Tom Mauser

Victim’s father

Video transcript

In a lot of ways, I think, for a lot of folks, Columbine is sort of the beginning of the new era. So just talk about that where we are today and reflect a little bit on what's changed and what's not changed. Well, you know, I think that for a number of, especially, younger, middle-aged people, Columbine was sort of the beginning of, you know, the story of mass shootings in America. There were others before that, but that one really is etched in a lot of minds. And, I think, they've seen that it's continued over the past 20 years. And I, and I think they're saying, "Is this what the future holds also? How much more of this are we going to have?" It seems to be just the-- it's the norm now.

For me April 20th, 1999 started off just like any other day with one big exception. And it was I was leaving that day, about noon, for a conference down in Pueblo and my mind was focused on that one thing. I love going to our transit conferences. And just as I was about to leave, the office-- someone called me in to ask me a series of questions, “Do you have children? Do you live in Jefferson County? Do any of your children go to Columbine?” And finally, when the answer was yes to all of that, they said, "You ought to come to the conference room. We have a TV on. There's something happening at Columbine. I went, and I watched, and I saw a lot of concerned people, and yet, I wasn't terribly concerned. I wanted to go to the conference, and I felt if there was something happening in Columbine my son Daniel certainly wouldn't be involved in it. There's 2,000 students going to Columbine. What are the chances that he was somehow involved in something bad going on? And as the next couple of hours went through, I called home, whenever I could. The phone lines were very busy. When I finally reached home and found out from my wife that she hadn't heard from Daniel, well, that was unfortunate, but I needed to go to the conference.

It was really my co-workers that convinced me to forget about the conference for now and, "You need to go home, and, and, find out what's going on." So, I did. My wife then stayed at home. She had gone to the library at Columbine Public Library, looking for his name on a board and didn't, didn't see it. So, I went-- I then went to the school the nearby school to see if he had been brought there, on a bus. And I waited there for some time, no sign of him. His name wasn't on a board. And finally, at one point, they asked the parents whose children hadn't been accounted for to go to a separate room. And that's when you really start wondering what is going on. What is happening. You go into the room, there are some other parents, and they have counselors there. And then you're thinking nothing, nothing good can happen at that point. So, I was there for about 45 minutes, or so. They weren't giving us any news of what was happening. So, at that point, I left in frustration. I heard some mention made of a student who came into the room that as many as 25 people may have been shot. That's when the reality was really starting to sink in. So, I left, and eventually, was contacted by the sheriff's department and told that, "We don't know about your son, or where he is." They asked what he was wearing. Later on, they called through a neighbor and asked, "Do you have access to his dental records?" When you're asked questions like that, it's hard to keep up any hope. We went to bed that night not knowing where he was, if he was alive. It wasn't until about noon the next day that the police came to our house and informed us that he was one of the victims.

It's like no other feeling that you have, when you lose a child, when you think that your child may be dead. I mean this is your flesh and blood. This was my only son, my first child. He didn't do anything wrong. He did everything right. He was at school. He was in the library during lunchtime. He was learning. And then, all of a sudden, he's gone. And then it's so much more confusing and painful, when you come to realize this isn't just a shooting. No. He was murdered. He was murdered by another student in his high school. There's just no words to describe that feeling. It's-- I mean we were just-- we were in shock you know for the next few days. You, you just-- I look back. People would ask me, you know, some of what I experienced during that time, in those first few days, I remember very little. I don't know how I got through those days. I really don't.

Daniel was a, was a very quiet, very shy, kid. Very intelligent. He had become a straight-A student in his sophomore year. Quite an improvement for him. And he was a-- he was a boy scout. He loved to play video games. He was someone who liked to be around the adults when we were playing games. He liked to ask the questions. He may not have known the material that we were talking about, but he was happy just to read the questions, and be involved that way. He was someone who didn't speak up much in class. He didn't raise his hand very much, but he would help other kids who needed help. What I really admired the most about Daniel was that he took on his weaknesses. He was not at all athletic, and yet, on his own, he toasted to, to, to join the cross-country squad. Never made the team, but he practiced with them. He was so, so shy, and the last kid you'd expect to speak in front of other kids, and yet, he chose to join the debate team at Columbine-- is one and was one of the better members of the team that they had.

Daniel was 15 when he was killed.

I think that really Daniel inspired me. You know, I said to myself, "If Daniel can overcome that shyness of his and join the debate team, or he had to get up in front of people and talk, well doggone it. So can I, too." And I needed to, and, and I felt really that it was like I was joining the debate team, I was taking his place.

