. They were also social activists: protesting the Vietnam War, marching in Mississippi for civil rights. Caring and positive people, they lived with their tragedy in part by continually putting themselves out there for others.
I decided I would emulate them by deepening my nascent political activism. In doing so, I would uphold fundamental Jewish teachings and traditions: tikkun olam and strength at times of adversity. And, just maybe, I might find a measure of tikkun regshey v’ruchani — emotional and spiritual repair.
Two months before Susie died, my assemblywoman, Michelle Schimel, had asked me to help drum up support to for the microstamping bill she’d co-authored with then-state senator Eric Schneiderman. The bill would mandate a laser-imprinted coding on the inside of a gun, so it could be traced if shells were recovered after a shooting.
At the time, I turned her down. But I was ready now. I became a member of the gun safety advocacy group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. I ended up speaking in Albany on Lobby Day, an annual event when concerned citizens and students throughout the state can advocate for pressing issues in front of their legislative representatives. I saw then that my journey to Albany was essential—not only to speak for myself, but for people like me. I had to work for change.
Months earlier, I had decided to write a personal note to each person who had sent me a condolence letter. It took me more than three months to respond to 600 letters and donations in Susie’s memory. This process was healing. It seemed to keep Susie alive.
After my letters were complete, I decided to write a book — a vehicle to tell a personal story about gun violence. Instead of a statistic, I’d make Susie a human face of gun violence, and create real social impact. Four years later, on the anniversary of Susie’s death, Brown Publishing Group released The Unthinkable: Life, Loss, and a Mother’s Mission to Ban Illegal Guns.
The book became a platform for me to speak, just as shootings seemed to begin dominating the news. Local newspapers, radio and television stations interviewed me. I joined panel discussions and spoke at schools, libraries, women’s groups, senior centers, political organizations, at-risk children’s groups, synagogues, and churches. I talked about political and legislative ways to address the essential culprit of gun violence— the easy accessibility of guns. But I always emphasized human issues. I always spoke of Susie.
Speaking at my synagogue, I likened activism on behalf of sensible gun legislation to what God expects of us. Pirkei Avot 1:2 says: “The world rests upon three things, Torah [study], avodah [worship, service], and gemilut chasadim [deeds of lovingkindness].” Leviticus 19:16 explains what God considers acts of lovingkindness: “…Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”
Today, I am gratified to be a member of Reach Out America, a Nassau County-based nonprofit organization striving to enact change on critical issues such as health care, the environment, separation of church and state, election reform and, of course, gun violence.
I’m deeply saddened by how shootings have become almost a daily norm, and challenged by the increasingly formidable task of passing sensible gun legislation. The sweeping national changes many people believed would follow Sandy Hook did not happen. The National Rifle Association wields enormous political power, sustained by a vast membership and financial support from gun manufacturers. In the 2014 midterm elections, gun control candidates were crushed nationwide. As for New York’s microstamping bill, it has passed in the Assembly but not yet cleared the Senate.
While there have been some important victories — including the extension of background check requirements in some states — so much more needs to be done. At the very least, every concerned citizen should reach out to his/her legislative representatives and advocate for gun background checks until they are instituted in all 50 states.
I am working hard to make this happen—infinitely harder than I could ever have imagined, because I am speaking for Susie, too. She loved people and was passionate about helping them to live healthfully and fully. If she were alive, my firecracker daughter would be right by my side.
Lois Schaffer is a political activist, a member of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York, and author of The Unthinkable: Life, Loss, and a Mother’s Mission to Ban Illegal Guns (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2013).