Many people remember where they were and what they were doing when the first reports came in about a deadly school shooting at Columbine High School located in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado on April 20, 1999. So many lives were impacted in monumental ways. Thirteen years later, we are again embroiled in the effort to strengthen our gun safety laws. For many in Colorado, April 20 began as a “regular” day. The taxes were finished and people knew spring was somewhere in the air. By late morning, however, a horror began to unfold as news reports were filling the airwaves about a school shooting at Columbine High School in a beautiful community on the west side of town.
Tom Mauser was in his office preparing for a trip to Pueblo, Colorado for a transit conference that day. Running on the late side, Mauser was about to leave for his brief trip when a coworker stepped into his office. The coworker asked about Tom living in south Jefferson County and whether he had teenaged children at Columbine? Mauser was urged to go to a conference room. Something was happening at Columbine High School. Mauser knew that employees watching news coverage was unheard of. He stood in disbelief as he saw helicopters and police at the school. Then he saw students fleeing the school and hearing that shots had been fired. Mauser’s first reaction was how could his fifteen-year-old son, a good kid who didn’t get in any trouble, be involved in a shooting? His son Daniel was one of two thousand students. As the school situation worsened, Mauser received a call from his wife, Linda—she had not heard from their son, Daniel.
Mauser began to hear the radio reports. One of the shooting victims, a fifteen–year-old male student had been taken to a local hospital. Tom Mauser felt a deep discomfort. Where was Daniel?
The frantic search included Leawood Elementary School, near Columbine, where updates were posted and there was a special “waiting room” for families looking for information about their children. The group was told that a bus would be coming from Columbine with students but after a painful thirty-minute wait, no bus came. Mauser overheard a teenager tell someone that there could be twenty-five students killed. How could this happen in our high school, Mauser asked himself? How could this be real?
At the Mauser home, concerned calls from family and friends poured in. A family friend who agreed to field law enforcement requests for the Mauser’s called to inform him that police needed a description of what Daniel was wearing. Then another call came asking for their son’s dental records. Mauser’s wife, Linda, took the second call. The anguish began as every bit of hope was disappearing. “We sent our son to school that morning, and here we were facing the prospect of having to identify his body,” Mauser says in his book, Walking in Daniel’s Shoes. “How could this be happening to us? Why couldn’t Daniel just show up and put an end to this horrific nightmare?”
A sheriff’s deputy came to the Mauser home at 11:00 p.m. the night of the shooting. There was no definitive news. The potential for additional bombs was making it difficult for authorities to do any type of quick building check. The deputy said law enforcement would be going through the school inch-by-inch and would get back to the Mauser’s in the morning. It would be an endless night for the parents wondering where their son was.
Friends gathered early in the Mauser family room the following morning for any word about Daniel. Late in the morning, a sheriff’s deputy and two victims’ advocates came to the house. It had been confirmed that Daniel was dead. “My son was dead,” Mauser said. “How the hell could he be dead? I just saw him the day before. All we did was send him to school. He was not a troublemaker or a drug user or a gang member. He was becoming so ready for the world and I was so unready for this.” The ultimate parental nightmare had begun.
Shock and disbelief marked the memorials and burial of Daniel Conner Mauser and the other Columbine murder victims. In the aftermath, the world and the country reacted. A massive outreach from around the world came in the form of sympathy cards, teddy bears, angels, crucifixes and other objects sent with care and empathy. Memorials sprung up immediately with eight-foot crosses on the crest of a hill in Clement Park, near Columbine High School. The aftershocks were many and often long lasting.
Nagging questions would not go away for Tom Mauser. How were the weapons used accessible to teenaged boys—along with 99 explosives and four knives? How could teenagers get their hands on the following weapons which were used in the Columbine massacre: Intratec TEC-DC9, Hi-Point 995 Carbine, Savage 67H pump-action shotgun and a Stevens 311D double-barreled sawed-off shotgun? Mauser learned that the guns were purchased through friends of the two killers. It was an illegal transaction involving a semi-automatic handgun sold to minors through an intermediary. Three of the guns found their way into the seventeen-year-olds’ hands via a friend and an unlicensed dealer at a local gun show. And, the day before the massacre, one of the shooters picked up 100 rounds of ammunition, which had been purchased by a third-party at a K-Mart store for $25.