You know, it really doesn't seem like 20 years to me. But then, my time perspective has been turned upside down. You know, you, you live for 47 years going through life in a certain way. And then, you lose a child, everything is then marked by that day. My wife and I speak in those terms very often before and after Columbine. That's a defining moment in our lives. And when I think 20 years of my life is a long time, and yet, it's not that-- it seemed like yesterday, but it's hard to believe that it's 20 years.

Looking over those 20 years, it, it's been this mix, which I think is important to have that mix. You know, you need to allow for the grieving and the, and the acknowledgement that you, that you lost this big piece of your life. And yet you want to honor that life by essentially doing something with your life to reflect that, to reflect on your child. So. You know there's a combination of needing to bring your family together. In our case we increased our family by adopting a child from China. A baby girl. So that became a big part of our lives. So, you know, there's a combination of needing to bring your family together. In our case, we increased our family by adopting a child from China, a baby girl. So, that became a big part of our lives. I got involved in the whole gun violence issue. That became part of my life. I continued to work, so there is still that part of my life. So, it really was— How do you mix those things? How do you find happiness? How do you move forward? How do you also grieve? How do you try to honor your child and keep your family together? It was challenging at times and, and then, especially for me that putting myself out there, in the public, it was just something that I was not, not really ready for. I, I, I did it willingly, but that didn't mean that I liked it. You know, we were putting ourselves, and especially, I was putting myself out there for all to see.

Certainly, the cost borne by the families of the, of the injured is tremendous compared to us. I mean for us even, you know, for things like the funeral ex-expenses, were, we're covered. Those kinds of things were, were handled by victims' assistance funds. Really, the biggest cost for us was just the peace of mind that we had before Columbine. I don't think people realized the, the strain that you go through with all the media attention that there was on Columbine, the strain that puts on you being in the public eye, and having to deal with things like, "What was going to happen to the library where Daniel and so many others were shot? We had to fight the school district to not reopen that library, and to take it out, and replace it with something else. There were a lot of really difficult stressful meetings that we had discussing how to go about doing this. Because you're, you're in a room full of people who, who've lost their children just like you have. There's no one that, that knows what you're going through like they do. And yet, still, at the same time, you're dealing with a really, really difficult issue of how to honor your children. So-- and then, you're dealing with the stress of what happens to your friendships. You will lose friendships, and in some cases, people lose their spouse when they lose a child. That didn't happen to us. But the strain in your marriage, when you have something happen like this, the strain with your friendships, we lost some friends. They simply didn't know how to deal with us. They didn't know how to deal with us.

Well, what happened to me was once, once I put myself out there as being a proponent of stronger gun laws, all the media attention, the interviews was really putting a toll on me, not taking time off from work, it was affecting my work. I was then asked if I would be-- serve as a lobbyist for an organization, lobbying the state legislature. So, I requested and got a one-year leave of absence from my job. So, I then, essentially, could spend full time doing, you know, doing my advocacy, and I did that for one year. But then, of course, it made it diffi-- it, it wasn't a financial impact because I got paid the same amount in that job and I insisted on that. I couldn't have a bad impact on my family. But then, when I went back to work it took a while to adjust back to it after doing what I had been doing. And then, of course, when I did return to work, I, I continued my advocacy and had to take time off. Did take time off didn't take time off for interviews, and for, for advocacy, and trips to Washington DC. I used up an awful lot of vacation time.

Well, I, I think it's first important to know that one thing that played a role at Columbine was the way that the killers got three of the guns. They purchased them at gun show-- at a gun show. They had somebody else purchase them, for them, and they purposely went to the table of a private seller, so they didn't have to go through a background check. It's something referred to as the gun show loophole. We had a package of, of legislation that we wanted to see passed the year after Columbine, but that one was the most important. When that one failed, closing the gun show loophole, in a committee vote. We said, "Okay, we're taking it to the voters." We got petitions signed. We got that, that issue closing the gun show loophole put on the ballot in 2000. Went before the voters and the voters of Colorado overwhelmingly 70 percent to 30 percent closed the gun show loophole.

