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Tom Mauser, father of slain Columbine High School student Daniel Mauser, spoke at an anti-gun protest outside the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on April 30, 1999.
Q&A

A Columbine Parent Reflects on the Prospects for Gun Control

After Virginia shootings, Tom Mauser reaffirms advocacy “for the long run.”

Since the shooting death of his son, Daniel, at Columbine High School 16 years ago, Tom Mauser’s public advocacy for stricter gun control laws has transformed his life. After taking a year long leave of absence from his job in Colorado’s transportation department, Mauser’s lobbying successfully convinced voters in 2000 to approve a new law mandating background checks on all private gun sales in Colorado. He spoke at the White House at the invitation of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton less than a month after the shootings that killed 13, and has continued to travel the country, spreading his gun control message. Some days, he draws scorn and mockery from fervent gun rights supporters. Other times, it’s admiration and concerned questions, from gun control advocates and survivors of gun violence seeking strength, understanding, and hope.

Mauser, 63, talked with The Marshall Project this week to share his insights about the state of gun violence in America, the recent shooting deaths of two Virginia journalists, and what lies ahead for Adam Parker, whose daughter, Alison, was the reporter killed near Roanoke. In the wake of her murder, Parker, like Mauser before him, has pledged to take up the fight for tighter gun control laws. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What goes through your mind when you hear about the on-air murder of the Virginia TV journalists?

I guess two things. One is ‘Oh my God, not again.’ And thinking of what those family members are going through.

What were your thoughts about what the families were going through?

Mainly, how it was such a shock to those family members. I mean, I think that people don’t realize for the people who were in that situation, this was not just a shooting. It was a murder. You’re left asking why was my loved one murdered. They weren’t criminals. They weren’t in warfare. They were just simply murdered. And then there’s the shock people go through, wondering ‘How could this happen to me?’ It’s just an unreal feeling.

Do you think the country is ready to really do anything about gun control and gun violence?

By and large, unfortunately no.

Why is that? I think that we have become so used to it. We collectively shake our heads and say, ‘what a terrible thing,’ but I think a lot of people feel powerless to do anything about it. I think that many of them don’t really realize it’s not like this in most other countries.

After the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when babies were basically gunned down, many people thought things would change. Have they?

I think there has certainly been a little bit more awareness of the problem and we’ve seen some things change, in terms of laws in some states, but by and large, no. Things have not changed a lot.

Why not?

Again, I think because people feel helpless do anything about it. I think we have a problem that clearly goes well beyond mass shootings. The mass shootings get the headlines but we’re losing dozens of lives to gunshots everyday. And those don’t get the attention that mass shootings do. But I think that in particular, Americans are very good at excuse making. That is, when they hear of, let’s say the Newtown shooting, they think, ‘Well, we heard the facts of that one. He was mentally disturbed and well, gee, you know, not much could be done to prevent that.’ Or we when hear about the theater shooting in Alabama, they say, ‘Oh yeah, that guy was very angry and mentally disturbed. And nothing could have been done to prevent that guy from getting a gun, so there’s nothing we can do.” Or they say, ‘it’s mental illness and not the gun.’ We make these excuses but then we never get around to really dealing with what we are going to do about it, and who we need to bring together, to bring about change.

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The National Rifle Association is obviously very very powerful and influential on these issues. How do you get politicians to confront their influence?

I think one way is to do what we did in Colorado, you put [gun control measures] on the ballot. It’s very hard to get politicians going this way because of the power of the N.R.A. When the politicians wouldn’t close the gun show loophole [a proposal requiring background checks for gun sales at gun shows], we took it to the ballot. It’s a heck of a lot easier [ for the N.R.A.] to buy, badger, and bully 51 out of 100 legislators than it is to buy, badger, and bully the whole population of voters. I think when you put something reasonable in front of people, they will vote for reasonable measures. And that’s what happened in Colorado. We put it in front of the people and 70 percent of the people voted yes, to close that loophole. They understood. It was common sense, it was simple and it closed the loophole. The N.R.A. opposed it but they lost.

Have you begun to see other changes as a result?

Once that happened, it became a lot tougher for [the N.R.A.] to pass anything in the Legislature in the years following that. Didn’t mean they didn’t try. But we usually came to a draw, instead of them winning all the time. And I think it made it easier to pass the three additional new laws that were passed in 2013 in Colorado.

What were those laws?

Three new ones were passed. One was the universal background bill. So rather than just require background checks on private sales at gun shows, that law required background checks on all private sales. So any sale or transfer of a firearm requires a background check. The second one limited the capacity of gun magazines to 15. You cannot transfer or sell a gun magazine with more than 15 rounds in it. And the third one, requires law enforcement to take proactive steps to remove firearms from a domestic abuser. It’s always been against the law [in Colorado] for someone who has a domestic restraining order against them to have a firearm, but nobody ever did anything about it. They just told them, ‘Oh, you can’t have one.’ Now there are steps in place. You need to ask them, do they have one? Where is it? That type of thing. It made people realize that indeed there is support for reasonable measures.

Alison Parker’s father wants to take up the fight now. What advice would you have for him?

I’m sorry for his loss, and glad to have him working with the rest of us. He’s unfortunately become the member of a club to which we really don't invite new members. But we welcome them. The other thing would be to realize we’re in this for the long run. I kind of learned pretty early on and pretty quickly. I learned to recognize that you're not going to make a whole lot of progress quickly; this is a difficult issue. I work in the public transit field and I learned there that as much as it makes sense to promote public transportation, it takes a long time to get people to change their habits and their viewpoints. We love our automobiles and likewise America loves its guns. And you don't change that overnight so, work at it but have a realistic expectation.

Have you seen anything on the state level or nationally that you think might be — other than Colorado — that might be a step in the right direction?

The state of Maryland I believe recently passed a licensing bill and they’ve put out materials showing that states that have required licensingof gun owners or purchasers have helped [reduce gun tragedies] and that states like Missouri that have withdrawn their licensing requirements saw gun deaths go up significantly. I know that scares the heck out of the N.R.A., the idea of licensing. They feel that you shouldn’t have to be licensed but I think Americans would understand that you have to — if you're going to say that you don't want the bad guys to have guns, then you have to do something about it.

From time to time, gun-control opponents find ways to irritate you personally, sending you subscriptions to gun magazines, for example. How do you deal with that?

Obviously, we disagree on the issue and I’m going to accept that, but do they have to go to those measures? Why is there that kind of aggression and nastiness? I’ve learned to accept that that's the way it is. I assume the gentleman in Virginia is going to find the same thing. Anybody who gets into this field will find very quickly that you're going to have people who are going to get on you and write you nasty things. And you just have to accept that that's the way it is. For me, if anything, it has made me more determined to work harder at it. It hasn't deterred me.