For most of American history, gun ownership was understood to be a collective right tied to militia membership. But that changed in 2008, when The U.S. Supreme Court established for the first time that gun ownership is an individual right. In Episode 5 of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” host Garrett Graff speaks with the architect of the seismic District of Columbia v. Heller case about his search for the perfect plaintiff, and his surprising views on gun regulation today.

Graff and The Trace’s Jennifer Mascia examine the years after Heller passed, which saw an unprecedented gun sales boom. Red states began loosening barriers to gun access, and guns were in more places and in more hands than they’d ever been before. At the same time, the National Rifle Association trotted out its most successful marketing strategy: defensive gun use. But laws passed by NRA surrogates in Congress that prioritized gun rights and protected the gun industry also hamstrung law enforcement and made it harder to solve gun crimes.

One of those laws immunized gun makers and dealers from most lawsuits. Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessi, died in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, came up against that legal barrier when she tried to sue the online ammunition dealer that supplied the gunman. Her suit was dismissed, and she was ordered to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees. The judgment bankrupted her. She and her husband fled to Mexico, where they’re able to go out in public without fear of a mass shooter. Before she left the U.S., Phillips started Survivors Empowered, a grim welcome committee for families who’ve experienced the inconceivable.

“Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: A note for listeners: In this episode and across this season, there are repeated mentions of guns, gun violence, and their collective toll on our society and our psyche. This episode also contains explicit language. Please take care while you listen. 

Bob Levy: I think I may be the only attorney you’ve ever met, where a hundred percent of the cases I’ve ever litigated had been victories in the Supreme Court. Of course, I don’t tell anybody that the number of cases I’ve litigated is only one.

Garrett Graff: This is Robert Levy. That one case he litigated is perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of the American gun debate. It’s known as D.C. vs Heller. It started in 2002. Washington, D.C. had a longstanding ban on handguns.

Bob Levy: You couldn’t have a handgun at all. You could have a long gun, a rifle or shotgun, but you had to have it either disassembled or trigger-locked. And so unless you intended to club somebody over the head with it, it wasn’t gonna be useful as a means of self-defense.

Garrett Graff: Levy was invited to join a lawsuit against the district. Surprisingly, Levy doesn’t consider himself a gun rights proponent. He says he’s not particularly interested in guns.

Bob Levy: I was animated by the violation of the Constitution by Washington, D.C.

Garrett Graff: Levy agreed to work on the case because he believed in the “individual rights” interpretation of the Second Amendment. It’s a view that first emerged in a 1960 article by a legal scholar and was later popularized by Harlon Carter, Marion Hammer, and other NRA leaders. One basis for this view was evidence that as Englishmen, the framers of the Constitution had enjoyed the right to bear arms for protection through English common law. And proponents of the individual rights view claim that that right was also guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights — not just in the service of the militia, but also for self-defense. 

Bob Levy: That right to defend yourself reaches its peak within the confines of your own home.

Garrett Graff: This view has been refuted for decades. Some historians argue that firearms in that age weren’t even practical tools for self-defense. Think muskets or black powder rifles: Loading a single round took too long to be effective. For most of history, the Supreme Court had not weighed in on the matter, and several U.S. courts had previously upheld that the right to bear arms was indeed limited to militia service. In a 1991 interview on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Chief Justice Warren Burger claimed special interest groups like the NRA had deceived Americans.

[Warren Burger: This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.]

Garrett Graff: But in 2001, Bush’s administration had affirmed the individual rights interpretation. In a two-page letter to the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “The text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protect the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms.” In his letter, Ashcroft cited Ivy-league liberal scholars who supported the view. Alan Dershowitz admittedly hated guns, but he agreed with his peers. And by then, pro-gun laws like right-to-carry had swept the nation. In Levy’s view, the time seemed ripe to settle the debate for good in the Supreme Court, which happened to be stacked with conservatives.