I think that the main thing we have to do to heal and to, and to really to address this problem is that we have to first acknowledge that most, of most Americans are, are really in the middle on this issue. All want to see something done. Majority of them, a great majority of them, support their right to bear arms, but also, a great majority understands the need for restrictions on that right to bear arms. So, if most of us are in the middle, why can't we come together in the middle with our laws and our public officials come together? No. You know, they're seeming-- seemingly on opposite sides. They're very much seen as two extremes. But if most people are in the middle, then we need to come to the middle. And I think we have done that, to some extent, when it comes to prevention. Our schools have gotten much better at protecting their students, not when it comes to gun laws, but when it comes to other things, they, they've come together. But we really haven't come together in the way that we need to, when it comes to our gun laws, and really acknowledging we have a serious problem with our gun culture, and that putting more guns into that society and having more guns available to people, hasn't worked very well, and we shouldn't be moving in that direction. It's not the direction to go. That's not the same as saying, "We're going to take people's guns away." That's not going to happen in America. Unfortunately, this, this gun culture that we have is here and it's not going away anytime soon. And we're not going to be confiscating people's guns. That's not going to happen. That-- we have to get beyond those fear tactics that people are using and really look at what reasonable things can we do to address people who are mentally disturbed? What can we do to deal with homes that have violence in them? What can we do to help students who are feeling alienated? All of those things, we have to work on all of those, all of those issues. There's no one thing we can do that solves this problem. But we've got to do a hell of a lot better job than what we're doing right now.

Being involved in the gun violence prevention movement has meant that, and especially nationally, I've met a lot of people who've been impacted by gun violence, both the friends and family of people who were killed as well as people who've been injured and may have long-term disabilities as a result. So, I, I, I've seen the pain they've gone through. And for those who have the-- who, who survived gun violence and have injuries, it's a tremendous impact on them and, and one of them is just simply that you have people who have the attitude, "Well aren't you glad that you survived and that you weren't killed?" And I don't think those people realize all that those people have to go through, some of the things they have to go through just to lead a daily life. In some cases, in a number of cases, they still have bullet fragments in their bodies because it's too dangerous to remove them. Can you imagine having to live with that, and some of the things that you have to do? If you lose control of some of your bodily functions, you imagine some of the things that you have to go through. Can you imagine being in high school and then being injured and having to change the whole course of your life in terms of what you wanted to accomplish in your life because that injury prevented you from doing what you wanted to do? If people were being shot and they're having to give them long-term care, we're all paying for that. When it comes to car accidents, for example, insurance industry is active in trying to work with the public sector to reduce car accidents, so to reduce the cost. But what are we doing when it comes to gun violence? Very little.

For me, healing was really a combination of things. One, it's eventually, I mean, it wasn't just right afterwards, but trying to keep a sense of humor in my life and trying to, trying to be upbeat. It was family. It was doing things in Daniel's name. That was a really important one for me. Honoring him, having his website, talking to young people. Those things played a really important role. And, certainly, the adoption of our daughter. It, it, it didn't, it didn't cover up what happened. She's not a replacement for Daniel, but it brought something new into our lives that we could, we could also focus on, and not just this terrible thing, the loss of, loss of our son.

I don't know much, frankly, about many of the students who were injured. I know certainly of the two that, that were paralyzed, and we'll spend the rest of our lives having to use a wheelchair. I know of others who were impacted in other ways that may not have been-- they may not have been paralyzed, but they certainly had a number of other difficulties dealing with their injuries. And then, I know there was a whole lot of others that were impacted in other ways, even though they weren't shot, and that was the trauma, the PTSD, people who were still living with that today. I, I don't-- really don't think that some of them ended up with the same lives that they would have had in terms of maybe not following a career path, maybe falling into drugs or alcoholism, all related to what happened at Columbine. We'll never know how many there are. And society, unfortunately, tends to try to, you know, put a lid on it and, "Well isn't it great the way the Columbine community came together?" Or, "Boy, aren't we glad that these other students escaped that day?" Yeah, they may have escaped, but they probably didn't escape the trauma that comes with a tragedy like this.

When it comes to how we deal with this terrible problem, we have of gun violence, I'm really bothered when people say, "Oh, it's a mental health issue." No, it's not mental health is a good thing. Mental illness can be a factor. But we need to keep in mind, we should not be blaming mental illness for this problem of ours. It's only a small percentage of shootings that really do involve people who are mentally ill. And we would do a disservice to people who were getting mental health treatment when we try to somehow blame them. It is only the worst cases, usually, that, that turn into, into violence like this. We do need to address our mental health system, which we largely dismantled back in the 1980s. We do need to improve that system and improve the access. And we need to really, seriously deal with the stigma around getting mental health care.

