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Virginia Tech Survivor Is 'Living for 32' in War to Tighten Gun Laws

Dec 31, 2010 – 11:58 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Surviving the deadliest shooting massacre in U.S. history wasn't enough to make Colin Goddard an advocate for stricter gun laws. Only when he watched another rampage play out on TV two years later did the Virginia Tech graduate realize he had to speak out.

"That took me back to the day like none other," Goddard said of another troubled gunman who killed 14 at an immigration center in Binghamton, N.Y. "I was watching the body count rise and I was like, this is just the same stuff that is happening to another family now. ... I was like, I've got to get involved. I've got to do something about this."

What Goddard did was join the nation's largest gun-control organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. At first, he made public-service spots, speaking for the 32 people slain by a deranged gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech. But he also spoke for the 32 people killed every day in gun violence, people whose deaths don't conjure a million hits on Google.

Living for 32
Living for 32
Colin Goddard was shot four times during the Virginia Tech rampage but survived. Now, he's working to tighten a loophole in the gun laws.
"Virginia Tech happening every single day is pretty powerful," said Goddard, one of 17 wounded people to survive the massacre. He was shot four times and still carries bullet fragments in his hips and knee.

Maria Cuomo Cole and Kevin Breslin agreed. With her money and encouragement and his direction, the two scions of New York royalty -- she's the daughter and sister of two governors and the wife of fashion designer Kenneth Cole, he's the son of legendary journalist Jimmy Breslin -- convinced Goddard to let them tell the story of what happened on April 16, 2007.

The result is "Living for 32."

Chosen for next month's Sundance Film Festival and short-listed for an Academy Award, the documentary follows Goddard back to Norris Hall, where he was sitting in French class as the gunman made his way toward the classroom. Goddard managed to call 911 on his cell phone before Seung-Hui Cho burst in and began shooting his classmates one by one, execution style.

The film later goes along with Goddard to gun shows in Ohio and Texas. There, using a hidden camera, he captures dealers and gun owners more than willing to sell him firearms without so much as asking his name, let alone running a background check.

"Living for 32" is a "great educational tool" to demonstrate why the gun show loophole that allows anyone to buy a firearm from a private seller without a background check must be closed, he said.

It also gives Goddard, now 25, a break from constantly retelling his story as a "Virginia Tech survivor."

Another Gun-Control Activist

Goddard first recounted the ordeal of "the craziest day of my life" from his hospital room soon after the attack. Then he tried to move on with his life.

He returned to Virginia Tech to finish his degree. He traveled, volunteered on Barack Obama's presidential campaign and worked as a clerk in the Virginia Legislature in Richmond, where his parents live. But once he decided to become what one newspaper called "a walking, talking poster boy for gun control," he had plenty of role models.

Carolyn McCarthy was a nurse in suburban New York when her husband was murdered and her son wounded by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993. She now is starting her eighth term in Congress, where she is a leading proponent for gun control.

More than a decade earlier, White House press secretary James Brady was seriously wounded in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The group Goddard works for was named for Brady and his wife, Sarah, an ardent activist.

Among Goddard's generation, though, "If you say James Brady, they think he's Tom Brady's brother."

The film is likely to raise Goddard's profile. Yet it comes amid a series of setbacks for supporters of stricter gun laws.

From the lifting of a ban on the sale of assault weapons to a more recent Supreme Court decision affirming an individual right to bear arms, the legal landscape has become a minefield for gun-control supporters. The impending takeover of the House by Republicans all but assures any gun control legislation will be DOA.

Other than McCarthy and lawmakers from urban areas, most national Democrats have abandoned what once was a signature issue. Some have even reveled in the National Rifle Association's embrace to win over rural and conservative voters.

Goddard has already gotten a feel for Capitol Hill realities. Soon after becoming the Brady Campaign's assistant director of federal legislation in June, he testified at a "forum" on the gun show loophole. Congressional staffers said he couldn't get a more formal hearing because the NRA -- which did not show up -- would have demanded equal time. "I think that's ridiculous," he said.

A 'Young American'

For Breslin, who inherited his father's gruff edges, Goddard is a "young American" whose story connects with average people "without juicing it" and in a way an inner-city minority kid mixed up in drugs or street violence cannot.

"He's not some New Yorker with a big mouth," Breslin said as he sat beside Goddard at the Brady Campaign, a nondescript office tucked behind bulletproof glass inside a purposely undisclosed downtown building here. "He's not threatening. He's not even angry. He's likable and poised."

Goddard is clean-cut but not exactly typical.

Virginia Tech, shooting, Colin Goddard, gunman Seung-Hui Cho,
Amy Sancetta, AP
Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho bought his weapons legally from licensed firearms dealers. They conducted background checks, but those checks did not turn up information on Cho's history of mental illness.
The son of international aid workers, he traveled the world with his family and spent just six years living in the United States before college. There he enrolled in ROTC, training with M-16s, before deciding the military life wasn't for him. The summer after the shooting, he hunted wild duck in Madagascar. He has no problem with those who keep firearms in their home for protection, as long as they get them legally.

Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, bought his guns legally from licensed firearms dealers who conducted federally mandated background checks. Yet information about his erratic behavior and history of mental illness never showed up in records.

Efforts to improve record-keeping have often come up against Second Amendment purists "programmed to say gun control is bad," Goddard said.

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Citing a survey last year by Republican pollster Frank Luntz that found most gun owners support "sensible" measures, he said, "If you say, 'Forget gun control. How about background checks on all sales at gun shows?' 'Oh,' they say, 'that sounds reasonable.' "

Still, Goddard acknowledges that "Americans have grown apathetic to gun violence" and that his work, just as his life since that April morning, will not be easy.

"There are tough days when another shooting happens or some bad piece of legislation passes," he said. "It is somewhat like a roller-coaster ride. I feel like the whole past three years has been a roller coaster."
Filed under: Nation, Politics, Crime, AOL Original
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