Being Brave and Persistent with Whitney/Strong-- A Guest Post from Development Director Tammy Schaff

As 2016 began, select individuals at the bank where I had built my career received early retirement information and I was one of those “lucky” people. I was initially annoyed; I wasn’t anywhere near retirement age, yet my tenure at the bank, coupled with my age/position, made me a candidate. The timing of this package, however, offered the thought of turning the page in my career book and having a completely fresh start; this was exciting. My one moment of pause was my team, as it’s always been about the people for me – how to lead, how to engage, what did I learn – and this particular team was one of my best. I remember receiving notice of my early retirement approval and needing to tell both my manager and my team.  Both were incredibly supportive and encouraging, once they got over the surprise of my news (and I was processing it as well – holy crap, what did I do – ha, ha), and made my last days of an almost 30-year career at the bank wonderful.

I woke up on April 1, 2016, as a “retiree” and not sure what to do with myself.  Whitney, who had been on my team for several years at the bank, gave me a card as I left the bank that included the words to the theme song from “St. Elmo’s Fire” written out as part of her message. She changed “man” to “woman” in the chorus, noting my next steps would continue to blaze a trail, and it was a perfect send-off.

“I can see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your (wo)man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where the future's lying St. Elmo's fire”

~ Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire (David Foster and John Parr)

As much as I didn’t think my day-to-day work defined me, I quickly realized I was struggling with how to think of myself and what my “new horizon” would / could be. I decided this change called for some self-care and used that summer to recharge and reignite myself. Non-profit work was at the top of my list and I spent time talking with friends about this potential next step. The timing wasn’t aligned, as that “right” fit was eluding me.

Late summer of 2016, the HR Director of a local Medicare company reached out on LinkedIn to ask about my interest in a seasonal role for fall. I interviewed and accepted the offer. At the end of 2017, this team delivered the strongest client retention numbers ever for Medicare’s Annual Enrollment Period. In 2018, the sales team was added to my responsibilities and I was named Chief Consumer Officer, working to ensure both the sales and service were elevating their skills, meeting goals and delivering a great Medicare experience. 

When the shooting occurred at Fifth Third in Cincinnati on September 6, 2018, and I learned that Whitney had been one of the victims, I knew she would be a catalyst in driving change so that what happened to her could be stopped from happening to others.  Whitney was always my “why” person and I knew this incident, while never something someone would want to happen, would be her driving “why” going forward.  Standing up Whitney/Strong two weeks after the shooting is illustrative of that drive and I knew great things were in store.

In February 2019, two friends and I spent the day in Louisville with Whitney enjoying lunch and learning more about her Whitney/Strong work.  She shared about a recent Washington, D.C. trip and the meetings with senators and congressman from both sides of the aisle on her three strategic priorities (her research supported that those very three were ones both Republicans and Democrats could agree on).  Finding a Director of Development was Whitney’s next role to fill and she was asking us for input and ideas.

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Our discussion resonated with me and I continued to percolate on it in the weeks after that day in Louisville. I don’t believe you can have someone like Whitney in your life and not be impacted; her shooting had left me wanting to take action. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Director of Development opportunity, knowing I’d be learning as I engaged in such a role; Whitney/Strong could be my non-profit engagement fueled by my passion to make a difference. I talked with Whitney in April and we agreed that I would join her.

As I shared my new role with a few close friends before going public, one of them told me I was “brave” and she was “proud” of my choice with Whitney/Strong.  How often do we hear something like that from people who we love and are influential in our lives?  I can tell you that particular conversation affirmed my decision as I took the leap of faith in leaving the corporate world for the second time.

Now, more than ever is our time at Whitney/Strong. With the mass shooting in Dayton, OH this past weekend, my hometown, the tragedy of gun violence has once again touched too close. Whitney/Strong is my St. Elmo’s Fire. My heart’s work is now trenched in development and fundraising to ensure a safe future for our children while holding elected officials accountable for changing our gun laws. Whitney texted me the morning of the Dayton shooting that we must be “brave and persistent.”  That truth is why I’m here.

