The Forever Aftermath of a Mass Shooting

Americans affected by gun violence talk about trauma, grieving, and intermittent hope.

Hands holding candles
Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to rally in Washington, D.C., and around the country in protest of gun violence and mass shootings.

Mass shootings are deep in the country’s connective tissue. They leave limps, aches, sleepless nights; they inflict post-traumatic stress disorder; they are the cause of too many funerals. They fling some people across political divides, and further entrench others in positions they held before.

Many survivors and relatives of victims become advocates for gun-control measures, others for open-carry laws; some work to eradicate firearms from their communities, while others buy more to feel safe at home. Some quickly morph into activists or politicians, processing their grief or trauma through action; others continue to live their lives in private. Those whose families are splintered by mass shootings in America sometimes weave new connections with their peers—a substitute family of sorts, built from steadily compounding national tragedies.

On the occasion of Saturday’s march, The Atlantic spoke with 10 survivors and family members affected by previous shootings—at schools, places of worship, and a nightclub—to understand how trauma changes the direction of a life, and how they view the apparent shift in the national conversation around gun violence following the shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, in February. Here are their stories, in chronological order of when the shootings occurred:

  1. Devorah Heitner lived through the shooting at Massachusetts’s Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 1992, when, she says, mass shootings were still a “foreign concept.”
  2. Heather Martin was a senior at Columbine High School during the infamous 1999 shooting there that left 15 dead.
  3. Lisa Hamp lived through the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, which left 33 dead.
  4. Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a former police officer and teacher, lost his father in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. In the years since, he has been working as a trauma therapist.
  5. After her 6-year-old son died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Scarlett Lewis dedicated herself to helping young people better manage their emotions and form meaningful relationships.
  6. Alissa Parker’s daughter Emilie died in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, and she went on to co-found a school-safety organization.  
  7. Sarah Clements, now a senior at Georgetown University, recalls how her mother’s experience as a teacher who survived the Sandy Hook shooting helped spur them both to the cause of gun-violence prevention.
  8. Melvin Graham lost his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, in the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
  9. Christine Leinonen’s son Christopher was one of the 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in 2016. She and her son’s best friend, Brandon Wolf, recounted their turn to activism as a way of honoring Christopher.

These 10 people are a small sample of the countless Americans whose lives have been forever altered by gun violence. To share stories of your own, you can write to us at