Bob Levy: So we had the federal government that seemed to be on our side. And we had some liberal commentators who were respected on the left that took the individual rights view.

Garrett Graff: The stakes were extremely high. If they lost, they were risking the rights of all Americans. But Levy and his team persisted. They just needed to find the perfect plaintiffs. They were looking for a diverse group of law-abiding D.C. residents, who strongly believed the Second Amendment gave them a right to bear arms for self-defense. And ideally, they had to be relatable – there needed to be a reasonable justification for why they needed a gun. In other words, a good reason to be afraid.

Bob Levy: There had to be a good story to tell because a lot of times public interest cases are litigated in the court of public opinion, in addition to the usual court. 

Garrett Graff: One plaintiff was a gay man who’d survived a homophobic assault. Another was a woman who’d been repeatedly harassed and threatened by local drug dealers. Their fears were understandable. But there was a problem. The plaintiffs had to have “legal standing.” This just means that they had to have been injured by the D.C. law being challenged. 

Bob Levy: It wasn’t enough to claim that you wanted a gun, you had to go buy one and be prosecuted and essentially risk being put in jail for having done that.

Garrett Graff: In 2007, the team brought the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. And in the end, five out of six of the original plaintiffs were dismissed. The court of appeals had determined that only one plaintiff had sufficient standing — a man named Dick Heller.

Bob Levy: So, Dick Heller actually applied for a gun and he was turned down. None of our other five plaintiffs did that.

Garrett Graff: Heller carried a gun every day for his job as a guard at a federal office building. But after work, he had to turn in his gun. D.C. law prevented him from taking it home. Because he had standing, Heller became the lead and only plaintiff in the case. For the first time in American history, the Supreme Court would weigh in on the Second Amendment. And after five long years building their case, they finally got a decision in March 2008. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the court.

[Justice Antonin Scalia: We hold that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to have and use arms for self-defense in the home, and that the District’s handgun ban, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be rendered inoperative, violates that right.]

Garrett Graff: The court was split 5-4. They won. Dick Heller was hailed a gun rights hero. However, the Court’s opinion included one significant stipulation, a point that’s often overlooked. 

[Justice Antonin Scalia: The Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever, in any manner whatsoever, and for whatever purpose.]

Garrett Graff: Surprisingly, Levy – a man who helped win possibly the greatest victory for gun rights in our history – believes in gun regulation.

Bob Levy: The Second Amendment establishes a presumption that you have the right to keep and bear arms. But it’s a rebuttable presumption in the same manner that the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law” infringing on free speech. But we have all kinds of laws [that] infringe on free speech. You can’t falsely shout fire in a crowd of theater. And you can’t defame people. You can’t incite a riot. So there are lots of laws. And I count myself among those who support reasonable gun regulations.

Garrett Graff: In many ways, that word reasonable would be at the heart of the gun debate for years to come. The question becomes: How can you reasonably regulate firearm ownership without violating the Second Amendment? I’m Garrett Graff, and from Long Lead, PRX, and Campside Media, in collaboration with The Trace, this is season three of Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust. Episode 5: “A Good Guy with a Gun.”

Jennifer Mascia: My name is Jennifer Mascia. I am a gun violence reporter, and I work at The Trace, which is the nation’s only outlet for covering gun violence.

Garrett Graff: Jennifer Mascia has been my co-reporter on this season of Long Shadow, which is produced in collaboration with The Trace. Jen was the Trace’s first reporter. She’s now covered gun violence for more than a decade, investigated the gun industry, and had a front-row seat to both the particular horror of mass shootings and the specific tragedy of the day-to-day toll of firearms on American lives. 

Jennifer Mascia: One of the reasons I got involved with covering gun violence was because we wanted to know who gets shot in between the mass shootings, because those don’t make headlines. And even certain mass shootings don’t make headlines if the body count isn’t high enough and if the victims aren’t seen as innocent enough or if they come from a certain background.