The thing about being brave…it doesn’t come with the absence of fear and hurt. Bravery is the ability to look fear and hurt in the face and say move aside, you are in the way.”   – Melissa Tumino, blogger

"Your wife is a miracle"-- Whitney's Husband Waller's Account of the 9/6 Shooting That Changed Their Lives Forever

I hesitated to answer the call— I’d been up and down my eight-foot ladder a dozen times already this morning. My wife and I had just bought a house and moved in three weeks prior. Half of our things were still packed in moving boxes, filling the living space.

Moving sucks. We’ve been down this road many times. Whitney and I have been married for over thirteen years and owned a number of homes. Our lives together began in Louisville, Kentucky, but we moved to Chicago and St. Louis for my art education and graduate school after our two children were born.

Whitney had worked for Fifth Third Bank since before we met, and worked her way up to hold a crucial position as a product manager. Early in our relationship, I played the corporate life as banker too, but was bored and unhappy with the lifestyle and needed to make a significant change. Whitney’s income enabled me to pursue a mentally fulfilling yet predictably unprofitable career as an artist and educator.

After moving back to Louisville, it took me a year to find a job and I began teaching my first two courses at our local community college. So much was going on with the move and things needing to be accomplished around the house, our kids starting back to school, I was working on finishing artworks for a show opening at the end of the month, I had my new courses and students, Whitney was finalizing a project she had spent the past 18 months preparing. We were excited and enthusiastic, juggling so much with zero time to rest.

It was a warm and sunny Thursday morning, the first week of September. I was stoked because my 3D design class was having our first big critique. Whitney left for a drive up to Cincinnati for a day of meetings, which was a regular occurrence. Typically she’d leave on Wednesday morning, spend the night and return Thursday evening. We needed her help at home unpacking, so she agreed to only spend Thursdays at the headquarters so that we could get the house organized and into a normal routine.

She left just before the kids finished breakfast. They each asked her for an additional kiss as she went out the back door, so she stopped short to indulge them, and I got another kiss too. Then the kids and I were out the door a few minutes later. I dropped them off at school and went for my morning swim. Everything was perfect.

I returned home dreading to review all of the tasks Whitney had listed for me to complete earlier in the week. Her list prioritized security, garbage disposal, and laundry. Our property shares a fence with an apartment building so we chose to set up a few cameras behind the house. I knew the garbage disposal would be an undertaking requiring a solid day of work and at least three trips to the hardware store, so I’d push that off until the weekend.

I opted for the motion sensing / flood light security camera install as my first project for the day. I’d hoped to get it done this morning while it was slightly cooler outside, but it was already getting hot. I selected the ideal spot to mount the camera and jimmied the feet of the ladder precariously into a bed of smooth round creek rock. I climbed up to check the view, back down to grab the camera, and up to trace out the hole. Down again and back up now holding a hammer drill with a wide hole saw over my head. I began boring through stucco, wire lathe, and plywood.

My phone rings, lying on the ground a few steps away from the ladder. Committed to drilling smoky concrete and sawdust all over myself, I think ‘I’ll call ‘em back,’ but the saw still hasn’t made it all the way through the wall. I was looking for a break and climbed down, in favor of the diversion.

I blew the dust off the screen of my cell phone and recognized the area code, 513, as a Cincinnati number. Whitney always texts me to let me know when she’s arrived. Every so often she‘d realize that she’d forgotten to text and she would call from a Fifth Third tower number. I knew this wasn’t her because the next three digits of bank phone number didn’t match, so I was suspicious of the call.

When I put the phone to my ear I was confronted with the sound of police sirens, lots of sirens competing with one another. I thought ‘what the fuck is this?’ Then I thought about Whitney… Why hadn’t she texted? Was she in a wreck? Why wouldn’t she be calling me from her phone if she were in a wreck?

The male voice on the other end was short of breath, he says, “Is this Mr. Waller Austin?” I say “Yes,” and he introduces himself, “Mr. Waller, I am officer Al Staples with the Cincinnati Police Department..” I’m thinking oh no, it must have been a terrible car accident -why hasn’t she called?!

