Survivors reflect on their trauma as they push for changes to WA gun laws

Feb 5, 2021, 12:55 PM | Updated: Feb 8, 2021, 8:26 am
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Students at Roosevelt High School take part in a protest against gun violence Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)
(AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

Zach Elmore will never forget the night of Oct. 1, 2017.

“My phone rang. It was my sister, Kaitlyn. I answered, and I couldn’t hear anything. So I hung up, I tried to call her, we connected, but I couldn’t hear anything — this happened five, six, seven times over the course of 10 minutes,” Elmore recalled.

He knew something was wrong.

“It was 10:21 p.m. That number is in my head. The whole time my gut is sinking, because we’re close enough as a family but we do more texting than we do calling, and we certainly are not calling at 10, 10:30 p.m.,” he remembered thinking at the time.

“Finally, she video called me through Facebook Messenger and that worked for some unknown reason and she was sobbing, and couldn’t breathe, just really, really, really, really freaking out. Finally, Kaitlyn finally was able to say, ‘Alicia was shot in Las Vegas,’ and I was like, Oh my gosh, yes, they went to the Harvest Festival. So of course, my heart, I’m fighting a lump in my own [throat], basically trying to figure out how I’m going to console my sister that I’m on the phone with,” Elmore said.

Hundreds weigh in on WA bills to limit high capacity magazines, open carry

Like many others at the packed Harvest Festival that fateful night, Elmore’s other sister, Alicia, and her husband first thought what they heard was fireworks as they enjoyed the show. Eventually, the North Bend couple realized it wasn’t fireworks, got low, and when there was a break in the gunfire, tried to run.

That’s when Alicia was shot in the back.

“I told her very plainly, if she were going to die, she would probably already be dead, and that’s really all I could think to say. I knew she was shot in the back. I didn’t know exactly where. But I figured if she was going to bleed out, that’s how it was going to happen,” he recalled.

Alicia survived, but a man just next to the couple did not, along with nearly 60 others who died that night, and more than 500 injured when a man fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition from his 32nd floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel at the crowd at the music festival.

Elmore was angry as he sat next to Alicia’s hospital bed, and started jotting down the things running through his mind, eventually sharing them on social media and in an interview with KIRO 7 TV not long after the shooting.

That eventually led to him getting involved with the local chapter of Everytown for Gun Safety group born out of the Sandy Hook shooting, pushing for stronger laws to keep anyone from having to experience what his family and many others who have lost loved ones to gun violence have been through.

Elmore got an early win when he testified in support of banning bump stocks in Washington state, which passed in 2018. Now, he is back supporting new legislation this session that would ban so-called high capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

“You could talk about legislation until you’re blue in the face, but there are some things that even if that one person was able to acquire so many things, maybe you think about finding ways to limit the ability to do that damage,” said Elmore, pointing to the large capacity magazines that allowed the man who shot his sister to fire 1,000 rounds into a crowd.

“I think high capacity magazines are one of those ways where, say he had to reload 20 or 30 times instead of as frequently as he had to — does that give somebody time to get a little further, or to get out of the range of gunfire, or to just be in a different spot where a bullet might not have hit them?” he asked.

Among other things, those opposed to the bill argue most standard capacity magazines hold more than 10 rounds and this bill would impact their ability to defend themselves.

Read full coverage the policy debate on the proposed gun legislation here

Sabrina Bates’ experience with gun violence came more than 30 years ago.

“When I was 18, an unknown neighbor was able to stockpile a large amount of weapons and ammunition, and then in the midst of a mental health crisis, he started to believe that the woman that lived upstairs from him was spying on him. One day, he had a break and ran out in the street and gunned her down,” she recalled.

“My father heard these gunshots and ran out and tried to see what was happening, basically crossed paths with him, he ended up being shot nine times with an AK-47,” Bates continued.

It was tough on her as the only child left at home, who now not only lost her dad, but felt compelled to take care of her now-widowed mother.