Garrett Graff: In working on this show, Jen and I — and the show’s producers Emily and Aleah — spent hours discussing how the role of guns has changed in recent years. And Jen kept coming back to one important point: the origins and evolution of “defensive gun use” in America. Though the individual right to bear arms for self-defense was only affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2008, before that, 43 states already guaranteed the individual right to bear arms in their state constitutions. And the use of firearms for self-defense goes back over a century, to a time before there were local police departments, when you couldn’t just dial up 911. 

Jennifer Mascia: In the early 20th century, you look at women’s magazines and family magazines, and there are ads in there for defensive gun use. A 1913 ad I came across for Savage Arms had a woman defending herself with a 10-shot Savage Automatic. But it wasn’t the lion’s share of gun use. So it was seen as kind of, like, a splinter market. It wasn’t as primary as hunting, shooting, sport. It was Oh, guns have this also added benefit. If you’re a woman defenseless in her home with a child, you can use our product and you can defend yourself. So, until the mid-seventies, three-quarters of gun industry ads were for hunting and sports shooting, and less than five percent were marketed for protection. And by 2019, less than five percent of the ads promoted guns for hunting and sports shooting.

Garrett Graff: As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, the philosophy and justification of defensive gun use became the animating force of the gun rights debate in the 80s and 90s, alongside the proliferation of handguns, which are easy to handle and easy to conceal, and which were marketed specifically for self-defense. 

Jennifer Mascia: But the good guy with a gun concept that we all know and love today really took off after Florida passed Stand Your Ground in 2005. The NRA and the gun industry that was producing these weapons put the message out there that you’re not safe unless you have a gun, that there are criminals around every corner and the police are too far away to help you. And in some places that is true. But in a lot of places it’s not. And it helped reinforce the idea that guns equal safety.

Garrett Graff: Stand Your Ground aimed to amend state laws based on what was known as Castle Doctrine. Those laws, which trace back to medieval England, posited that a man’s home is his castle and that he has the right to defend it using deadly force if necessary. However, this only applied inside the home. If a person was confronted or attacked in the public square, they had a legal duty to retreat to safety. In other words: escape, run away, don’t fight back. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer had a problem with that part about retreating. She felt American self-defense laws were antiquated and inadequate. Remember, she often referred to a story about how she’d once been accosted by a group of men in a car. She’d scared them off by drawing her pistol. But if she had fired her weapon in that moment, she could have been arrested and prosecuted.  

[Marion Hammer: What I like to call “bleeding heart criminal coddlers” want you to give a criminal an even break so that when you’re attacked you’re supposed to turn around and run. Rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.]

Garrett Graff: Hammer felt that she and any other citizen should have the right to not only draw their firearm if and when they feel their life is in danger, but also to use it.

[Marion Hammer: We needed to be sure that when people protected themselves, their families and their property, that they weren’t gonna be prosecuted.]

Garrett Graff: Stand Your Ground laws extended the right to use deadly force in the home to public spaces and eliminated the duty to retreat. In order to exercise this right, you had to meet just one low bar under the law: You had to prove that you feared for your life. It was a pro-gun law that not even Harlon Carter could have conceived of. And just like with other pro-gun Florida laws, NRA leaders had hoped Stand Your Ground would set a precedent and take off in other states. Here’s Wayne LaPierre.

[Wayne LaPierre: I think this bill is gonna sweep across the country because people want to be able to protect themselves. And they don’t want to be second-guessed by what action they take at the scene of a crime.]

Garrett Graff: Over time, Stand Your Ground would be implemented in 38 other states.  And it would transform public life in America. 

Jennifer Mascia: It’s as if once that law was passed, it was balls to the wall on the concept of defensive gun use being the primary reason for gun ownership. That’s when NRA executives first trotted out that phrase in interviews: “good guy with a gun.” The NRA president in 2005 was talking about it. Wayne LaPierre started focus-grouping it in public interviews in 2007, and then in 2012 it reached its apex.