Then he says, “your wife Whitney has been involved in an active shooting and she has been shot multiple times in her chest.” I fucking lost it.

I think he continued to talk but I couldn’t hear anything.

What is multiple? Where in her chest? Is she alive? Is she breathing? Where has she been taken?

Then I hear Whitney. In a grimacing, pained voice, she says, “Can I talk to him?” I’m totally confused. Is she getting medical attention? How is she speaking after being shot multiple times in the chest? Will these be the last words I hear from her?

“Waller, I’ve been shot so many times and it hurts so bad but I am breathing okay and thinking logically. The ambulance is coming, just get up here!”

Officer Staples took the phone and said, “they’re taking her to UC (University of Cincinnati).”

I hung up. Ran and jumped in my car. I called my mom first, and she answered, “what’s wrong? what’s wrong? what’s wrong?” She knew it was something awful. It was so surreal I couldn’t begin to speak the words of what had happened, but I finally got it together enough to say what little information I had. The phone call with officer Staples lasted 90 seconds and that’s all I had.

Mom said, “I’ll ride with you. I’m on the way. Come pick me up! I’ll be waiting at the end of the driveway.”

Then I called the faculty head to let him know that I was going to miss class. Again, I couldn’t formulate a sentence or catch my breath. It took me a minute or two to get it out.

I dashed out of the house and jumped into my car. I called Whitney’s sister and then her mother, slowly becoming calmer as I relay the trauma— “I’ll see you in Cincinnati!”

I stopped at a red light, and made a Facebook post— “please stop what you are doing now and pray for my wife, thank you.”

I have never felt so helpless. But I raced. Ten minutes later, my mom had hopped in the passenger seat and we were on the highway. I called my children’s school to let them know what had happened and not to inform our kids of any details.

This is unbelievable. I was still frantic. Speeding 100 miles up the interstate to my dying wife who I feared may bleed out before I saw her again.

I kept repeating what had happened in my head now robotically. This was not right. Who would have shot her? A colleague? A customer? This just doesn’t make any sense. Why Whitney?

I was racing up the expressway I-71 with the speedometer hovering between 95 and 100 miles per hour. The radio was off, I didn’t want to hear a sound. I just focused on the road. As my mom prayed and pleaded for me not to kill us before we get to Whitney. I kept calling her cellphone which was going straight to voicemail. My friends and family were calling and texting me. 

Mom was scanning her news apps for updates:

Two confirmed dead. 

My heart sank. Please don’t be Whitney.

Then Mom pointed at her phone and said, “there’s Whitney’s foot.” I glanced at the image of a woman’s foot with red painted toenails partially covered by a white sheet below the headline, “Two Confirmed Dead at Fountain Square Shooting” and in immediate denial, I insisted, “No that’s not her foot.”

Time stood still for that ride, my mind has never raced and wandered in despair for such an extended period of time. I was so confused and scared but I had to stay positive and hopeful. I had the privilege of speaking to her and I was encouraged while dumbfounded by the strength in her voice after being shot several times in her chest.

I arrived at the hospital a little over an hour after I had received Officer Staples’ call. Police were everywhere and they had the entrances to the hospital blocked off. I hollered that my wife was shot at fountain square and an officer waved me through. 

Mom said, “Go! I’ll park the car.”

I jumped out and sprinted through security to the emergency room, “my wife was shot! I need to see my wife!”

She was in the surgical intensive care unit, and it took nearly ten minutes before I was able to get clearance to see her. They said she’s stable.

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A nurse walked me back to Whitney’s room where there were nearly twenty people around her. Her bed was soaked in blood, she had tubes going everywhere, and she had open wounds all over her body, but somehow she was glowing. Medicated and comfortable, she looked up at me and said, “hey baby.” I leaned over her and kissed her forehead.

One nurse squeezed my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “Your wife is a miracle. We concluded that she was shot twelve times and it seems at the moment that the bullets missed all of her major arteries and organs.” I nodded my head in total disbelief. Appalled by the circumstances but overjoyed by the prognosis, as the worst injuries were to her right arm, and the doctors anticipate a nearly complete recovery.

