Miriam Walkingshaw’s world of creating wedding flowers and handpicked serenity shattered last summer when a gunman dressed for war strode into a Colorado movie theater and slaughtered 12 people, including a 6-year-old girl, during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“I had a 6-year-old at the time, and, of course, he loves Batman,” she says. “This is only one state away. It felt very close to home.”
The mass shooting that also injured 58 prompted Walkingshaw to research Utah’s gun policies. “I realized this can happen here.”
Five months later, “horrified” by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Walkingshaw decided it was time to speak out.
“So many friends and family members told me not to. ‘This is the price we pay for gun rights and there’s nothing we can do,’ ” she recalls hearing. “That horrified me even more. It really motivated me.”
Turns out Walkingshaw had company — primarily among parents with young children — despite Utah’s entrenched gun culture and well-worn Western mind-set that abhors regulation.
The result: Utah Parents Against Gun Violence — a grass-roots group with roughly 40 members and 150 Facebook followers — whose aim is to fight for common-sense gun policy and “sanity” on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
“Here, passing something that is so blatantly common sense when it comes to guns feels like a major effort,” explains Ellen Brady, a Parents member who also serves as a legislative district chairwoman and Democratic delegate. “Stopping things from getting even more insane feels like victory.”
Mommy lobby • Like much political activism today, Parents took shape after a Facebook thread. Chatting online after the Connecticut shooting, co-founders Walkingshaw and Monica Bellenger discovered passionate mothers in their own backyard.
“We found that there were a lot of people locally who felt lost — who felt they wanted to do something,” Bellenger says. “While Utah is a very conservative state, the gun-rights advocates were getting all the attention. The other side of the debate hasn’t had much of an outlet — we want to provide that.”
Group members found their voice during the 2013 Utah Legislature when they saw plenty to shout about. The group saturated social media, penned opinion pieces and stacked committee hearings — mostly in opposition to the HB76 constitutional-carry bill, vetoed in March by Gov. Gary Herbert. “Showing up is half the battle,” Bellenger adds. “We’re going to continue. This is a long-term thing.”
Feisty, and increasingly articulate in the gun-control debate, Parents pegs its influence nonetheless on being even-keeled. The group has gun owners — even National Rifle Association (NRA) members — in its midst, opposed the assault-weapons ban pushed by the White House and favors the preservation of Second Amendment rights. At the same time, members strongly back expanded background checks.
They are spearheading a gun-safe-storage public service campaign with Utah’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. And they are mobilizing their message from Utah’s Statehouse to its schools.
“Our focus right now is to connect with kindred parent spirits who don’t want to see another Sandy Hook happen here,” says Stan Holmes, a Vietnam veteran and NRA member who will complete a 30-year teaching career at Alta High this spring. “It’s a matter of pushing the conversation forward.”
‘Very reactionary’ • Even- tempered on the hot-button gun topic himself, Clark Aposhian doesn’t holster his opinion about Parents.
“This group is like others who popped up just after Sandy Hook: very reactionary,” says the firearms instructor and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. “They’re not much of an influence. They’re an extremely small group — their name is probably bigger than the group.”
Aposhian argues his council cannot direct state lawmakers to birth or kill gun bills — “We don’t have that kind of hubris” — and he suggests Parents’ influence will ultimately prove ineffective.
“This knee-jerk reactionary tone will go away,” he says, predicting no meaningful gun-control legislation will be passed. “We know our position will withstand extreme scrutiny when the facts come out.”
Brady, peering through a bloodier lens as a trained physician, sees gun violence differently — she sees victims. Between a policeman shot on duty and a child accidently shot at home to suicides, domestic spats and drive-by slayings, Brady says the frequency of shootings makes easier gun access hard to justify.
“I’ve always had problems with the NRA component of our society,” she says. “As a person of faith, it is just so inconsistent with what I believe. We are one of the world’s most violent societies. It’s time to just somehow put a brake on it.”
‘A lone wolf here in Utah’ • Delynn Elliott was in nursing school in 1979 when an armed man who broke through her daughter’s window forever formed her view on having guns in the home.
“I had taken my young daughter into bed with me,” the Cottonwood Heights resident recalls. “It was Saturday night and I was watching ‘Saturday Night Live’ [before falling asleep]. I saw this creepy, naked guy through the blue light of the TV. He was reaching around my neck to strangle me when I woke up. He screamed and ran out, then I jumped up, locked the door and called police.”
Elliott, a Parents member, says she would have been too disoriented to use a gun in defense and worries to this day about accidently shooting her daughter.
“Anybody that comes into my home, an intruder with a gun, he has the advantage,” she says.
“He knows what he wants to do. An intruder in a school ... this notion of arming teachers is so idiotic. They will shoot their way in. The reason I know this is I have been there. It’s just futile to have a gun in your house.”
Elliott says she feels like “a lone wolf here in Utah” but insists the Second Amendment “has outlived its usefulness.”
“Utah is shamefully, shamefully behind,” the nurse says. “It’s an embarrassment to me to look at how loose our gun laws are.”
Securing schools • Motivated by Aurora and Newtown, Parents wants to assess Utah schools’ safeguards against a potential shooter — and suggests upgrades. This month, the group sent a gun-safety survey to every K-12 school in the Salt Lake City District. Questions range from whether schools lock classroom doors or have armed guards to whether they conduct active shooter simulations or train students to identify aberrant mental health behaviors.
“We’re just totally unprepared,” says Holmes, the teacher, who advocates better coordination in schools rather than arming teachers. “That would be a policeman’s worst nightmare.”
Survey results will be posted on the Utah Parents Against Gun Violence website. A statewide survey could come next. “We don’t want Utah to be the next Columbine,” Bellenger says. “Trolley Square was bad, but we don’t want to be known for that. All we can do is try to move the needle in our own backyard.”
For her part, Walkingshaw sees a correlation between the nation’s spate of school shootings and laxer gun laws during the past 15 years.
“We need to look at the numbers,” she says, “and our values.”
For his part, Aposhian warns too much stock is placed on “gun violence,” arguing criminal activity is much broader. Even so, he stops shy of dismissing the group all together.
“If this in fact enlarges the debate, and in the end helps provide a solution to the overall violence problem, then we’re all for it.”
Are Salt Lake City schools prepared?
Utah Parents Against Gun Violence has distributed a survey to all 38 schools in the Salt Lake City District to gauge what gun-safety measures are currently in place. The group intends to publish the results on its website, recommend revisions, then conduct a statewide survey. A sample of the questions include:
• Has your school ever conducted an “active shooter” simulation?
• Are classroom doors at your school equipped with the ability to be locked from the inside by the teacher?
• Are teachers at your school encouraged or discouraged from having firearms at the school?
• Is there a police officer or other armed, uniformed official stationed at your school?
• Does your school train students to identify and report individuals exhibiting aberrant mental health behaviors?