“To go from having grown up in a very traditional family, having family dinners together every single night, to then having been told that your father was shot several times, it made absolutely no sense to me,” she explained.

“Had somebody said, ‘Oh, he was in a car accident,’ that was something that I couldn’t wrap my brain around. But the fact that there was even somebody living in our neighborhood with that amount of weaponry was shocking,” she said.

It was difficult moving forward, but her own real trauma manifested years later.

“I always had manageable anxiety. But it really wasn’t until after we got married, and my husband traveled, that I ended up having a panic attacks that ended up putting me in a place where I needed support,” Bates said. “I would often get in the car to go someplace and freeze and break down, and he would have to leave work and come home and get me out of the car, and so that’s another kind of lasting effect of this kind of trauma — you don’t really always know when it’s going to rear its ugly head.”

Watching more people die from gun violence also hits her hard.

“It’s unbelievable to me. The amount of anxiety that it produces is unbelievable. The fear is that I personally don’t know if somebody is being a safe gun owner. So there’s always that fear,” she detailed. “I have been going to protests and things of that nature, where there has definitely been a buildup, an escalation of people using firearms as a tactic for intimidation, and it really is anxiety producing.”

That’s why she is supporting proposals in Olympia that would ban open carrying of firearms at protests.

While there is significant support for both that and the high capacity magazines proposal, there has also been significant pushback, especially from those who feel that not being able to open carry at protests will impact their ability to protect themselves against violence.

“When do we draw the line? What is intimidation? It’s subjective. I’m a person of color. I wasn’t intimidated. But I go downtown, I see another group that’s carrying bats and saying something very objective about other things. I was intimidated. They didn’t have any firearms, but I was intimidated,” one man testified at a recent committee hearing on one of the open carry bills.

“On Oct. 29, 2020, Clark County deputies shot and killed a young Black man three blocks from my business. Hours passed and the protesters marched assaulting people, setting fires, smashing windows and trapping bystanders in their violent configuration,” another man testified.

“Eight of us stood guard outside of our business with zero police presence. Two thousand firearms stood behind steel cages and concrete walls, violence everywhere. This went on for weeks. Each night we prepared for the worst. When violent protests arrived at my doorstep, this law would criminalize us for defending our property, and honestly for defending the lives of many others if my location was to be breached,” he continued.

Opposition does not change anything for Elmore.

“I’m not anti-gun. It’s really no skin off my nose if somebody wants to own a gun or not — that doesn’t bother me. I think there’s a reason we call these things ‘common sense legislation,’” he said.

“I understand that mass shootings are not the number one cause of death with gun violence by any means,” he noted. “But they happen, and the things that are used to carry them out are things that we could be trying to legislate, that’s where my thought process is when it comes to really any legislation that comes into play, is will this potentially help reduce the number of deaths in a shooting scenario? And if that answer is yes, it seems like it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Open carry, high capacity mags top WA gun safety group’s agenda

He and Bates both say this work and their connection with a group known as Moms Demand Action is also about healing.

“It’s the family you wish you’d never have joined, right? You know each other for the worst possible reason. But it also allows for very real emotional conversation, and people who can understand with extreme empathy the emotions that you’re feeling,” Elmore said.

It’s that type of connection survivors say they need, as they advocate for changes they hope can save even one life and help them work through their trauma, whether it’s decades old or fresh in someone’s mind. That connection is also part of the reason for National Gun Violence Survivors Week, now in its third year.

“If there’s one other hope I have about the times that I shared my story, and even talking to you, it’s that there are a lot of people who have been impacted that may never talk about it. I at least hope they know that there are people in our own state who are willing to be part of that support system,” Elmore said.

“It’s not a fight that anybody should have to go through alone,” he added.

You can find out more about the local Moms Demand Action Support group here.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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Survivors reflect on their trauma as they push for changes to WA gun laws