In 2011, when Gavin Paolini was 2 years old, he was shot and killed by his estranged father in his Fountain, Colorado, home. His mother, Shannon Paolini, was also shot — six times — but survived.
Nearly 700 people were killed that year in domestic violence incidents. Most were women. For a year after the shooting, Paolini was tormented by the presence or sight of firearms. With the encouragement of her stepfather, she began to shoot recreationally. She has since become an enthusiastic gun owner and recreational shooter. She says target practice has helped her heal.
She shared her story with Max Siegelbaum for The Trace. The interview has been condensed and edited.
The first time Gammall pulled the gun on me, I was so shocked. I probably made excuses for him: he’s angry, he was drinking. I should have known right then.
I met him out at a club with my friends. From the very beginning, I felt he was everything I didn’t know. He was from another country, spoke another language. There was all this new and exciting stuff. In my mind, it seemed like he really loved me. It didn’t seem like a bad thing right away.
As time went on, he became possessive and controlling. Even when it came to things like decorating our house; whose mother watched our son; who I hung out with. It got worse and worse, and I finally said, I cannot do this, I am independent, I own the house by myself. I can’t have someone hold me back. I just didn’t think it was healthy for our son to see. A woman shouldn’t be controlled. In November 2010, I kicked him out of the house.
By January, we had already established weekends for our son. On one of his weekends, I heard somebody coming in the house, probably around 3 a.m. It was Gammall with a firearm. He put a pillow over my head and put the gun to it, and said he was going to kill me. But I think he was so intoxicated he just passed out.
Gammall lived with his mother, and she begged me not to call the cops. From then on, I never did. Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.
The final act was in May 2011. He had our son for the weekend. I picked up Gavin and when we got home, I saw his father had been texting and texting me.
I took my son upstairs to his bedroom, and when I turned to walk down the stairs, his dad was there with black gloves on. He was in a rage. “What are you doing? Who are you dating? Where have you been?” A million questions. He punched me right in my face and split my head open. I was bleeding everywhere. He took his shirt off to put on my face. That same gun was in his waistband. I was able to call 911 and leave a running line so they could know something was happening.
The police arrived and he started firing shots into the ceiling and told the police if they didn’t leave he was going to kill us. He poured gasoline all over the house.
He pulled the gun out of his waistband and he said, “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” He also said nobody else was going to raise his son and that we were going to die as a family.
I ran outside. He followed and shot me six times in the back. Then he went back inside shot my son and himself. That’s my story.
He shot me with what they call target rounds, so there are entry and exit wounds for every bullet hole. The detectives on the case found out that he had been going to a shooting range. They thought he was a marksman because of where he shot me. I was shot near the heart; a cluster of veins was blown apart.
If I had talked about my situation more and let people understand how serious it was, maybe somebody could have intervened, but I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I was afraid, and I was embarrassed. I work for the sheriff’s office and the fact that I worked there — and hid this from my coworkers — has weighed on me since it happened.
I’m married now, and I have a little boy. He’s about the same age as my other son was when he passed away. I’m here for something. Six years out, I’m not really sure what it is, but I’m here for something.
After the shooting, I lived with my parents while I was recovering. My stepdad has an arsenal. He’s a hunter and has rifles and handguns. They have an entire bedroom dedicated to loading bullets.
I told my parents, “You guys have to get rid of them, don’t clean them in front of me, don’t have them near me, I don’t want to see them.” As time went on, I had to face that head-on because owning and shooting guns is big in my family. I thought, “I can’t force them to change their lives because of my fears and maybe this is one fear I have to conquer.” And so, one day I said: “He shot me with a 9mm Glock, and that’s the gun I want to shoot.”
So I got a Glock; a 9mm. We went out to a friend’s junkyard in Colorado. I will never forget it. Even just talking about it makes me choke up. I remember how difficult it was to feel the force that killed my son.
I was with my husband, my stepdad, my mom, and my younger brother. It was this big family event. They taught me about gun safety, and I started shooting. I cried my eyes out. While we were driving back, my stepdad talked and talked about what a good shot I was.
To pull the trigger and fire that gun, I think, was a big part of my healing. I have the same gun now in my home.
From 2016: A guide to firearms, intimate partner abuse, and the children, parents and police who become victims, too.
My stepdad was raised hunting and shooting out in the country. His father was also an avid shooter. But my mom said that, after we lost my son, it became almost an obsession because he felt a level of guilt that he couldn’t protect me. It was healing for him.
And, had it not been for him, I don’t know that I would have learned to shoot. He taught me the correct way to handle guns, and it brought us closer together.
These days, I go to gun shows with him, and we go target shooting together. We usually fire handguns or pistols at a range nearby.
I really don’t believe guns are responsible for violence. I think that it is on the person behind the gun. And because of that, if you’ve been charged with any sort of domestic violence crime, you should not be allowed to have a gun.
A lot of people in situations like mine are in denial or embarrassed. Women and men need to know they can talk to people. I think that so many people are struggling with the right way to combat domestic violence.
Take threats seriously. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids. My little guy did not deserve to die.