Reader advisory: This article includes graphic images.
Scattered among the crowd at a gun violence prevention rally in Washington, D.C. last month were family members of shooting victims clutching photos of their loved ones. One grieving mother, Nardyne Jefferies, stood off to the side holding up an 8½-by-11-inch full-color photograph of her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell Jones, who was fatally shot on South Capitol Street on March 30, 2010. This image was different: It was an autopsy picture, showing Jones’s flesh split below the collarbone, peeled back to reveal bone and muscle. Jones was killed by bullets from an AK-47 as a group of young men opened fire on a Washington, D.C. crowd in retaliation for an earlier murder over a lost fake-diamond bracelet.
Jefferies has hoisted the grim image aloft at city council meetings and sit-downs with lawmakers and watched as they turned their heads. She’s shown it to reporters who decline to include it in their stories. Jefferies says she’ll put the photo on a T-shirt if it means jolting the American public into action.
“I just can’t see myself talking about gun violence without showing what gun violence is,” Jefferies, 45, tells The Trace. “This image is burned into my memory bank. It doesn’t make sense for me to keep showing pictures of what she looked like before.”
Jefferies has become the unwitting pioneer of an ad hoc movement that seeks to compel lawmakers to acknowledge the grisly consequences of gun violence. Some observers argue that such shocking imagery is just what the gun safety effort needs. California Attorney General Kamala Harris said last Friday that lawmakers should have been required to look at autopsy photos of the Sandy Hook victims before they voted against gun control measures proposed in the wake of that shooting. Her comments echoed the writer Alex Pareene’s suggestion in Gawker last week that gun control advocates should be as theatrically jarring as the anti-abortion movement, which achieved impressive victories by demonstrating with gruesome, poster-sized images of dead fetuses. For gun violence to inspire legislative action, “There will need to be graphic photographs of bullet-riddled corpses,” Pareene argued, and cited a recent Huffington Post column in which Sandy Phillips — who lost her daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Redfield Ghawi, in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting — graphically describes the damage done by the gunman’s armor-piercing bullets.
During the sentencing phase of the Aurora gunman’s trial this July, Phillips read her daughter’s autopsy report for the first time and published details on Facebook. Ghawi had been shot six times, Phillips wrote. “Her right leg was ripped apart and the bullet entered into her left leg. Her abdomen received 4 bullets. She received fragments in her right wrist and several other places. Her left clavicle was broken by a bullet.” Then she described the contents of of the autopsy photo shown in court: “My beautiful daughter’s head shot put a 5 inch hole through her left orbital (eye) and blew her brains out. A 5 inch hole.”
Phillips and her husband Lonnie were in the crowd at Tuesday’s Democratic Debate in Las Vegas, where Martin O’Malley mentioned them by name. She says that the next time they meet with a senator or congressman, she plans to slide her daughter’s autopsy photo across the table. “And if they refuse to look, who’s the coward?”
Jefferies’ and Phillips’s crusades recall the efforts of Mamie Till, whose 14-year-old son, Emmett, was beaten and drowned after allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Mamie insisted on an open-casket wake for Emmett. When she was asked why, she replied, “I just wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Images of Till’s misshapen head, which appeared on the cover of Jet magazine, made international news, and were credited with kickstarting the Civil Rights Movement.
The power of graphic images to raise awareness was later seized by Time magazine in 1994, when it ran a cover photo of a battered woman taken by Donna Ferrato, whose work opened the door on the problem of domestic violence in the U.S. Her photojournalism foreshadowed the efforts of Courtney Weaver, who has used photos of her own shooting to campaign for tougher gun restrictions against domestic abusers. Weaver, 29, was shot in the face by her boyfriend in 2010. She spent three years testifying in the Washington State Legislature in support of a firearm surrender bill aimed at domestic abusers that ultimately passed, “and when I would tell my story, they were, like, texting or on Facebook or something,” she says. “But when I would show the pictures, they’d be like, ‘Oh!’”
Such tactics are not without controversy. Four months after the Newtown massacre, Michael Moore wrote a roundly criticized Huffington Post column in which he theorized that if the public could see what an assault rifle fired at close range did to a child’s body, “the jig will be up for the NRA.” The suggestion didn’t sit well with the families of the Newtown victims. “You can imagine what my reaction to that is,” the mother of a dead six-year-old told a Fox News reporter. Phillips, for her part, initially found the idea deplorable — she refuses to look at her daughter’s autopsy photo because, she says, “I don’t want to remember her that way” — but she eventually came around to Moore’s way of thinking when she sat in the Senate gallery during a post-Newtown hearing on gun violence where crime scene photos were shown. “There was a picture of one of the children’s hands that was just shredded by a bullet,” she says. “I was so brokenhearted. And I just thought, wow, he might have a really good point here. If America could see that, then maybe, just maybe, it could make a difference.”
She reached out to Jefferies, concerned that if she showed autopsy photos of her daugher, even just to lawmakers, she’d upset her fellow advocates, many of whom are relatives of gun violence victims. “I said, ‘Sandy, guess what?’” Jefferies recalls telling Phillips. “‘That was your daughter.’ My daughter’s head was blown off with an AK-47 and I don’t care what anybody thinks of my photo, as far as, ‘Oh my god, why would you show that?’ Why wouldn’t I show that?”
Jefferies had taken photos of her daughter Brishell at the medical examiner’s office. The first time she displayed one of them publicly was before the Washington, D.C. city council at a public safety hearing shortly after the shooting. Since then she’s shown the images to lawmakers involved in gun legislation, like Montana Senator Jon Tester and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s at-large congressional representative. “She was like, ‘I don’t want to see this photo,’” Jefferies says of Norton. “No one wanted to see it. They tried to turn their heads. But I didn’t care.”
Abby Spangler, who founded the advocacy group Protest Easy Guns, says Jefferies is changing the nature of the debate over gun control. “Until she pulled out that photo, we’d been fighting this with arguments, truth, reality, statistics — everything under the sun to try to educate Americans,” Spangler says. “She educated more Americans in one second with that photo than most people have for years in this movement. If 100 people came out tomorrow like Nardyne, showing the photographs of their children decimated by bullets, this nation would change.”
Showing such graphic photos is bound to provoke outrage. But Jefferies rejects the notion that her daughter would be upset by it. “I know in my heart Brishell would not have a problem with that photo,” she says. “She would say, ‘If this photo of my death is going to be part of the solution to prevent more photos like this, go for it, mommy.’”
[Photos by Lexey Swall for The Trace]