[Wayne LaPierre: The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.]

Jennifer Mascia: No matter what, they will always hew to this argument because it is the most successful argument for selling guns in America. 

Garrett Graff: You can see this shift reflected in gun sales. After the so-called Barack Boom, gun production peaks and continues to surge. For a product designed to kill, the most effective way to increase demand is fear. 

Jennifer Mascia: We used to produce and import about 7 million guns for the domestic market a year on average. And now it’s north of 15 million on average.  

Garrett Graff: More than half of firearms produced today are handguns.

Jennifer Mascia: For most of American history, rifles and shotguns regularly outsold revolvers and pistols. That changed the first time in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency. That’s the first year handguns overtook long guns in our history.

Garrett Graff: In many ways, this is the moment when America finally recognizes how ubiquitous guns have become in modern life. For decades, the gun rights movement had been advancing, but not many people had noticed the sea change taking place in state houses across the country. And then, in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, guns were in more places, in more hands than they’d ever been before. Thanks to the Supreme Court, pro-gun state legislators and federal lawmakers, there were fewer rules — and there were a lot more guns. Firearms were no longer just for hunting nor a symbol of rural traditions, and they weren’t just in the hands of criminals and gangs. Guns were everywhere. It was the culmination of decades of political influence by the gun industry and the NRA. 

Jennifer Mascia: If you think about the type of market penetration that cigarettes enjoyed, you know, at one point we were smoking on planes. That kind of thing is unimaginable today. There were high schools where there were smoking sections. The NRA, I feel like their goal was to get guns to that point of market penetration, where it’s no big deal. You know, you drive to school, you have a gun in the glove. And you come back out and you drive home. And it’s, it’s just no big deal to have guns everywhere.

[Wayne LaPierre: All of you in this room this morning, instinctively know if I don’t want to be thirsty, I drink water. If I don’t want to be hungry, I eat food. And if I don’t want my family attacked or murdered, I own a gun.]

Garrett Graff: It’s legal in all 50 states to carry a concealed weapon and 13 million Americans are licensed to do so. Jen recently co-reported a story for The Trace about the increasing prevalence of guns in public spaces. Nothing illustrates that rise more than this: She found that in 2005, TSA officers had intercepted 660 guns from carry-on bags at security screenings across the nation’s airports. But in 2023, they seized more than 6,500 guns and nine out of 10 of them were loaded. Most of the travelers the TSA stopped had simply forgotten that they were carrying their gun at airport security, where most of the time we still take off our shoes before walking through the metal detectors. But while most American gun owners today say that they own guns primarily for protection and self-defense, it’s hard to tell how often people actually use guns to defend themselves. Police departments don’t track it, and while the FBI does tally  “justifiable homicides,” those records don’t include injuries. The gun industry often points to a dubious study that says Americans use guns defensively approximately two and a half million times a year. But few outside the gun industry believe it’s anywhere close to that prevalent. It’s almost surely a fraction of that number, probably a tiny fraction. Jen says that figure appears to be significantly inflated when you look at the data.

Jennifer Mascia: There aren’t 2.5 million instances of criminal gun violence every year. There were about 45,000 shootings last year where someone was injured or killed. So the idea that people are using guns in self defense more than they’re using them criminally doesn’t add up. 

Garrett Graff: The National Crime Victimization Survey found 70,000 instances of defensive gun uses a year — that’s instances where someone believes they used a gun to protect themselves and deter crime. The biannual federal survey is conducted through phone calls to people who have been victims of a crime. But there are issues with that data too.

Jennifer Mascia: People tend to overstate their role in self-defense encounters. It’s a phenomenon that’s called social desirability bias, where people exaggerate something that they were involved in that’s commendable or heroic, like fending off an attacker. I mean, that’s like the most admirable thing you can do, right? Protect your family, protect your friends, protect your loved ones. But the truth is, a lot of times, what they think of as defensive gun use is assault. You know, diffusing an argument by flashing a gun at a friend is not heading off a crime.

