Rhonda Fields doesn’t remember exactly how she first heard about the mass shooting in a Louisville, Kentucky, bank on April 10, but she remembers how it felt. “It just breaks my heart all over again,” she said. Fields knows what it means to “have somebody laughing in your kitchen” one moment, only to be robbed of “the promise of their future” the next.

In 2005, Fields’ son and his fiancé were killed in a shooting after he planned to testify in a murder trial. His death was the reason Fields ran for the Colorado House, winning a seat in 2010. In 2012, following a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, which fell within her district at the time, she sponsored a bill banning the sale or possession of high-capacity magazines. Now a state senator, gun reform has remained one of her top legislative priorities.

Colorado State Senator Rhonda Fields makes a point during a 2020 news conference. David Zalubowski/AP

Fields is far from the only politician who has suffered such a tragedy. Throughout state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and legislative halls in the nation’s capital, elected officials are grappling with the harms caused by gun violence. For some, it’s the reason they entered politics in the first place. For others, a personal tragedy during their term becomes one of the defining moments of their political lives.

Such a moment took place in downtown Louisville, when a 25-year-old man walked into the Old National Bank, his place of work, with an AR-15 rifle he bought six days earlier. He used his new purchase to kill five people and wound eight more. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was close with two of the victims, one of whom died. And later that evening, Florida Senator Rick Scott tweeted about that very same person: “My friend Tommy Elliott was killed today in Louisville.” 

Last month, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and his wife Maria shared a similar experience — a friend of theirs was one of the six people killed in The Covenant School shooting in Nashville.

Political leaders have been subjected to more direct forms of gun violence in recent times, too. In February, two New Jersey council members were shot and killed in a single week. In December and January, the homes of four New Mexico elected officials were shot up, allegedly by four men paid by a failed Republican state House candidate. No one was hurt. In February 2022, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, then still a candidate, survived a targeted shooting at his campaign headquarters with only a bullet hole in his sweater.

High-profile shootings involving other legislators include the 2017 attack on the annual Congressional Baseball Game, where Republican Congress members were targeted by a lone gunman during practice. Five people were injured, including then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who almost bled to death. In 2011, Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona survived a bullet to the head during a constituent meeting in the Tucson area. The shooting left six people dead and 13 wounded.

The day after the Louisville mass shooting, KFF, a nonprofit public health research organization formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, published a survey that found 54 percent of U.S. adults said they or a family member had been affected by a gun-related incident.

“I thought it would be higher,” Fields said about the share of Americans affected by gun violence. When she asks her constituents who among them fall into this group, “It’s very few people in communities of color that do not raise their hand,” she said. Just this February, an errant bullet tore through her home while she was away, reportedly due to a nearby confrontation.

Fields said she believes personal experiences with gun violence have the potential to affect legislative and executive agendas. “No one wants this trauma at their [doorstep],” she said. “No one wants to see anyone they love be harmed this way.” 

Indeed, two weeks after the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, Lee signed an executive order that strengthened background checks in Tennessee. He also called on legislators to pass the state’s version of a red flag law, which would allow police to remove guns from people who are regarded as a threat to themselves or others. Less than a year earlier, Lee had resisted calls for similar regulations after a spate of high-profile mass shootings in his state and around the country.

Beshear has offered little indication that he will push for gun restrictions following the Louisville shooting. Kentucky became a Second Amendment Sanctuary — a jurisdiction that refuses to enforce federal and state gun laws it deems unconstitutional — about two weeks before the attack. That law took effect after Beshear neither signed nor vetoed the bill after it was passed by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Tom Sullivan, a Democratic member of the Colorado Senate, is skeptical that legislation passed immediately after mass shootings will have lasting effects. He cited the recent attempt by Florida Republicans to lower the gun purchasing age in that state — which was raised to 21 after the 2018 Parkland shooting — back down to 18. “You allow [representatives] to get distracted by something else, or there isn’t somebody there keeping an eye on them to maintain what you’ve already passed, and they start to pull back on it,” he said.

Sullivan said that letting go of the push for stronger gun laws isn’t something he is willing to do. He ran for office after his son and 11 others lost their lives in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. “Just my presence — of being in [the capitol] building — causes the conversation about gun violence to happen because they can’t look away,” he said.