A wide array of legal issues arise for survivors and victims’ family members in the wake of mass shootings. Probate matters are common—easier when the victim had a will, and harder with young or low-income adults who commonly don’t have them. When parents are killed or debilitated by injury, they need lawyers to sort out child custody or guardianship matters. People impacted by mass shootings can get government crime victim compensation funds but may need help navigating the bureaucracy to obtain them. They may come into money donated by the public and require attorneys to ensure they get the funds they’re entitled to receive.
The frequency of mass shootings has prompted a growing web of bar associations across the nation to independently create pro bono programs to help those affected. Attorneys are flocking to volunteer. The lawyers who lead these pro bono efforts have started unofficially collaborating by sharing forms and documents, explaining what’s on the horizon and sharing the best methods to deal with the grim reality.
There’s mounting evidence of a contagion effect in media coverage of mass shootings and school shootings, but experts say that most journalists know nothing about the research. Victims’ advocates and academic scholars who urge media reform have said the media is doing better at reporting more about victims, survivors and the community, but they feel frustrated by their lack of progress in getting the press to limit the use of mass shooters’ names and images. Because reporters and editors know that reporting about mass shooters can help society by highlighting problems and potential solutions, it’s key that journalists themselves start a discussion about how to fulfill their duty to society, while also limiting the harmful effects of mass shooting coverage.
Last year, a Houston lawyer went to Las Vegas to attend a country music festival but came home a survivor of a tragic type of mass violence that has become all too common in modern America.
When a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at the Route 91 Harvest festival, killing 58 concertgoers and wounding 546, this attorney survived using the survival mindset she had learned when her law firm hosted an active shooter defense course at the office.
“I’ve had four people come forward and tell me the training I’ve provided saved their lives when an active shooter showed up,” says Stephen Daniel, the Houston Police Department instructor and senior community liaison who trained the survivor at her law firm. Daniel says she and her firm wished to remain anonymous because the shooting was so traumatic.
In a country where mass shootings happen with increasing frequency, it’s becoming more common for law firms to bring active shooter defense instructors on-site to teach their lawyers and staff about how to survive a shooting situation. Daniel says he’s taught attorneys at 30 Houston-area law firms about the “run, hide, fight” method of surviving an active shooter. Daniel was one of the active shooter instructors to present sessions at successive annual conferences of the Association of Legal Administrators, where some law firm administrators first got the idea to bring the active shooter training to their firms.
“I was processing the totality of it. I saw right then and there we were going to have family law issues, probate issues,” Wilson County Attorney Tom Caldwell recalled. “When I came home that night, I was so shook up by it, I told my wife I would handle them all. She said, ‘No, you are not.’”
Next, he called for help from his friend, Tom Keyser, a past president of the San Antonio Bar Association, who put Caldwell in touch with SABA’s Community Justice Program, which assists low-income people with civil legal matters.
That connection set a plan in motion that eventually attracted 100 lawyers from the San Antonio community who pledged to volunteer to help victims, survivors and their families with legal issues that arose from the tragic shooting. SABA’s Sutherland Springs initiative has already called upon half of those 100 volunteer attorneys, helping with matters large and small—from answering a client’s question over the phone, to taking on full representation. All of the lawyers gave their services free of charge, and volunteer attorneys are still standing by today to help survivors and victims’ families with legal issues that spring up later.
The reporter who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing initially thought she was in Charleston, South Carolina, to chronicle the lives of nine church-goers who died in 2015 when a stranger with a Glock murdered them while they were praying.
The names, mug shots and one paragraph each about the lives of those nine victims did make it into Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s story, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof,” published in GQ in September 2017.
But the rest of her over 12,000-word story told the tale of their killer instead. Ghansah spared nothing in tracking down intimate details of the shooter’s life, coming from his childhood friends, elementary school principal, church minister, co-workers, teenage pals and more. The reporter went back to his birth, telling of the isolation of his school years as a low-income white boy, can’t-get-out-of-bed depression, rancid racism, incessant preparations for killing African-American parishioners and his death sentence for a federal hate crime conviction.
It’s an incredible work of journalism, but also an example of the type of mass shooting coverage that’s maddening to advocates who, for years, have tried to little avail to persuade the media to stop publishing the names and images of mass shooters.