Two weeks prior to the shooting, fifteen-year-old Daniel Mauser talked about the loopholes in the Brady Bill with his father. Tom Mauser remembered the conversation well and felt compelled to speak out at a rally during an NRA convention in Denver held not long after the Columbine killings. And, almost overnight, Mauser became a new voice for those seeking reasonable gun laws. Becoming an advocate over a contentious issue would change his life in profound ways.
There were serious questions and much reflection by Mauser about his involvement in the gun control cause. Mauser knew the difficulty in changing laws and attitudes overnight. The middle manager for a state agency who could deliver entertaining presentations, majored in political science and was an avid follower of current events, stepped into the world of media coverage with its scrutiny and the highly charged issue of gun control.
In 2000, Mauser worked for SAFE Colorado, a group that advocated for increased regulation of firearms, as the director of governmental affairs. In the early days, many of the pro-gun bills were approved by the NRA-friendly legislature. However, one bill sparked heated debates—the gun show loophole bill.
Gun dealers, manufacturers and those who import firearms are required to obtain a Federal Firearms License (FFL). A dealer is described as anyone who is “engaged in the business of selling firearms at wholesale or retail.” This relates to gun dealers who are considered operating in this field as their livelihood. For those who make only occasional gun sales or may sell from a private collection, FFLs are not required. This loophole means that “prohibited purchasers” are still able to buy a gun from a private seller, and while it is illegal, these “private sales” are tolerated because they do not require background checks and therefore the private seller has no way of knowing whether the buyer is a “prohibited purchaser.”
The effort to close the loophole failed in 2000. That same year, Mauser and other gun safety advocates turned to another path—the citizens’ initiative. The language and legal guidelines needed to be structured in specific ways and the wording required the approval of a legislative committee. Following the legislative committee consent, the language would be placed on petitions, which needed to be signed by a certain percentage of eligible voters in order for the initiative to be placed on a ballot. The legal team, the SAFE Colorado board and the many volunteers moved ahead with the strategic development of the ballot initiative, known as Amendment 22.
The drafted ballot initiative was similar to the gun show loophole bill that failed in the legislature, but this time the language was slightly stronger. After getting the needed signatures and after tallying the petitions, 110,000 signatures were gathered, more than enough to overcome gun lobby challenges and about 62,000 more than were needed to get onto the ballot. And on August 2, 2000, SAFE members and volunteers gathered on the steps of the state capitol, where Tom Mauser, who at times wore his son’s shoes, spoke to the group before walking to the Secretary of State’s Office to present the signed petitions.
The opposition was fierce! But, Mauser told supporters to remain positive about what could be done to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands. Wanting to prevent further tragedies was not an “emotional, knee jerk reaction,” Mauser said.
Opponents expressed sympathy to Tom Mauser but would follow up with statements such as “We cannot allow our sympathy for Columbine to guide our public policy. We feel for these victims. We understand Mr. Mauser’s pain. But no law will bring back Mr. Mauser’s son, and no law would have changed what happened that terrible day at Columbine.”
Mauser responded, “I was not engaged in this debate to bring Daniel back. It was too late to undo Columbine. I simply wanted to prevent another tragic shooting by ensuring guns were not easily available to a child or criminal.”
Closing the gun show loophole was now up to the citizens of Colorado. Many major newspapers in the state endorsed Amendment 22, as did four living former governors, including two Democrats and two Republicans. Senator John McCain agreed to tape two television commercials in support of Amendment 22 and Americans for Gun Safety arranged and paid for the commercials. McCain said during the commercials, “I’m John McCain with some straight talk. I believe law-abiding citizens have the right to own guns, but with rights come responsibilities.” Amendment 22 passed with a 70 percent “yes” vote in Colorado and a similar citizens’ initiative to close the gun show loophole passed in Oregon by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.