So that happened.

As Whitney rested, I sat by her side and we read about the other victims’ lives, family, and friends. We read about the shooter and the police officers who ended the rampage. We discussed the ridiculousness of our involvement and decided we had to take action. 

Our first two children were born in Louisville, Kentucky and are named after my family. Our third child was born that day in Cincinnati. We named it Whitney/Strong.

—Waller Austin

 

"I Thought I Was Dying": One Gun Violence Survivor's Story

Growing up in Louisville’s West End made me no stranger to gun violence. I remember times when I was sitting outside on the porch or maybe laying down in the house and all of a sudden, gunshots would ring out. As I got older, hearing gunshots started to become normal. This should NEVER be normal for anyone. I’ve had family and friends killed due to gun violence, but I never thought I would become an actual victim myself. However, this fantasy wouldn’t last.

On March 29, 2017, I entered a convenience store a little after 7:00 pm. It was one of Louisville’s nicer days which created an atmosphere for people to be outside. Before entering the store, I made a mistake that many of us have done-- I left my car running, thinking I would be in and out of the store relatively quickly. I was in the store for about 60 seconds or less, when I came back out, I was presented with a surprising situation. I noticed a guy in my driver’s seat attempting to pull away in my car. During this period of my life, I carried a gun regularly. So my initial reaction was to pull out my gun and stop the thief from taking what was rightfully mine;.  However, that didn’t happen. As I focused all of my attention on the guy inside of my car, I didn’t notice that there were three other people looking out for him over to my right side.

As soon as I pulled my gun out and cocked it back, the thief’s lookouts started shooting at me. I felt something pierce the right side of my chest and I instantly fell, landing on my back. In the process of falling, I dropped my gun, but it landed about two feet away from me. At this point, I was still hearing gunshots, but I didn’t know exactly where they were coming from. I picked up my gun and started shooting at my car as the guy was driving away. I hit my car multiple times, but luckily, I didn’t hit anything else.

Whitney Austin and Terrell Williams

Whitney Austin and Terrell Williams

The gunshots eventually stopped, and I believed it was all over. I attempted to get up off the ground and was stuck. In my head, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I was dying. In reality, the bullet went through my lung, hit my spine, and exited through my back. I was instantly paralyzed from the waist down. Yet, the surprises weren’t over.

As I’m wiggling my upper body trying to stand up, the gunfire returned. However, this time the shots were a lot closer and I could see the bullets bouncing off the ground all around me. The guy who was in my car wrecked on the sidewalk and decided he no longer wanted the car. What he did want to do was kill me.

As he exited the vehicle, he started walking down on me shooting several times. Out of the more than eight shots that he attempted to murder me with, only one hit me-- the last one. This bullet entered the right side of my neck and got stuck in the left side of my chin. At this point, I figured playing dead was my best option. I waited about 20 seconds before I would try to move again. When I did finally decide to move again, I immediately started praying. In my mind, I thought I had 30 seconds left until I would be dead. I repeatedly started saying, “God, please take care of me!”. Blessed, I didn’t die. In a sense, this was the start of a new life… MY new life.

Ever since that day, I’ve never been the same. I easily could’ve died on the concrete ground that day, but unlike many other gun violence victims-- I survived. I overcame. I knew right then that I couldn’t waste my second chance at life. Early on in my recovery phase I joined a program known as Pivot to Peace (PTP). With the help of PTP, I was able to develop a plan to stay safe, build conflict management skills, regain my ambition, and reintegrate back into my community. PTP is one of the main reasons I am on a path to success today.

It took me a while to find out exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be doing, but I eventually found a sense of direction. The number one cause of death for black males ages 15-34 is homicide. I almost became a part of this statistic. While homicides include multiple weapons, the majority of weapons used are firearms. We must prevent these unnecessary deaths. We must stop all types of gun violence. Gun violence affects a slew of people: directly and indirectly. I won’t be satisfied until we put an end to the devastating gun violence crisis in the U.S. 

Thank You for Joining!