Garrett Graff: We’re all too familiar these days with horrifying, tragic stories of people being shot for knocking on a stranger’s door, pulling into the wrong driveway, going for a run in the wrong neighborhood, or mistakenly trying to get into the wrong car in a parking lot. Often the victims in those incidents are people of color, innocent civilians shot by someone claiming they were in fear for their life. Incidents from one perspective that might be considered self-defense but are actually deadly cases of overreaction — assault, manslaughter, or worse. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law became the subject of national controversy on a February night in 2012. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black boy, was shot on his way home from buying Skittles at a convenience store. Martin had been followed by George Zimmerman, a volunteer for the local neighborhood watch who thought the teen looked suspicious and called 911.

[George Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.]

[Dispatcher: Okay.]

[George Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.]

[Dispatcher: Okay.]

Garrett Graff: The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin. He did so anyway.

[George Zimmerman: Shit, he’s running.]

[Dispatcher: He’s running? Which way is he running?]

[George Zimmerman: Down towards the, uh, other entrance of the neighborhood.]

[Dispatcher: Okay. Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards?]

[George Zimmerman: The back entrance. Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away.]

Garrett Graff: Zimmerman claimed self-defense. He was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013. The case captured the nation’s attention and helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement. The shooting even shook President Barack Obama. 

[President Barack Obama: When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is: Trayvon Martin could have been me.]

Garrett Graff: And amid that unrest, this is when Stand Your Ground laws began to spread across the country. It’s the self-perpetuating cycle of expanding gun rights that we’ve seen so many times already: The answer to the danger of more guns is even more guns. While guns make many Americans feel safer, the little research we have shows that in reality, the opposite is true. And there’s an important reason we don’t have good research. In the mid-1990s, the CDC conducted a study which found that having a gun in the home meant you were 200 percent more likely to accidentally shoot a family member, and the risk of suicide was five times greater. Research like that is data the NRA and the gun industry doesn’t want Americans to know. And as gun rights have expanded across the country, they’ve fought to hide a true accounting of the toll of gun violence. In the wake of that 1996 study, 10 lawmakers wrote a letter accusing the CDC of political advocacy and “anti-gun bias.” Those gun-friendly lawmakers did more than just write an angry letter. Arkansas Congressman Jay Dickey attached a provision to that year’s appropriations bill that became known as the Dickey Amendment. It barred the use of federal funding from advocating for, or promoting, gun control.

Jennifer Mascia: Congress took $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, which was the exact amount the CDC had invested the previous year in firearm injury research. And it was a clear message: Use public funds to study gun violence and you’ll lose your whole budget. So the only studies going on for decades were privately funded.

Garrett Graff: As a result, federally funded research on gun violence stalled for more than two decades until 2019, when Congress finally clarified that the law does not prohibit funding to study gun violence. Jay Dickey ultimately came to regret his namesake amendment. In 2015, Dickey told NPR he hadn’t intended for his legislation to bring public research to a halt.

[Representative Jay Dickey: The thing that really brought this to my mind was watching as the little barricades were set up between the interstate to stop head-on collisions. The highway industry spent money in their scientific research to figure out what could be done, assuming that they were going to allow cars to continue to be on our highways. Enormous reduction of head-on collisions has been caused just by that little two-and-a-half, three-foot fence. We could do the same in the gun industry.]

Jennifer Mascia: You know, it’s unfortunate that he didn’t come to this conclusion sooner. We lost decades. But now there’s actually been an explosion in gun violence research.

Garrett Graff: Today, according to the CDC, more people are killed by guns than in car accidents each year — 133 Americans every day. It’s a sobering number. Almost 50,000 dead every year. Almost as many Americans dead from guns every year as were killed in the decade of combat in Vietnam. More than half of those deaths are suicides. The rest — homicides and accidental shootings. And gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children.  

