Jessi Ghawi was in a theater, waiting to watch the latest Batman movie. It was late, a midnight show, so she texted her mom, Sandy: “Get some sleep mom. I’m really excited for you to come visit. Need my mama.” Sandy texted back, “Need my baby girl!”
Jessi was 24.
The shooter had called a shooting range days before and left a voicemail message; he sounded so deranged the owner told his clerk, Don’t call him back. But even though he was crazy, he was able to walk into a gun store and buy an assault weapon, then buy a semiautomatic handgun from another store, then buy another handgun and a shotgun. And he didn’t even need to interact with people to amass the rest of his arsenal. On the Internet, at the click of a mouse, he was able to order body armor, tear gas cannisters, a 100 round ammunition magazine drum, and over 6,000 rounds of ammunition, enough to launch a military assault.
Which is what he did.
Later that night Sandy’s husband, Lonnie, heard the scream. It came from downstairs, and it was night, so he did what he thought he needed to do to defend his family; he grabbed his gun. Walked downstairs. Saw Sandy, holding the phone, screaming, crying. He put the gun down and went to his wife.
There were 80 other such scenes that night; parents, children, brothers, sisters getting the news that their loved one was among the 12 killed, or the 70 wounded in the mass shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.
Every year in America 100,000 men, women, and children are shot, over 32,000 fatally. No other modern industrialized country has gun violence rates remotely close.
The problem is not that America does not recognize the most basic human right -- the right to live; along with countries from Mexico to Egypt, the U.S. voted for the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights which acknowledges that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The problem is that when it comes to guns, the United States does not do what every other industrialized country does; we don’t protect Americans from gun violence by reasonably regulating guns, so that dangerous people can’t get them.
America allows unlicensed sellers to sell guns, no questions asked – so criminals, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill can buy guns without a background check.
America does not regulate the safety of firearms – so guns, alone among consumer products, can be sold without feasible, life-saving safety features.
America allows people to buy 20, 50, 100 or more guns at a time, without limit – so gun traffickers can buy bulk, then supply the criminal market.
America allows civilians to buy military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – so mass killers, like the one who killed Jessi Ghawi and shot 81 others in the Aurora theater that night, can shoot 40 people in a minute.
America even provides gun companies with unique immunity from negligence liability – so some “bad apple” gun dealers, the irresponsible 5% of dealers who supply about 90% of all crime guns, can profit off of dangerous business practices without having to worry about ever paying for the consequences of their negligence -- like when innocent people like Jessi Ghawi are killed.
I had the honor of representing Jessi’s parents, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips. I’ve represented countless other families whose loved ones were injured or killed by preventable gun violence.
A seven year old boy killed with a gun sold to a felon. A mom killed with a gun sold online to her abusive husband. A husband killed with a gun sold to a paranoid schizophrenic. Two police officers shot with a gun sold to a straw purchaser.
Each of these Americans was deprived of their most fundamental human right by a combination of callously weak laws, and irresponsible gun sellers who exploited them to make a profit. The lawsuits I brought on their behalf argued, simply, that companies that sell lethal, restricted weapons have a duty to use reasonable care to prevent dangerous people from obtaining those guns, and killing innocent people with them.
Though none of these lawsuits could undo the damage done by these sellers who placed profits over people, many brought families the justice that the law can provide. A widow got $2.2 million. A jury awarded the officers $5.7 million. Some gun companies agreed to change their sales practices for the better.
But the special protections that Congress has given the worst actors in the gun industry shield many from accountability, and make victims of gun industry negligence second-class citizens. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips had their case thrown out because, the judge held, the online ammo sellers that armed a crazed killer with an arsenal, sight unseen, no questions asked, were immunized from negligence liability. And the judge then ordered the Phillipses to pay the lawyers of those merchants over $200,000 in attorneys’ fees.
According to the incoming President and Vice President, this is all just fine. Trump and Pence express great concern over the rights of Americans, but their focus is the right to keep and bear arms, which they read far more broadly than any court ever has. The rights of Americans like Jessica Ghawi to watch a movie without losing their lives? The rights of Sandy and Lonnie Phillips to enjoy the company of their daughter, or to seek justice against those who profited off her killer? Not so much.
Through their tears, despite their defeats, Sandy, Lonnie, and many other victims of gun violence continue to fight for the human rights of those who have been spared tragedies like theirs. So must we all, especially in the coming years. Life, and our humanity, depend on it.
- Jonathan Lowy. I have represented victims of gun violence for the past 19 years at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project.