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In the last week we’ve seen a big jump in website visits, social media follows, and emails as a result of the media blitz announcing my shift from the corporate world and into the non-profit one. It was a very big decision that required much thought and I’m grateful the news instigated new interest. This issue is so very complex, with tens if not hundreds of underlying causes, and I’m in need of all the support I can get.

If you are completely new to me and Whitney/Strong I’ll give you the elevator speech. I was unlucky enough to find myself in a mass shooting on 9/6/18 at my workplace in Cincinnati, Ohio. On the flip side, I was lucky enough to survive twelve bullets and return to my family in Louisville, Ky. I cannot turn my back on this issue that I’ve experienced so intimately and thus, founded Whitney/Strong to reduce gun deaths through responsible gun ownership.

I do believe we have a problem. Approximately 100 Americans a day are dying as a result of gun violence. Homicides are up. Firearm suicides are up. Mass shootings occur on a weekly basis. The problem is obvious. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in American culture that the very act of acknowledging the problem forces you into one political party or mindset.

At Whitney/Strong we will continue to fight the stereotypes. My board consists of gun owners and non-gun owners. Democrats and Republicans. We aren’t here to talk about whether guns are good or bad as this question is meant to divide us. We aren’t here to demonize the approximately four out of 10 U.S. adults who live in a gun-owning household. And we aren’t here to pin the problem solely on our country’s mentally ill as most are non-violent. You see, I could go on and on with the mistruths and dogmas you’ve been fed relative to this problem. I won’t though. It is the antithesis of what we stand for as we believe this problem requires critical thinking.

I do believe our Whitney/Strong approach is uniquely crafted to make progress. We spent nearly six months reviewing potential solutions before landing on three that met our criteria. And what were the criteria you ask? Simple: the solutions must be evidence-based, i.e. proven to be effective, and majority-supported. To learn more about those three solutions focused on enforcing the laws that exist, suicide prevention, and Extreme Risk Protection Orders, please click here

So I challenge you to break away from those dogmas. Get comfortable with acknowledging the problem and an organization that will fight to solve it in a unique way. Review our solutions and guiding principles to see if there’s anything there you can’t get behind.

I look forward to gaining your support. All human beings are worthy of life and your willingness to fight.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — The United States Declaration of Independence

Republican Gun Owner in Support of Whitney/Strong

My name is Lindsey and I am Whitney’s cousin. I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and I am a gun owner. I am also a board member and supporter of Whitney/Strong.  

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If you asked me 10 years ago about my political ideology, without hesitation I would have answered Republican. Today, unless you want to engage in a civil political discussion (does that exist anymore?), my answer would be the same. My ideology has changed a bit, but this is the short answer to a question that has a more complex response. I’m not one for labels, I don’t like to put people in boxes because of a perceived ideology. I think society does this too often and too quickly today. I support the Second Amendment, responsible gun ownership, ending gun violence, and advocating for effective legislation that accomplishes that - for example, The Fix Nics Act

The other day I was listening to an old episode of my favorite crime podcast, Sword and Scale. It was a detailed account of a 2012 school shooting in Chardon Ohio. At the end of the episode, the host stated "in 1999, the year that Columbine shocked the nation, there were another 5 school shootings. In 2015 there were at least 20, and the mass shooting trend doesn't appear to be slowing down." We have to figure out why this is happening and stop this madness. This is why I support Whitney/Strong.

It goes without saying, but responsible gun owners don’t want this to keep happening. We don’t want guns getting into the hands of people who should not have them. Supporters of the Second Amendment and gun reform advocates agree on this. This is why I support Whitney/Strong. 

After Whitney was released from the hospital, I came back to Louisville to help her recover and help the family. Before I even got to town, Whitney had already started to establish Whitney/Strong. This didn’t surprise me. I told her first she needed to rest and recover. She didn’t listen. My plan was to stay for a week and then head back to Chicago to my husband and my job. I stayed for almost a month. I watched Whitney as she answered everyone’s calls and texts of love and concern, she didn't leave one unanswered. (Thank goodness for talk-to-text!) I watched her pull herself together for tv interviews when she couldn’t even pull up her own pants. I watched her create a sense of normalcy for her family so her children's daily routine wouldn't be affected. I watched her work every waking moment on creating the W/S mission statement and start to outline what the strategic priorities of W/S would be. All while trying to recover from being shot 12 times. This is why I support Whitney/Strong. 