Jennifer Mascia: Guns have reshaped American society. Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t think twice about going to a parade. We didn’t worry when we were going to the mall or sitting in a movie theater. Things have really changed. We’re teaching our kids active shooter drills in kindergarten. And the truth is that bullets don’t have names on them. And any one of us could be cut down by a bullet. It is an equal opportunity threat in America.

Garrett Graff: More after the break.

Garrett Graff: By the late 2000s, it was becoming clear that background checks and waiting periods alone weren’t enough to stem the national tide of gun violence. Most guns used in crimes started off being purchased legally, and as America reckoned with a rising number of mass shootings, all too many of those firearms had been purchased by the perpetrator legally. In 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. It was the nation’s deadliest shooting since Columbine. In the years ahead, an ever-growing list of communities would become part of the national shorthand of tragic massacres, forever linked in our collective memory to unimaginable horrors, reminders that these shootings could happen anywhere, anytime. In 2009, a gunman killed 13 people at a civic association in Binghamton, New York. He bought two guns legally at a store. Later that year, a gunman killed 13 people inside a medical processing building at Fort Hood, Texas. He bought the gun legally at a store. In 2011, a gunman killed six people at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, and injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. He bought the gun legally at a store. And on July 20th, 2012, a gunman dressed in tactical gear entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, with four guns he purchased legally, including an AR-15. He carried 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for a semiautomatic rifle, and 350 shells for a 12-gauge shotgun, all of which he bought online. Sandy Phillips’ daughter, Jessi Redfield Ghawi, was in the audience that night. She had gone to see the midnight premiere of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. 

Sandy Phillips: I used to say she was like a Labrador puppy. She came into the room and it was just, I’m here, you know. She was just big and fun and full of that positive energy.

Garrett Graff: Jessi was a 24-year-old aspiring sports journalist. She especially loved covering hockey.

[Jessi Ghawi: What about players coming in and out throughout the entire season? You get guys that come down from the NHL, and you have guys that are coming in from the Coyotes. How does that change the dynamic of the team?]

[Interviewee: Uh, a little bit. I mean, it’s uh, this is a crazy business.]

Sandy Phillips: Fell in love with it. It was like, you know, almost an addiction with her. She just loved everything about it. She loved the players. She loved researching them. When she was working in the hockey world, she was just happier than I’ve ever seen her.

[Interviewee: You’re nailin’ it. I’m tellin’ you what. So far, so good.]

[Jessi Ghawi: I know, I’m doing such a great job. This is full fail. OK, y’all have struggled with the Texas Stars. What’s that been about?]

[Interviewee: Uh, you know, we were on a pretty high streak.]

Garrett Graff: Jessi had recently had an eerie, traumatic experience. She was visiting her boyfriend in Toronto, Canada. They’d gone shopping at Eaton Mall and were planning to have lunch there. She’d been craving sushi. But then, all of a sudden, Jessi was overcome by a strange feeling. Something told her to get out, immediately. She and her boyfriend left the mall and, moments later, she learned there was an active shooter inside the food court. She stood outside the mall stunned as she watched a man who’d been shot wheeled into an ambulance. Distraught and frozen with fear, Jessi had called her mom, Sandy.  

Sandy Phillips: And I told her, I said, “Sweetheart, you have seen the worst of mankind today, and you’ll never see it again.” 

Garrett Graff: Jessi wrote about that experience in a blog post. She wrote that she was grateful to be alive. Here’s Jen Mascia reading Jessi’s words.

Jennifer Mascia: I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

Sandy Phillips: Six weeks later we were burying her.

Garrett Graff: Jessi was among 12 people killed in the Aurora shooting. Seventy others were injured.

Sandy Phillips: I felt really guilty about lying to her. But at the time I was very naive to how often this happens in the world, but certainly in the United States. And I’ve often wondered, as the shots were being fired, if she thought about what I told her and if she had time to say, Well, here it is happening again.

[Police officer 1: … white car in the rear of the lot. Is that a suspect?]