As a speaker at an election night party Mauser summed up his role in passing Amendment 22 by telling the crowd that someone mistakenly thought he was the founder and brains behind SAFE Colorado. “No, really what I have done is provide a face for this movement, the face of a victim of gun violence. I’ve provided a soft, reasonable voice that matches and complements this common-sense amendment. And I provided a story—it’s Daniel’s story—a story that makes people realize that we are all victims of gun violence,” he said. “And we are all capable of doing something about it. And we did so tonight.”
Today, Tom Mauser is a national figure on gun safety efforts. He is on the board of SAFE Colorado and a board member of CeaseFire Colorado, the primary gun control lobbying organization in Colorado. He has appeared on many national news programs and was introduced by President Bill Clinton at a State of the Union speech.
Much has happened within our country since the Columbine Massacre more than thirteen years ago. Mauser continues in the effort to promote reasonable gun safety laws. Just after the Aurora shootings Huffington Post asked about the theater massacre that took place only miles from Columbine. Mauser responded, “How many of these do we have to endure before we say this is enough?”
Advocacy, particularly on a public level, brings with it the risk of backlash, and Mauser has certainly been the target of insults, mean-spirited messages, and the dishonoring of his slain son, Daniel. One such message read in part; “Tommy boy; You’d better watch out, you better not cry because the ____is coming for you. Maybe not your house, maybe your office, maybe a smear campaign.” There were other incidents laced with rudeness and hostility. Some accused Mauser of capitalizing on the Columbine tragedy to promote a personal gun control agenda. He has heard the harsh rhetoric and endured the incivility and taunting from some extreme gun activists. Mauser, however, is a man with a message consistently reminding his audiences that he speaks for common sense gun laws.
“We’ve seen mass shootings in just about any place you can imagine: movie theaters, bars, nursing homes, schools,” he said to the Huffington Post. “People see cases like this and say, it’s really terrible but let’s not change our gun laws.”
He recently spent time in Newtown, Connecticut, site of the Sandy Hook massacre of grade school children, teachers, a social worker and the school principal. “I went to Newtown to be there for the kickoff of a new organization, Sandy Hook Promise, which is dedicated to addressing the causes of gun violence, and also to give comfort and support to the parents and families of the victims.” Mauser recently said.
The Sandy Hook school massacre of young first graders and staff members has given rise to more concern about gun safety. What will be the result of gun safety efforts after this tragedy? Is there a cultural shift taking place toward reasonable gun safety efforts?
“I see a cultural shift occurring, particularly among young people and among gun owners, who recognize they have the freedom to get a gun for protection but wonder why there aren't more steps in place to keep them from dangerous people and why some people feel the need to have assault weapons and huge caches of firearms,” Mauser said.
The journey from grieving parent to an advocate for gun safety laws continues for Tom Mauser and his family. “It's been an ongoing healing process for us, as it is with any parent who loses a child needlessly, and it's been made more difficult by being part of such a high profile tragedy, and one that gets aggravated with news stories of other tragic shootings. Our faith in God and our adoption of a baby from China 12 years ago has certainly helped us greatly in our healing process,” he said.
But, Tom Mauser, who still often walks in Daniel’s shoes, will not shrink as the conflict over gun safety in the United States goes on. He proclaims, “We've been meeting with our partner organizations in the gun control movement to strategize how we'll prioritize the gun control bills being introduced in the legislature and fight the many, awful pro-gun bills flooding the legislature.”
Tom Mauser is the author of Walking in Daniel’s Shoes. It is about his journey as an advocate who literally wears the shoes his son had on when he died as he speaks and/or attends special events and anniversaries. The book can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Walking-Daniels-Shoes-Tom-Mauser/dp/0985302119.
Judith B. (Judy) Taylor is president of Leading Edge Advisers, a consulting company focused on reaching women consumers. She is a former educator, publisher and has been a successful professional practitioner in the women’s market for over twenty-five years. She can be reached at email@example.com.