If you still don’t connect with any of the reasons why I support Whitney/Strong, I’ll give you one more. Not too long after I returned home, a friend, knowing my staunch Second Amendment views, and knowing that I was part of Whitney/Strong, asked how I was handling what she perceived to be two conflicting notions. I answered with this - I don't have all the answers. I still believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental one, but what I can tell you is, that morning, not knowing whether Whitney was alive or dead, what I felt, is indescribable. It's probably the worst feeling I have ever had in my entire life, and I don't want anyone else to ever have that feeling. 

As a gun owner, I feel that I have to speak up. We have to work together and find common ground to solve this problem. And I believe that with the leadership of Whitney and the guiding principles of Whitney/Strong we can do just that.

 "The greatest good we can do our country, is to heal its party divisions, and make them one people." - Thomas Jefferson

Why I’m So Vocal-- A View into My Mental Recovery

I had a message come in last week from one of our supporters through social media that made me pause. The question was, “What motivates you to get through the day?” It was a well-intentioned question meant to elicit answers that could be replicated by someone who, like me, had suffered due to gun violence.

I paused. I got out of my head and removed myself from my growing “to-do” list to really process what I had read. Someone somewhere is in pain and through my social media presence, believes I am doing well enough to provide tips on how to get well too.

Wow, I thought. My zeal to save lives has painted an inaccurate picture of my recovery process. And even just the thought of that message causing someone else pain as they compare their journey to mine deeply saddens me.

For those of you that are struggling with trauma, please remember to not compare your journey to others and to treat yourself kindly. We all experienced different traumas. We all process our experiences differently. Our support systems could be very different. Access to therapy and medication, if necessary, may vary greatly amongst us. Daily demands and responsibilities can also vary, having a direct impact on the amount of time for self-care.

I still struggle mentally with what happened to me. Every newly announced mass shooting sends me into a temporary tailspin. I never enter buildings without briefly building a mental map for escaping quickly. I don’t sit with my back to the door. I refuse to walk around while on my phone. School shooting details burrow a hole so deep into my brain that nightmare-free sleep evades me.

It is not easy. It isn’t ideal. Anxiety is something I struggled with prior to the shooting and it has not gotten better since. However, even through all of that, I feel I have taken some steps that are worthy of sharing. Even some of them that can be replicated.

1.    Start talking about what happened to you with those you trust. I remember telling my boss every detail I could remember from the shooting the evening of 9/6. I’m sure he could have gone without the story but it was instinctual to start sharing. Eight months later, I’m still sharing. I’ve had conversations with other gun violence survivors who regret their decision to stay tight-lipped for too long.

2.    Know your triggers and avoid them. The closer a shooting is to me, via proximity or circumstance, reading every article and detail sends me into that tailspin I mentioned earlier. I’ve gotten a bit better about recognizing this behavior and trying to stop it.

3.    Find something that is successful in distracting you. For me, that is Whitney/Strong. If I’m being honest with you, I must admit that working on gun violence prevention is as much selfish as is it is selfless. I don’t want anyone I love to go through this pain. I don’t want those I don’t know to go through this pain. It’s a horrifying thought. And it’s quite logical (to me) that my best offense against that is launching a non-profit to lead the charge. It works really well for me and I wish you luck in finding your own distraction.

4.    Focus on gratitude. Everyone has their own gratitude bucket. Mine is huge! I survived 12 bullets, why shouldn’t it be? I had only one request from that day and it was filled! I got to return home and be a mother and wife. Find something to go back to over and over that reminds you of what is good in this life.

5.    Last and most important, seek out therapy. I see a psychiatrist regularly and she is invaluable to me. Whether it is a psychiatrist or a therapist, find someone to give you professional guidance on how to approach your trauma. And if you don’t like your therapist, find a new one. The process to identify the right therapist can be daunting but it is worth the work. I’ve had several before landing on the right one.

