Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Ph.D

As one survivor of a shooting to another, never again

A lot of time is wasted in the gun control debate by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. One survivor to another, I know your pain.



As the news alert popped up on my phone screen, I glanced quickly and saw that another horror, by way of a gun massacre, had been visited upon yet another American community. Just add it to the list…Columbine, Riverside, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, and on and on. Just as quickly, I put the phone away and exhaled in resignation knowing all too viscerally that a whole bunch of people’s lives were being altered forever. For them — the victims, the survivors, and everyone they know — nothing would ever be the same. Images of people with horrified and grief-stricken faces would bombard screens of all sizes for weeks to come, until we collectively found something else to fixate upon, or until the next catastrophe would visit us.

Couples having lost a child would watch their happy union wither and vanish into the mist. The trajectories of teen lives would take unplanned and unwanted turns and detours, leading them to bear the burdens of survivor’s guilt, substance abuse, self-doubt and a never-ending case of post-traumatic stress. Seventeen fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, friends, lovers, teachers, coaches, buddies and mentors would be buried with all that their lives entailed, relegated to pained memorials with wilted flowers and rain-soaked teddy bears, teary testimonials, smiling photos and a nagging emptiness for those left behind.

It is perhaps that the dead are the lucky ones here, if such a thing were possible. Everyone else will have to pick up the shattered pieces and try to move forward, if they can. Those injured will perhaps have the most difficult path. You see, I know this all too well, as I am a survivor of gun violence.

What people do not know or understand is that the wounded, while still living and after their physical wounds heal, will continue to relive the horror, suffer panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety and depression, and try as they might to put this behind them, they will be haunted by each and every new iteration of the American reality: gun massacres.

What the talking heads and media pundits never detail is what a bullet fired from a high-powered weapon does to human flesh. In my case, it was a shell from a 30.06 rifle fired from 15 feet away that entered the back of my thigh, boring a hole the size of a fountain pen and exiting from the front of my thigh leaving a gaping hole the size of a racquetball. Everything in between was pulverised. I still don’t know how, but I ran, as my assailant, a 16-year-old boy with a stolen gun and a borrowed car, fired twice more, just missing my head. I would collapse a half a block away between two homes. He would drive away laughing. I had never met him, and would only ever see him once again, dressed in a jail suit and shackled as he was led away. Blood covered me from my waist to my once-white shell-toe Adidas. Miraculously, the bullet missed my femur and hit no arteries. “Nothing more than a flesh wound,” a euphemistic way of dismissing the horror of what my life would become and how it would change everything about who I was.

You see, even after nearly 35 years, a successful marriage to a remarkable woman, a beautiful and productive child and a flourishing career, with each new alert, I am whisked right back to that November evening in an idyllic seaside community in Southern California. Shootings, especially random ones involving innocent victims, didn’t happen all that often back in the early ’80s. People actually questioned me, trying to figure what I had done to deserve such an inglorious fate. Yet it did happen, without any logical reason whatsoever, leaving me and everyone else to ask why. And even after all this time, I still don’t know why, but the memory is vivid, as clear as the day that it happened. People no longer ask whether or not any one of us deserves such a horrific outcome. We are almost numbed, made callous and dismissive of their occurrences, as they have become more commonplace. Even I try to dismiss them by assuring myself that it is not a matter of “if”, only a matter of “when”. I struggle to assuage my discomfort, the knot in my stomach, and the pounding of my heart knowing that the nightmare is beginning yet again.

What people do not understand is that the wounded will continue to suffer panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety and depression…haunted by each and every new iteration of the American reality: gun massacres.

A prominent feature of modern life is the insidious manner in which we so very sophisticatedly rationalise and normalise systems and processes that in the end erase our humanity. Political theorist Herbert Marcuse introduced us to the notion of the “objective order of things” that exposed these elements as forms of domination that are rationalised as features of technological advance. So it should come as no surprise that the AR-15, a weapon of war praised for its effective lethality, has become the instrument de riguer of our collective destruction in the service of gun manufacturers and their lackey surrogate lobbyists and elected officials, all feasting on the blood-tainted teat of corporate excess. The tale is now all too familiar, that more Americans have been killed by gun violence here in the United States in the past 50 years than in all the wars in its history.

It is crushing to think, feel, and know that I am never going to be able to “put this behind me,” and I have tired of carrying that burden. My silence has been acquiescence because I know something that the dead can’t say, and that many survivors have been too stunned and traumatised to express. It is perhaps time to let the rest of the world in on this hidden dimension of my and our reality that virtually no one that I know has any knowledge of. I have been reluctant to share it because then I have to explain it, but with the hundreds of thousands of people like myself walking in our midst, perhaps someone has to begin to share the reality that the physical scars heal over but the wound to the soul remains bare to the world, and with every new event, the scab is torn off and the spirit is diminished yet again.

I sat in silence, weeping as I witnessed the students of Parkland issue challenges to their elected officials, to their communities and to our society to end the insanity of gun violence. They are clever enough, and now fearless, because they are alive and are living to directly challenge the cultural and legal status quo that places the profit of gun manufacturers over the lives of people just like themselves. Far too many of us have not concerned ourselves with putting up a fight because it hasn’t yet impacted us. But with 2,500 Americans killed by gun violence in the first two months of 2018, and another 4,000 injured while 35 mass shootings occurred in that same time period, we need to think of it like this. That is a lot of wakes and funerals, hospital stays, surgeries, therapy, counseling and rehab sessions, and a bevvy of incomprehensible stories of lives completely and permanently destroyed. What then are the 15,000 lives annually ended by gun violence? Apparently, nothing, because nothing is being done to address the root causes.

Yet, for the first time since my own shooting, I feel that people are starting to understand just what this means, and that it has taken our children, of all people, to wake us up to this uniquely American nightmare. As surely I stand here, I am going to join this Children’s Crusade because unlike the generations before them, the future is truly theirs, and unlike those victims and survivors before them, they will not wilt, demure, and hide away from the horror.

Now, neither will I. #NeverAgain


Related posts