Administration

A Virginia Tech Survivor Puts a Face on the Gun-Violence Prevention Movement

November 24, 2015

Colin Goddard was among those wounded on April 16, 2007, when a gunman took 32 lives at Virginia Tech. That experience resonates in his work today as an advocate for gun-safety legislation.
For Colin Goddard, an advocate for stricter gun-safety laws, the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in October brought on an all-too-familiar sense of hopelessness. Eight and a half years ago, he was one of the students taking the bullets, shot four times while sitting in his French class at Virginia Tech. "You feel like you’re back at Day 1," he says, "and you know there are now so many number of new innocent families in this country that are on Day 1" with you.

Mr. Goddard’s own recovery and his early experiences in exposing lax gun-sale practices as an intern with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence have been chronicled in the 2011 documentary Living for 32, which is dedicated to the lives taken at Virginia Tech in 2007 and to "the 32 people killed by guns every day in America."

Now a senior policy advocate with the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, Mr. Goddard, 30, lobbies for background checks for gun purchasers and other gun-safety legislation, and helps train other survivors of gun violence to engage in advocacy. With public universities in Texas expected to soon announce policies on how they plan to put that state’s new campus-carry law into effect on their campuses, and similar legislation in effect or under consideration in as many as a dozen other states, Mr. Goddard said in an interview with The Chronicle last week that despite tragic shootings at Umpqua, he believes the gun-violence prevention movement "is finally on an upward trajectory." Following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Q. The film shows your mother soon after the 2007 shooting saying she hoped your life wouldn’t be defined by it. Your classmates didn’t choose this line of work. What compelled you to?

A. I admire my fellow Hokies and classmates who wanted to be engineers and survived the shooting and are now engineers. It didn’t knock them off their path. I was one of the college students who didn’t really know what the hell to do after graduation. Learning what I did about this issue and continuing to see it happen to more people, and seeing how stuck it was politically, I just saw an opportunity in front of me and a path forward to make some progress on something that I believed in.

I thought a lot about that sentence, of not letting it define who you are. It’s been seven, eight years, and it’s helped me find a way forward. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions and feelings. It’s the next, and perhaps the last, chapter of the recovery.

Q. Having the film allows you to tell your story without having to talk about the shooting every time, but when you do, how do people react? Does it make a difference when you’re speaking to a lawmaker or a college president?

A. Absolutely. When I first started direct lobbying with lawmakers, I would not say what happened to me. I was just going to go there and really get into it on background checks, and the evidence, and how it makes sense. And the meetings were just kind of bleh. There wasn’t really a whole lot of reaction. Then my boss said, Colin, why don’t you just add one or two sentences upfront about what happened to you and why you’re here? It changed the dynamic of the conversation entirely. People were much more engaged and much more willing to really listen and ask questions and have a discussion.

For some people, though, it prevented the conversation from even happening. They wanted to avoid the meeting with me because of that. Those are people who generally didn’t agree with me or weren’t going to agree with me.

Being able to put a face to a problem that most Americans think of in the abstract — and think it’s something that happens to bad people living in dense urban cities — really kind of gets people’s attention and makes them think twice about this and helps get people to think about it more seriously.

Q. "Campus carry" is a front-and-center issue right now. There are people who sincerely believe it would improve safety on campuses. You’ve been there. If you or some of your classmates in Norris Hall that day had had guns, would it have made a difference?

A. I have thought about that morning happening differently — probably every single possibility and scenario that could have happened, from me being the one with the gun to save the day, to my teacher, to us trying to do something and getting killed. So I can never say yes or no.

[But] I didn’t know what the hell was happening until I got shot. That’s what I do know. And I do know that there were many more situations in college where a concealed weapon would have made the situation much more dangerous.

I try to look at the issue of "campus carry" not only in the scenario of mass shootings, which are statistically not the most common form of violence on campus or between anyone in the age group of 18 to 24. Looking at the scenario of: "Someone’s going to come shoot you; don’t you want a gun to shoot them first?" When you frame it like that, most reasonable people would say yes. But that’s not how it happens in reality, and as a result I think campus-carry legislation has not been proven to reduce mass-shooting scenarios, and over all is much more likely to cause harm than provide any benefit.

These [campus-carry] bills are being written such that it forces a university to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus when ultimately, I think, it really should be the choice of the students and faculty and administrators who live and work and study there, and it should not be mandated.

If there is some group of people on a college-campus environment that wants it, then so be it. Let the public know, and prospective students and parents can adjust their admissions [interests] accordingly. I will probably not go there myself, but that’s their choice.