If you need therapy and cannot afford it, there is a sister organization that may be able to help. Moms Demand Action, (or Everytown) with a partnership with GiveanHour.org, offers no fee mental health services to every survivor member. Here is the link to learn more about their network of survivors and how you can join:  https://everytown.org/survivors/.

In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255.

This Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of 161 crisis centers that provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

To conclude, W/S is focused on meeting mental illness with kindness. Mentally ill or not, we need to do everything we can to remove the stigma attached to therapy and find a way for easier access to care.

I hope anyone struggling finds some assistance in what I’ve shared today. I’m here to help in any way that I can.

Sincerely,

Whitney

 

How Extreme Risk Protection Orders Could Save Lives

I’m a big fan of the second amendment. I own firearms and I try to be responsible in my ownership, but at the same time, every right has limits. – Judiciary Committee Chairman, Lindsay Graham

Chairman Graham is correct. Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) are an extreme solution to extreme times. What is happening in our country is easy to dismiss, especially if you or those you love have not been impacted. Many would lead you to believe that there is only one way to fight this battle – with solutions that put law-abiding firearm owners closer and closer to dissolving their Second Amendment rights.

This is not true. We can save lives and still protect the Second Amendment. Please see my blogpost, Why Should You Support Red Flag Law?, to learn more about this law. And for those of you that have not experienced gun violence first hand, let me share a few stories – stories that could have potentially ended differently with ERPO.

Kirsten Russell is a firearm owner living in Louisville KY. In April of 2018, Kirsten lost her mother, Ruth Perkins, to gun violence. From Kirsten:

Without question, ERPO could have saved my mother’s life. My brother, who had become mentally ill in recent years, took her life in April 2018. Our family had tried countless times to help him, going as far as requesting mental inquests, but judges didn’t believe he met the requirements. On paper he appeared normal but to those of us who knew him best, we were concerned. His erratic behavior, extreme paranoia, and easy access to firearms were a terrifying combination – a combination that led to this horrific tragedy.

My family’s tragedy could have been prevented if we had been able to petition for the removal of his firearms.

Larry Newcomer is a firearm owner living in Mainville, OH. In September of 2018, Larry lost his brother, Richard Newcomer, to gun violence at the hands of an active shooter at the Fifth Third Center in Cincinnati, OH. The shooter’s alleged struggles with mental illness are well documented, citing evidence that his mother and sister requested a mental inquest in 2007 in Broward County, FL. There were signs and, potentially, family or law enforcement could have intervened if ERPOs were available in the state of OH. From Larry:

I firmly believe that ERPO tools enforced in States and incorporated in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) would prevent many future suicides, homicides and mass shootings. Many of the tragedies in our headlines involved individuals with documented evidence and/or very credible witness testimony that the shooters were a danger to themselves, family members, or the public. ERPO has support among government leaders, elected officials, law enforcement, and even the general population as long as such laws allow appropriate due process and protection against frivolous claims. That is very achievable.

This is not about infringing on Second Amendment rights. It’s about protecting our entire population and all our rights to tranquility, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…rights that, without any due process, were taken away from all the victims and their families by the perpetrators of the Cincinnati mass shooting, the Parkland School shooting, the Thousand Oaks mass shooting, and countless others.

Brian Sarver is a firearm owner living in Cincinnati, OH. In September of 2018, Brian was shot by an active shooter at the Fifth Third Center in Cincinnati, OH. As a result, Brian lost his spleen and will continue to feel the effects of the injury for years to come. From Brian:

As an owner of several firearms, I continue to be thankful for my Second Amendment right to bear arms, and appreciate the fact that many other responsible gun owners have that same right. However, as I was recently a victim of a violent shooting by someone who was likely mentally ill, I can support ERPOs. These orders would provide an option for family members or law enforcement to petition the court to remove firearms from mentally ill people before any kind of violent event could occur. To me, the key considerations for success would include due process protections for the respondent balanced with protecting the general public when, in fact, there is clear evidence of extreme risk.

