His hand rests atop hers.
A husband and wife, privately, calmly gearing up to tell their story yet again. Soon they will stand side-by-side and recount how their daughter was murdered.
Jessica “Jessi” Ghawi died because in America, a person with the intention of committing mass murder can turn to the Internet and easily purchase 100-round ammunition magazines, thousands of rounds of ammunition, body armor and tear gas. No questions asked.
Ghawi was among the 12 people murdered in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting. She was just 24, embarking on her lifelong dream of being a sports broadcaster. Her parents, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, are nurturing a movement of victims and survivors of gun violence that just might be the answer to stemming the bloodshed.
With about 33,600 gun deaths a year in the United States, the Phillipses have a lot of company. That’s a lot of grieving people: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, co-workers and friends. They would be a force to be reckoned with, if organized, vocal and voting.
That’s the Phillipses’ goal — meet other survivors, empower them to speak out and become involved with common-sense gun reforms.
Monday, they spoke to Heartland Coalition Against Gun Violence in the morning, and over lunch, to a roomful of assistant Jackson County prosecutors. Tuesday they will be in St. Louis, speaking with the mayor there.
Here is how the Phillipses have written of their daughter’s death:
“One of the six, steel-jacketed bullets that killed her slammed through a theater seat, entered her left eye and left a five-inch hole in her face as it blew her brains out on to the theater floor. The other five specially designed bullets tumbled when they tore through her flesh and did devastating damage to both legs, arms and intestines.”
The Phillipses don’t want your pity. They want your awareness, your outrage, your vote when it can elect politicians willing to take on the gun lobby and pass reasonable gun safety laws.
They are not trying to needlessly shock. But they are open about what happens to a body when it is the target of firearms designed for war.
The couple lived in San Antonio in 2012 when their dear Jessi was murdered. Sandy had the horror of hearing the screaming in the theater, the shots being fired. The young man who was with their daughter at the time called them from inside the theater.
They do not mention the name of the man who killed their daughter, now convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences for each of his victims, plus 3,318 years for those who survived related crimes. The Phillipses have campaigned to end the glorification of mass shooters, an outcome that too often occurs with sensationalized media coverage. Copycat cases are real.
They do say the names of the other Aurora victims. In fact, they are aware of every detail of how the others died. And how the survivors are faring. Two may still lose limbs, their legs, to injuries. Three are in wheelchairs, permanently paralyzed. Two people have serious brain injuries.
“The ripple effect of a mass shooting goes on and on and on,” Sandy said.
The couple is equally in tune with the lives of other families affected by gun violence. They are friends with many; people whose names are now associated with Newtown, Columbine, and now, the Oregon community college shooting in early October.
The Phillipses filed a lawsuit against the companies whose websites sold the Aurora shooter the ammunition and other supplies. They wanted the companies to stop being negligent, for lacking background checks. They lost. The case was dismissed. Now they face the prospect of paying the legal fees of more than $200,000 to the gun and ammunition sites. One company intends to donate those fees to pro-gun organizations like the National Rifle Association.
The Phillipses will file bankruptcy if necessary, to avoid paying the fees. It’s blood money to them. As Sandy rhetorically asked, “Would you pay somebody who helped to murder your daughter?”
The Phillipses never set out to be frontline activists. They just accepted the role. “We were retired,” Lonnie Phillips said. “And this was our moment of truth.”
As the trial approached, the couple knew they would be spending months in Colorado. They couldn’t afford a hotel for such an extended stay. So they sold or gave away just about everything they owned, rented their house and bought a 26-foot camper they could haul behind an F-150 truck. It’s home now.
They lived in it for the three-month trial, and they travel the country meeting with other advocates, victims of urban gun violence, domestic violence victims, legislators and others. They are on a circuit of sorts, tapped into legislation being introduced state-by-state and what’s happening nationally.
They’ll be at the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, guests of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Together, they are poised in the limelight, each giving the other the space to speak, clarify thoughts. The grieving, though, never stops.
Popcorn. Sandy Phillips can’t stomach the smell or sight of it. The snack was the last thing her daughter ate. Fireworks. She can’t tolerate the sound, too much like rapid gunfire. And theater-style seating, that’s also unbearable. They tried to attend the symphony once, but had to leave.
“Grief has a start date,” Sandy Phillips said. “It doesn’t have an end date.”
Neither, it seems, will their advocacy.