[Police officer 2: Yes. We’ve got rifles, gas masks.]

[Police officer 1: OK. Hold that position. Hold your suspect.]

Garrett Graff: The massacre in Aurora was unusual in that the shooter, a 24-year-old man, was arrested alive. He lived to face a trial and though he admitted to the killings, he pled guilty by reason of insanity. He was found guilty of 165 charges, and he received 12 life sentences and more than 3,000 years in prison. Within months of the shooting, Sandy began to receive calls inviting her to visit other communities devastated by gun violence. She and her husband have traveled the country in an RV for years meeting with other grieving families, offering something few first responders can truly give — understanding. 

Sandy Phillips: I always believe that if you’re truthful with a survivor, that gives them hope. So, in Parkland we met one family early-early on, and I went over to their, we went over to their house. And the first thing I said to her is: “I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.” And I said, “You woke up this morning, saying, Why wasn’t it me? And Why am I still alive and my son’s dead? And she just looked at me with this, you know, like, That’s exactly what I was thinking. You know, we talk about Uvalde Strong, Las Vegas Strong, Aurora Strong, you know, we have all these strong, strong, strong, which I absolutely hate because what it says to those who are directly affected is Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with your life. You’re strong. No, you’re broken. And in some cases you’re so broken, you don’t even realize you’re broken for several years. And then you hit that wall and you crumble.

Garrett Graff: Sandy and her husband created what they call the Survivor[s] Toolkit, to help other families grappling with the daunting practicalities and decisions that inevitably follow when you lose a loved one in a mass shooting: like what to do when the media is knocking on your door, or how to work with politicians, or what risks to weigh when considering a lawsuit.

Sandy Phillips: We just feel it’s really important to people that are new to know that they’ve got some kind of guidance, because we didn’t have any.

Garrett Graff: Sandy and her family had once considered sharing autopsy photos with lawmakers, hoping that might be enough to spur change. But they ultimately decided against it. It would be too much to bear and too great a risk; the photos could end up in the wrong hands. These are the choices it’s impossible to prepare for. But there’s something else that’s particularly challenging to prepare families for — the uniquely American phenomenon of influencer-driven conspiracy theories. Sandy remembers warning a father who’d lost his son in the Parkland shooting. He was initially hesitant to speak with anyone.

Sandy Phillips: And I said, um, we don’t want to invade your privacy and your personal space at this time. But let me tell you that right now there are Facebook pages saying that this shooting didn’t happen, that your son is a paid actor, that you are paid actors, and, you know, that you work for the government or whatever … deep state, um, that whoever is writing it wants to say. And he went, “That’s not a real thing, is it?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, unfortunately it is.”

[Host: Earlier today on the Alex Jones Show, Alex broke down how this incident and this shooting, you know, it looks like a false flag attack. And, you know, there’s no doubt that this has psyop written all over it.]

[Alex Jones: One-hundred percent chance that the mass murder committed in the suburb of Denver, Colorado, right next to Littleton and Columbine, was a false flag mind control event.]

[News clip: Right-wing conspiracy theories going viral about David Hogg, a 17-year-old Parkland shooting survivor. The unsubstantiated claims say he’s a crisis actor, a trained actor who takes advantage of tragedies for political gain.]

Sandy Phillips: The initial trauma is one thing, but then you go through all the harassment that you get if you speak out.

Garrett Graff: Sandy and her husband sued the gun dealer Lucky Gunner that sold ammunition to the man who killed their daughter. That online sale had not even require a driver’s license. They didn’t sue for money but instead asked for Lucky Gunner to change their business practices and better vet their customers.

Sandy Phillips: Because if they’re doing this every day, who else are they doing and setting up for this kind of heartache?

