The Legacy of Gun Violence

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November 3, 2009
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Mindy Finkelstein

On August 10, 1999, I was a carefree sixteen-year-old working as a counselor at a day camp. I could never have anticipated what would happen that day and I will never forget the details of that morning. At 9:45am a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center (outside Los Angeles) and shot over 70 rounds of ammunition. I was shot, along with four others (including three children). We were the targets of a senseless act of hatred; the crime, according to the shooter, Bufford Furrow, was “a wake-up call for America to kill Jews.” All five of the victims survived. Ironically, we were the lucky ones. Joseph Ileto, a Filipino postal worker shot later that day by Bufford Furrow, was not so fortunate.

I remember the details of that day precisely. I recall, as though it were yesterday, how the detectives spoke with me. Beyond concern about the crime, they were sensitive about how it would affect me, given that as a sixteen-year-old, I was perhaps more impressionable. But more than anything, it was being attacked as a Jew that most devastated me.

For about a year after I was shot, I did what any normal sixteen-year-old would do; I basked in my glory. I took advantage of the attention it brought me: I met the president and the first lady; my house overflowed every day with visitors, providing a surreal sense of a continuous party in my honor. But the attention soon faded and the reality — that I had been shot and someone tried to kill me — set in. I was left alone with my fears and my memories, haunted by the sounds of helicopters, sirens, hammering, and the sight of guns. I experienced such emotional trauma that after my first freshman week when some students on the dorm floor were playing with a nerf gun, my parents had to come and move me back home. I needed to heal and I couldn’t do so in a new place where I felt unsafe.

People rarely understand that although someone survives gun violence, it does not mean that they return to living a normal life. A part of me was robbed, not to ever, probably, be redeemed. The shooting will affect me for the rest of my life. Though time might make the memories fade, they won’t disappear. Ten years later, I still remember every detail of that day.

At the time of the shooting, Bufford Furrow was out on parole from the state of Washington; by all measures, he was criminally insane. He tried to have himself committed to a mental hospital and was denied entrance. He was so sick that the Aryan Nations kicked him out for being “a threat to their cause.” But all this did not prevent him from legally purchasing a semi-automatic weapon at a gun show. I’m convinced that — just as a car is to drive from one point to another — the sole purpose of a gun is to kill. Having a license to operate one should be regulated.

According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the “current federal law requires criminal background checks only for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers.” The “loophole in the law allows individuals [criminal, mentally disturbed, and everyday citizens alike] not engaged in the business of selling firearms to sell guns without a license and without processing any paperwork.” This is how Furrow obtained the weapon he used against me. This so-called loophole needs to be closed so people like Furrow cannot attempt to commit such heinous acts with ease.

I have devoted much time over the past years to work for common sense gun laws. My goal in life is to prevent others from experiencing gun violence. I’ve accepted this responsibility on behalf of the people who weren’t as lucky as I was — people like Joseph Ileto. Parents of murdered children have told me that I can represent their children, children who no longer have voices. Though I will never bring their children’s voices back to life, I can draw on my experiences, my face, and my voice to show how gun violence destroys. Hopefully, that might create something positive from the bullets that ripped through my leg ten years ago.

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Mindy Finkelstein, a 26-year-old gun-violence survivor, works to promote common sense gun legislation by volunteering with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as well as Women Against Gun Violence, and recently organized Victory Over Violence, a race to benefit other survivors like herself.

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