Shooting Survivors Turned Activists: ‘We Were the Lucky Ones’

June 22, 2022 – The temperature was nearing 80 degrees as Mia Tretta climbed the steps to the makeshift stage on the bed of a pickup truck parked outside Los Angeles City Hall for the March for Our Lives rally.

She took the crowd of 1,000 back in time to Nov. 14, 2019, when she was a freshman at Saugus High School, northwest of L.A., and described her beloved morning ritual.

“Every day, I made a beeline for the quad,” she began, explaining that was the meetup point to see her best friend. “I’m pretty sure we were laughing when we heard the first bang.”

Another bang followed, and Tretta was on the ground quickly. She’d been shot. She managed to get up and run to a classroom, where her teacher tried to stop the bleeding.

“Moments later, I was in an ambulance, then a helicopter and then an operating room,” she said. “I had a bullet lodged inside of me, millimeters away from ending my life. But compared to my friend Dominic, I was the lucky one. In a matter of seconds, five people were shot and two were killed. Dominic was one of them.”

Tretta urged listeners to join the fight for sensible gun laws, especially the issue of “ghost guns,” privately made weapons without serial numbers. It’s been her activist focus since she found out that was the type of weapon used by the student gunman to kill the students before killing himself. By the end of her 8-minute talk, she had the crowd cheering and waving signs, ready to make the march up to Grand Park.

The talk at the rally isn’t a one-off for Tretta, who’s now almost 18. Months after the tragedy, despite needing surgery and other care, she began to volunteer at the hospital where she got treatment, helping distribute “Stop the Bleed” kits, a national campaign to help people act quickly when tragedy strikes. She’s active in Students Demand Action, a grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization. In April, she spoke in the Rose Garden after President Joe Biden announced new regulations to crack down on ghost guns.

From Trauma to Action

This year, through mid-June, at least 278 mass shootings have occurred in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And as families of the victims grieve, legions of survivors who have witnessed the carnage firsthand also struggle to heal from the trauma. Most will recover well, mental health experts say.

After that, some will go on to have what those experts call posttraumatic growth – finding a new purpose or calling. That might be a change in careers or education plans, working in a charity unrelated to gun violence, or fighting for reform of gun laws.

After these violent events, which upend lives, survivors often say they want to find or make meaning from them, says Robin Gurwitch, PhD, a psychologist and professor at Duke University and an expert on the impact of trauma.

“I think for some survivors, they make meaning for what happens to them by activism,” she says. Survivors have told Gurwitch they want to “give a voice to people whose voice has been taken away.” Activism, she finds, is one way to honor those killed by the violence.

People often do try to find some sense of meaning after tragedies like school shootings, agrees Joshua Morganstein, MD, a psychiatrist in Bethesda, MD, and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster. But “that looks different for different people,” he says.

Can Activism Help Recovery?

Whether something is helpful is very individual, Morganstein says. Doing work that one defines as activism – such as lobbying for policy change – may not be helpful for some, he says.

Mental health experts do know what is needed to protect and restore people’s sense of well-being and foster resilience after a disaster or trauma, Morganstein says. This includes:

  • A sense of connectiveness, knowing there are people who will provide support
  • A sense of safety
  • Feeling able to accomplish things or make changes, both on a personal and community level
  • A sense of hope about the future

A sense of helplessness can set in, understandably, with trauma survivors frustrated that they couldn’t stop the disaster or weren’t able to protect themselves, he says.

“When I hear about someone deciding to engage in activism, like a march, or seeking an audience with a politician to lobby for various changes,” it’s understandable that a person might find that helpful, Morganstein says.

What’s important for the activist to know, he says, is that the outcome of their efforts doesn’t matter as much as the activity of speaking out and standing up. It’s the act of standing up and speaking out that can help recovery, he says. As for the sense of hope, “hope is something we build,” Morganstein says. “You build hope with action.”

Research: The Value of Taking Action

“Trauma can shatter our sense of control over our lives,” says Erika Felix, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a psychologist. “Becoming an activist makes you realize you can have some control.”

On May 23, 2014, a man not affiliated with the university attacked around the campus. Through gunfire and stabbings, he murdered six students and wounded a dozen others before killing himself. Felix polled 116 university students about 6 months after the incident to find out how the activities people do after a trauma might affect their posttraumatic growth. She had previously interviewed the students about their adjustment to college life.

After the tragedy, she assessed posttraumatic growth by a standard questionnaire on how or whether they had changed, then looked at how that growth was affected by five factors after the tragedy: mental health services, informational support, grieving and remembrance, coping activities, and taking action.

Only taking action was associated with posttraumatic growth, she found. The results, she says, suggest that campus communities might support student-led activities after a trauma that provide opportunities to take action and create change. Those activities might include fundraisers, rallies, volunteering, and other events.

Survivor: Not ‘Why Me,’ but ‘What About Others?’

“As a survivor, you feel a certain obligation to work on this issue, because it is such an important issue,” says John Owens, who was shot by a mentally ill man as he entered the offices of his former employer, the NBC affiliate in Detroit.

Owens, a producer, writer, and editor, had stopped in to pick up something he needed for a project he was working on. As he walked in the door, preparing to greet the receptionist he knew well, “she motioned me back. I didn’t know why.”

Then he saw another person in the entryway. “As soon as I turned around, he shot me point-blank.” That was April 15, 2005. “Initially, it didn’t look like much of an injury,” Owens, now 70, recalled recently. But it was. His spinal cord was injured, his lung had collapsed, and he was in tremendous pain.

“Within 15 minutes, I was in the best trauma center in the city. They saved my life but also changed my life forever. I have been in constant pain, which you learn to live with because that is your only option.” He learned to walk again but still needs a wheelchair.

His activism wasn’t immediate. On Christmas Eve the year he was shot, he spoke at his church. Then he began speaking to other congregations – “not so much about gun safety, but sharing the story of recovery” and about guns and mental illness.

In 2015, he retired and moved with his wife to Hendersonville, NC. Now he is the co-lead for the Moms Demand Action chapter in Western North Carolina, also affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety. He works with the Everytown Survivor Network.

“We need to work for the folks who aren’t able … some are not able to do this. Their grief is too tremendous. For those people – that’s why we are out here.” Echoing Tretta’s comments, “I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he says.

Survivors sharing their stories is key to persuading legislators to listen, Owens says. “They may not listen to you on policy, but I never met a legislator who wouldn’t listen to your story.”

Eyes on the Goal

Mental health advocates warn activists about burnout – and to keep what Morganstein calls a good work-life balance.

Neither Owens nor Tretta seem inclined to slow down.

“We see this as a social justice issue,” Owens says of gun law reform. And he knows it will take time. He compares it to the timeline for women’s rights issues and LGBTQ issues. “Look at all the setbacks those groups have faced. It takes decades of constant work to achieve what we consider to be justice.” He’s in for the long haul.

“I’m trying to use the voice I have been given because of what happened to make people more willing to listen,” Tretta says. “Especially people in power.”

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