Health & Family

These women lost family members in the Capital Gazette shooting. Now they’re leading the fight against gun violence

The gun rights activist continued talking, past the timer signaling the end of his allotted two minutes and over polite interjections from members of the Anne Arundel Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

Andrea Chamblee, a vice-chair of the task force, raised her voice: "Your time is up," she declared.

Chamblee has had enough. Enough of what she views as lax laws and a too-powerful gun lobby, enough of city after city joining a uniquely American landscape of bloodshed: Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Las Vegas, Newtown ...

And Annapolis.

Since her husband, reporter and editor John McNamara, was killed along with four co-workers in the Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018, Chamblee has emerged as an outspoken activist in the anti-gun violence movement.

She has tangled with legislators who fail to tighten firearms laws, gun rights supporters who she says have doxxed and harassed her and pretty much anyone who doesn't see the urgency of her cause.

"You had your chance to save my husband, and you blew it," she says to the world at large. "Now I want to save your husband, your parent, your child."

She has been joined by other women who lost loved ones in the shooting at the Capital, which is owned by Baltimore Sun Media. Among them are Maria Hiaasen, the widow of Rob Hiaasen, an editor and columnist, and Summerleigh Geimer, a daughter of Wendi Winters, a community reporter and editor. Also killed were editorial writer Gerald Fischman and advertising sales assistant Rebecca Smith.

The women have formed a special, protective sisterhood, borne of shared experience and bound by their resolve.

"We are forever united, like it or not, by what happened for the rest of our lives," said Maria Hiaasen.

FAMILIES BAND TOGETHER

It has become an all-too-familiar sequence of events: A gunman storms a school, place of worship, workplace, store, nightclub, fill-in-the-blank. He – and it almost always is a he – fires off round after round, killing multiple innocents before he is stopped. Cue the shock, despair, professions of thoughts and prayers and, ultimately, the need of those who are left bereft to channel their loss into action.

Family members of victims have become increasingly vocal in recent years, speaking out, organizing marches and seeking tighter laws to address gun violence, said Kristin A. Goss, a Duke University professor of public policy and political science who has researched the gun control movement.

In the past, gun control groups didn't necessarily seek out grieving family members, or vice versa, but beginning with the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007, that began to change, she said.

"The families banded together," Goss said, "and they had some victories."

Their efforts helped propel Congress to pass and President George W. Bush to sign into law stricter requirements for states to report mental health data to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Goss said women have a long history of agitating for social reform, dating to the 19th century when they took on alcohol, smoking and other health issues. The gun control movement, particularly as it came to focus on child and family safety, often took on a maternal cast, she said.

Some of the most visible leaders have been women, such as the late Sarah Brady, whose husband Jim was partially paralyzed in the assassination attempt of President Reagan in 1981; Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman shot and injured at a constituent event in Arizona in 2011; and Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mother and former communications executive who formed Moms Demand Action in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

"Historically, and this is looking back over the decades, the grassroots energy has been female," she said.

The movement, sadly, gains new interest and participation with each shooting, she said.

"It's Groundhog Day," Goss said.

"Each mass shooting creates a single network, and then they become part of a larger network," Goss said. "They connect with each other. People connect across these tragedies."

According to a spokeswoman, the Everytown Survivor Network, open to those who have witnessed or lost someone to gun violence, now has about 1,500 members.

'IT'S ABOUT CHANGING LAWS'

For Summerleigh Geimer, the cause of gun control chose her, rather than the other way around. But her mother had been well aware of the issue, Geimer said, having previously lost friends to gun violence and fearing it herself to the point that she took an active shooter training class at her church.

Such classes generally advise running or hiding if you can, fighting back if you can't, and indeed, survivors say Winters learned the lesson well: She grabbed trash and recycling bins and charged the gunman, yelling, "No!"

"She died confronting her fears," Geimer said.

Geimer and her three siblings have spoken out at events, and she has been in contact with a local affiliate of March for Our Lives. The group was started by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after the mass shooting there last year.

It frustrates her that mass shootings have not prompted change as quickly as other devastating events.

"After 9/11, (security at) airports immediately started being incredibly tight, and people were OK with that," she said. "But you have hundreds of mass shootings, and people are, 'Regulate this? No thank you, we're not willing to undergo a background check to buy a gun.'

"It's infuriating," Geimer said.

She hopes to find more time to devote to the cause, having recently given up an office job to complete a degree at Anne Arundel Community College and then, hopefully, go to nursing school.

In the meantime, she'll talk about the issue, even if she finds herself getting into "altercations" with those who disagree with her on gun control.

"I honestly feel some people, if they already have political beliefs, it's hard to change," she said. "It's not about changing people's minds. It's about changing laws."

'A HUGE PART OF MY PURPOSE'

Maria Hiaasen had previously supported gun control, although her activism largely revolved around other issues, first among them the environment. Then "this life-changing event" befell her and she felt the need to do whatever she could to address firearms law.

"It's a huge part of my purpose," she said, "in what remains of my life."

A former radio broadcaster turned high school English teacher, she uses her public speaking skills to share the story of losing her husband of 33 years in the hopes that it will prompt listeners to action.

"It's storytelling. People gravitate toward stories," she said. "They empathize, they get angry, they take a step."

Maria, also a vice-chair of the Arundel task force, rejects the conventional wisdom that despite repeated mass shootings, nothing ever changes.

She'll point to how, after Sandy Hook, Maryland banned assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. And she'll note that states including Maryland have passed "red flag" laws that allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person whom a judge declares a danger to himself or others.

In the current "perfect storm" of political divisiveness, she said, even limited advances should be celebrated.

"Raising awareness," Hiaasen said, "is nothing to sneeze at as an accomplishment."

'MORE DETERMINED THAN EVER'

In the last Maryland General Assembly session, Chamblee testified on behalf of a bill requiring background checks for private sales of rifles and shotguns, rather than only for transactions that go through a licensed firearms dealer. But legislators couldn't reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, so it failed to pass.

"I was disappointed, but I'm more determined than ever," Chamblee said. "I'm going to be back next session. I'm going to shame anyone who doesn't support the legislation."

Gun rights activists call the Arundel gun violence prevention group a "task farce," and say it fails to include in its ranks those who reflect their views. Gun rights advocates have argued that officials need to focus on mental health and other possible underlying roots of crime, and allow more "good guys" to legally carry firearms to protect against mass shootings. As one activist said during the public comment period of a task force meeting this summer, "More gun control is not the answer."

Chamblee views the issue broadly, allying herself with those who have lost loved ones to suicide and homicide, and believes they all deserve more from their lawmakers.

"I have to question the motives of those fighting background checks, red flag laws, safe storage laws," she said. "I question their commitment to human life. These are not radical. These are things that we should have been doing anyway."

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