Garrett Graff: But the lawsuit was dismissed in 2015 because of that Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act — PLCAA. President Bush, remember, had signed PLCAA into law in 2005. It gave the gun industry broad immunity from civil liability lawsuits and helped create the business environment that fueled the rapid increase in gun production and sales in the 2000s. And in Sandy’s case, PLCAA did exactly what it was meant to do — it allowed the gun industry to draw a line between its products and what people did with them. However a customer might use a gun or ammunition wasn’t their legal problem. Lucky Gunner didn’t have to change a thing. In fact, it would go on to sell ammunition to another mass shooter, in 2018 — a 17-year-old, who killed 10 people and injured 13 others at Santa Fe High School in New Mexico. Because of a Colorado immunity law, Sandy and her husband were actually ordered to pay the gun dealer’s legal fees – more than $200,000. They had to sell their home and file for bankruptcy. Now, they live in Mexico.

Sandy Phillips: It took everything from us. Um, and that’s part of the reason why we’re living in Mexico. And people say, Oh, aren’t you worried in Mexico? It’s so dangerous. And it’s like, Do you remember where my daughter was killed? She was in the theater, doing absolutely nothing except watching a movie. So, no, it’s not more dangerous down here. And quite frankly, I have to say it’s been a blessing. We are away from the fear that we had living in America. I don’t sit with my back looking out into a restaurant anymore. We eat outside without fear. It’s just a whole different, the quality of life is just so much better for us here.

Garrett Graff: And in these quiet moments, free from fear, Sandy’s often reminded of Jessi. 

Sandy Phillips: It’s been 4,200 days today since she’s been gone. That’s a lot of days to be without my baby. I am spiritual; I’m not terribly religious. Although I was raised in the church, I’m just not a religious person. But after Jessi was killed, I was like, Where is she? Is there a heaven? What has happened to my baby? And one of her very good friends is a scientist, and he said, “You know, all we are is energy and we’re bottled in this body of ours. And energy has no beginning and it has no end. It’s eternal. It morphs. It becomes something else. But it’s there.” And that helped me more than any sermon, any preacher. That helped me more than anything. And it changed how I mourn my daughter. I talk to Jessi every day. I really do. I feel her around me all the time — and it helps.

Garrett Graff: Next time on Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust.

Alain Stephens: It’s like a nightmare, where it’s like, you’re sitting inside your house, right, and you’re at the window, and you see everyone outside arguing, and there’s a boulder that’s going to kill them all. And you’re screaming at the window, right.

Jennifer Mascia: When we kick the can down the road, it ends up being the problem of schools, and school resource officers, and people who are not trained to deal with this.

Congressman: It fails pretty badly, and what I realized was that, it wasn’t that we were losing the argument, or that our argument wasn’t good enough. It just that we lacked political power.

Alain Stephens: Americans are having this visceral conversation and we’re having it in the dark. We have this hard-to-get information and no one’s asking for it, and in the meantime, everyone’s dying.

Congressman: I am 100 percent confident that we are passing universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons in the next five to 10 years. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.

Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX.

This series is hosted and reported by me, Garrett Graff. It was created by myself and executive producer John Patrick Pullen, of Long Lead.

Jennifer Mascia of The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers guns in America, is my co-reporter and a contributing producer for this season.

The show is written by Emily Martinez. Aleah Papes is the associate producer and a contributing writer as well. Matthew Shaer and Emily Martinez also served as executive producers on this season.

Our theme song was composed by Netta Hadari. Sound design by Claire Mullen. Additional engineering by Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and APM. This series was recorded by Joe Egan at Egan Media Productions.

Fact-checking by Emily Barone and Sarah Baum. Audience development by Heather Muse. Cover art by Long Lead’s creative director, Sarah Rogers. Special thanks to Lindsey Kilbride, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Jennifer Bassett who consulted on the podcast.

Stay up to date on this podcast and learn more about Long Lead’s award-winning journalism by subscribing to our newsletter, at

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Thanks for listening.

This episode is largely based on the reporting of Jennifer Mascia, for the Trace. You can find more of her work at You can sign up for The Trace’s newsletter there as well.