As mental illness continues to be a big part of gun violence in this country, we need to consider new solutions to the problem while ensuring we remain true to the rights of responsible gun owners. I pray these horrific events do not continue, but if we don’t work toward a ‘common ground solution’, I fear we will continue to see these types of shootings more and more often.

My drive to bring ERPO to KY and OH is intense. It comes from deep within me and is part of a promise I made to myself on September 6th. I prayed I would find the strength to use all skills bestowed upon me to approach this issue in the most strategic and effective way, all in an effort to save lives.

I’d like to close this blogpost with transparency. We have a lot of work to do to make ERPO to happen in the states of KY and OH. With assistance from Morgan McGarvey (KY D – State Senator), an ERPO bill was submitted into the KY legislature in February 2018. Unfortunately, the bill did not gain the legislature’s attention until too late in the session to be taken seriously.

So, what comes next? With the help of Kirsten, Larry, Brian, and the full Whitney/Strong team, we will continue to meet with legislators, mayors, governors, and like-minded organizations to assist with our goal. For KY, this is a 2020 goal. For OH, the timeline is still being defined.

If you believe in this as our final solution for Whitney/Strong, please provide financial support by clicking here.  

Enforce the Laws that Exist

When I first began digging into solutions to our country’s challenge with keeping guns away from those who shouldn’t have access to them, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database and the phrase “prohibited persons” meant absolutely nothing to me. But the more I began to dig, the more I began to realize the deficiencies interwoven within the systems that exist to keep guns away from individuals prohibited from owning firearms. To begin, let’s be sure we are all speaking the same language and using the same terms.

NICS is a national system that is intended to identify people prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms from a licensed dealer.

There are many categories of prohibited persons. I’ll name a few to give you a sense:

  • A person who has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year or any state offense classified as a misdemeanor and punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than two years

  • An unlawful user and/or addict of any controlled substance

  • A person adjudicated mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle his/her own affairs

To keep it simple, this system and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that mandated use of the system, was created to keep dangerous people and potentially dangerous people away from guns, i.e. violent criminals, domestic abusers, those who are persistently and severely mentally ill, etc. And while NICS sounds good on paper, it isn’t being enforced across the country.

According to the Miami Herald in 2018, only one of the 67 counties in Florida was complying with the federal law specific to the category for adjudicated mentally defective or involuntary commitment. In a 2016 report to Congress, the FBI said many states remain confused about how to report mental health records. Even Congress understands the enforcement problem, enacting the Fix NICS Act in 2018 that required federal agencies to report correctly and encouraged states to follow suit – work that will take years to complete.

Why do I care about this? I want the system to work. Whether it is to prevent the next mass shooting or suicide, NICS can effectively prevent prohibited persons from purchasing firearms through licensed dealers and ultimately, save lives. In two very memorable examples, the system failed and a number of innocent lives were lost: Sutherland Springs and Charleston.

Now, how does Whitney/Strong participate in solving this problem? To start, we will begin by investigating the September 6th shooting which left innocent people dead and me, severely wounded. Information regarding the shooter’s alleged struggles with severe mental illness is abundant, even one article shared that his mother and sister argued before Palm Beach County judges that he was violent and mentally ill.

If we determine that the shooter was a prohibited person who should not have been able to purchase the 9mm semiautomatic handgun on Aug. 2, 2018, we will use every tool available to us, up to and including litigation, to shine a light on this major breakdown and others like it. While September 6th may not be the perfect example of a NICS breakdown, we will find them and we will bring attention to them in a way no one has done before.

We can do better. We must do better. Our goal is simple – let’s use our platform to remind federal, state and local governments to enforce the laws that exist.

If this solution is important to you, please show support financially by donating here:  https://www.whitneystrong.org/donate

Important sidebar: A 2018 Pew Research Center study revealed that 89% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats agree on preventing people with mental illness from buying guns. It is wonderful that such consensus exists – it’s one of the reasons we landed on this solution. However, please remember that mental illness alone, is not the sole predictor of future violent behavior. In fact, mentally ill individuals are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

We will always encourage our followers to meet mental illness with kindness.