Massacre survivors tackle gun violence to escape life sentence of terror

Christine Caria was in a grocery store buying chocolate-covered strawberries for her husband on Valentine's Day when ...

Posted: Feb. 28, 2018 12:51 PM
Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 12:51 PM

Christine Caria was in a grocery store buying chocolate-covered strawberries for her husband on Valentine's Day when it happened.

A news alert popped up on her phone.

There was another mass shooting, this one at a school called Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida.

More than 2,000 miles away, Caria panicked.

She ran to the store bathroom and locked herself inside.

"I started vomiting. I was on the floor in a fetal position for two hours," Caria says.

It is a response that has happened more times than she wishes.

Caria survived the Las Vegas massacre of October 1, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

And while fear and memories can crush her, she has also found a voice and a purpose, much like the Parkland students have since their tragedy two weeks ago.

"After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Pulse, I didn't get involved," Caria said. "When you see someone shot in the head right in front of you, you get involved."

Caria stepped up to become president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

She sees herself in the students in Florida demanding action.

So does Heather Gooze, a bartender at the country music festival that was targeted. Gooze got a call from her mother about the shooting in Parkland. She turned on the news, and what she saw was gut-wrenching. Another mass shooting, yet another one.

"I was numb and sad. I knew exactly what they were going through. You never think it's gonna happen to you ... the mental and emotional wounds last a lifetime."

Turning trauma into fuel

Neither woman would call herself a victim. Each styles herself as a warrior who turns trauma into fuel. And while they come from different places, they look to find common ground in stopping gun attacks. That includes banning bump stocks -- the accessory that essentially turns a semi-automatic into an automatic weapon. It's what the Las Vegas shooter used to hit the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time.

It extends to looking at taking assault-style rifles out of the civilian world, though Gooze, who spoke in front of Congress after the attack, says she is not in favor of just taking guns away.

"I'm very pro-Second Amendment, I love guns, I have no problems with shooting them," she says.

A man with guns caused the carnage that left her sitting on the ground one Sunday night, covered in the blood of strangers. But it was never a simple solution to her to just ban guns.

27 words: Deconstructing the Second Amendment

Trying to find a way forward is still so complex for her that it drives her to tears.

For now, she holds to the idea that when guns are used as killing machines, something has to change.

Gooze and Caria are inspired by the teens who survived the latest massacre and believe they can be a flashpoint for change. But as they give a little advice, they also know the psychological trap doors that lie ahead.

"Don't be afraid to speak your truth whether people like it or not," Gooze offers to the Parkland students. "There's going to be bad days. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Don't let people tell you to get over it. Don't let people tell you that they're tired of hearing you talk about it."

She knows that comes with a price. She's lost a long-time friend over her stance on gun violence prevention. She has also been "destroyed" online for expressing her views.

Carnage, on repeat

As the students who feel able go back to school on Wednesday, Caria and Gooze will be suiting up themselves for the daily battle they face just to keep going. All the while knowing they could be sent back to the worst night of their lives by a text or news alert.

"Parkland flattened me for a couple of days," Caria says. "It was bad."

Hearing how students and teachers were attacked took her back to the Route 91 music festival when bullets rained down.

58 people were killed and 1,273 were hurt by gunfire, falling or being crushed and other injuries.

Caria saw someone in front of her shot in the head. She tried to run but ended on the ground, trampled in the chaos.

That night, Gooze used her finger to try to stop blood coming from one man's head wound as he was rushed out of the carnage. She sat holding another man's hand as his life slipped away, staying with him for hours so he would not be nameless or alone.

In the five months since the massacre, they've been driven back to the horror too often.

Before Parkland, it was Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Caria remembers she was getting ready to go to church herself when she learned how a gunman attacked a congregation in Sutherland Springs, killing 25 people and an unborn child.

"The one place I get to go to for comfort at a church, I'm not safe," Caria remembers thinking. "So I'm in bed after Sutherland Springs. I'm in bed for two weeks. Two weeks was my response to that."

The trauma stalks Gooze, Caria and thousands of survivors in every aspect of their life. When they can't get out of bed. When friends stop calling. When it feels like the word "survivor" is stamped on their heads and all anyone sees. When the sun has to rise in order to fall asleep. When even a husband can't bear to hear the story told again.

That is their life now.

Caria also sees a new "normal" in America, and it's one that disgusts her.

"We're not going to get better by finding blame in this. We need to come up with solutions. We all don't want to see babies die. We don't want to go to a concert or a church and feel like we're going to get killed. We can do better than this as a nation," Caria says. "We're supposed to be the best nation in the world. Let's prove it."

School shooting survivor: 'There's so many of us now'

When another shooting knocks her down, Caria fights hard to remind herself of a cuff bracelet she wears that says, "I will live for those who died," stamped with the date of the massacre.

It's hard sometimes, as it will be hard for the Parkland students. But they are not alone.

"We're here for you, we get it," Gooze says. "We understand."

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