Q. For those states, as a gun-safety advocate, what’s your ideal strategy to limit the potential for harm?

A. You need to look at the data of the number of gun incidents that occurred on campus before the policy was enacted and after, including attacks, assaults, suicides, accidents. There have been multiples cases of students and faculty shooting themselves with concealed firearms on college campuses that allow it. There are several cases where students left their guns on different parts of campus that have been found by other students and caused harm.

Proponents of campus carry say, "Well, look, we enacted it in those states and there hasn’t been a mass shooting." We say, "Well, look at all these campuses that haven’t enacted a policy, and there also has not been a mass shooting."

I also worry because at the same time states and certain organizations are pushing to allow guns in more sensitive places, they are also trying to remove all the training and permitting requirements to carry a concealed firearm in the first place. In many of the states that have campus-carry legislation, they also have "permitless carry" legislation, which really undermines the argument that campus-carry proponents are making [when they say], "These are not just Joe Blow Anybody with a gun, but these are trained, permitted individuals who know what they’re doing."

And while I personally think there is no state with a concealed-carry training system that would prepare you for a close-quarters, live-fire combat scenario like I experienced, having some semblance of being able to point a gun down a range and hit a target is better than no training whatsoever.

Q. We hear from faculty members who are fearful of what might happen in their classroom with more guns on campus. What response have you seen from professors that seems to have an impact?

A. Without their voices protesting this kind of legislation, the likelihood of it becoming law is much greater. There is more that needs to happen besides just having the faculty and students protesting. A lot of this comes down to ideology on behalf of the lawmakers. You need campus law-enforcement and campus public-safety officers as well in this conversation. You need donors to the university in this conversation, letting folks know that this is their alma mater and they don’t want to see this happen.

In some states, pressure from the board [of trustees] has been incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, I’ve heard anecdotes of this in multiple states where the campus-carry fight has spanned over several years and several sessions, that eventually state lawmakers make threats to public institutions of higher education in those states to cut funding to programs if they continue to voice vocal opposition. [That] has quietly hushed boards of visitors or faculty senates from engaging in public opposition, which is a shame.

Q. How important is language to what you do? Is there any particular language that resonates better in a campus setting?

A. "Gun control" is a term that has been charged over the years by the gun industry and the media into meaning different things for different people. [It means] reasonable background checks to some people. [To others] it can also mean the government kicking down your door and coming to take your gun from your house. For purposes of moving a policy discussion forward and finding consensus, "gun control" is quite a useless term.

"Gun-violence prevention" has been a way to create a new vocabulary and a new way to talk about this issue to help unstick the national conversation, to talk about the issues specifically. "Do you support requiring a criminal-background check before a gun is sold?" "Do you support preventing convicted domestic-violence abusers from purchasing firearms?" Those are the bills that the gun-violence prevention movement is trying to enact.

For the campus-carry issue, it’s very important to talk about where on campus guns will be allowed. Proponents of campus-carry legislation say, "I want to be able to defend myself on campus." We say, "Does that mean you support allowing students to carry loaded firearms into science laboratories?" We talk about forcing universities to allow students and faculty to carry guns into dorm rooms, into classrooms, into science labs, into day-care centers. In some cases, there are bars in the student union — athletic events, stadiums, tailgating, and all the normal scenarios that happen on college campuses — and thinking about a gun in that situation.

Q. "Living for 32" includes undercover footage you took with a button camera while working for the Brady Campaign, successfully buying guns at gun shows without even showing ID. What was that like?

A. Time and time again, I surprised myself with how easy it was. The cherry on top was [that] after the guy handed an AK-47 off to us in Dayton, Ohio, he told us to "go have fun with it." Kind of mind-blowing, in a way, that somebody would feel no sense of irresponsilibity, if that’s even a word, for handing off a weapon like that to someone when they had no idea who they are or their legal ability to purchase firearms in the first place.

Q. In the film you also say you could imagine yourself at some point owning a gun. Do you own one?

A. I do not. But through all this I have much greater understanding and appreciation for the tradition of gun ownership in this country, how families pass guns from generation to generation. There’s history and tradition there. I get that. I understand people’s desire to want to own guns to defend themselves and their families. I also understand that the presence of a gun in the home is more likely to result in the death of one of the people who live there than any sort of intruder.

I am more likely to own a gun than I was before all this, but it’s still not very likely. Acknowledging that has brought more of the gun-owning population into the conversation and allowed them to realize that this is not a movement to take guns away from anybody or ban guns from America but to really look at the laws and ask, "Is this the most responsible way we could be doing it?" And my argument is: No. And we ought to make those changes now before the next preventable, horrible mass-casualty scenario occurs.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.