And, of course, I have to speak about Daniel's shoes. It was just a few weeks after Columbine, me and my wife, we had to deal with the task of Daniel's possessions and what to keep and what to give away or throw away, and I came across a pair of tennis shoes in his closet. And I asked my wife, "What size shoe did Daniel wear?" And she said, "10 1/2." And I said, "That's my size." So then, as time went on, it occurred to me that it was very symbolic that I was wearing Daniel's shoes. So, the work that I was doing with our gun laws, I was doing, and Daniel was name, wearing his shoes. And then, five years after Columbine, we were offered their personal effects. And I didn't want his clothes. I said, "Do you have his shoes?" And these are his shoes. These are the shoes he was wearing that day, on April 20th, and I wear them proudly. I only wear them when I'm speaking on this issue because I want to preserve them as much as I can for the future, so I can give them to my kids and my grandkids to have, proudly. These, these are Daniel's shoes, and I feel like I've taken his place on the, on the Columbine debate team. That's, that's my role.

We're talking about over 80,000 people every year in this country, who are injured by bullets, 80,000. If we had 80,000 people, in a particular community injured by a hurricane or something else we would say, "Oh, my God!" But it's-- no, it's day-by-day. And I think we just don't pay enough attention to that. And I think it's also-- it's really important to also understand that most likely if we didn't have the medical care that we have today, we'd have a lot more deaths. Many of the things that in the past would have been deaths are now injuries because they're able to save people. But what's the quality of life for some of those, for some of those people, if-- especially, if there's a brain injury or if they become severely paralyzed? Their lives are changed, and I think we, we tend to overlook. Even in my movement, we tend to focus more on the, the death count. But 80,000 plus injuries, every year, in the United States. And when you think of the trauma that causes and the cost of that, it's greatly, greatly overlooked.

I've largely come to terms with what happened. I know there's a lot of people who like to pin it on bullying and say, "This is-- this was all about bullying," and no, I don't think that at all. I think that was a factor, but it was a pretty small one. I think this was largely a case of, of two mentally disturbed, young people. One, a psychopath, and one, a-- someone who was very depressed who followed that psychopath. I think that was largely what it was. So, I mean, I cannot forgive them for what they did. I just, I can't. I just think that the message saying this murder is okay, I, I, I can't do. But I have forgiven them for being too very lost and disturbed young people who didn't, didn't know a way out of what they were going through in their heads.

You can't, you can't let this burn inside of you because it'll eat away at you. You have to say, "There's something better to reach for," that, that you are going to work to make sure that it doesn't happen to other people. That, that, especially becomes a focal point for a lot of people. They don't want this to happen to somebody else. That's not just a saying. It gives you something to work towards. Your, your tragedy is there. You can't change that part. But what you can change is the, is the environment around you, and, and getting people's attention, and use the, the ability that you've been given, this soapbox you've been given to try to talk to other people and, and say, "Here's some other things we can, we can do to prevent this. If you, if you just have anger, it will, it'll, it will eat away-- it'll eat away at you. You know, a key thing for me, too, a big part of my healing was coming to the realization, I had to do what Daniel would want me to do. I don't think Daniel would want me to be so stuck in grief that I couldn't go on with my life. That's not what he would want. That's not what our kids and our loved ones would ever want. They want us to go on. That doesn't mean you don't grieve. That doesn't mean you just forget about them. But you do have to do something with your life, and it's not being stuck in a place that then, that you then blame on, you know, this terrible loss that you suffered. You, you still grieve. It's still hard for me to talk about sometimes. Sometimes, I make public presentations, you know, I get very, very choked up, 20 years later. It's okay. That's, that's, that's grief. But in the end, still, the biggest thing is, I have to do what I think Daniel would want me to do. And I think I'm doing what he'd want me to do.

You know, I would say the one thing that, that you-- at least, that I experienced that I have to assume others have experienced, especially in those early years, was the difficulty at looking and seeing a father and teenage son together I recall one instance where I was walking into a grocery store and ahead of me was a teenage boy, with blonde hair, tall, skinny. Boy, from the back he, he looked like Daniel. I walked back in the car. I could not let myself go into that store for fear of seeing someone who maybe looked more like him or in fact, who didn't look like him. Either way, it was difficult. So, for a while, just seeing a father and son together around the same age was difficult because it made me think of my situation I had real, real difficulty seeing my son's best friend for a number of years afterwards. He was a great kid, and he would come to visit us, at least, once or twice a year. I couldn't stand it when he came to visit. My wife was very nice to him, and she conversed, and I usually sat there, waiting for him to leave. Nothing at all against him. I wished him the best in his life. But it was just so difficult for a while for a number of years to think in terms of where would Daniel be? What would Daniel be doing? It wasn't, it wasn't a resentment towards, you know, towards his best friend that he, that he lived. No, not at all. But just-- it was just too close to home thinking about what would Daniel be doing now?

On one hand, I think statistics will show that schools are still one of the safest places if not the safest places for kids to be. Hard to believe when you consider some of the tragedies we've had. But that, to me, doesn't mean it's going to get better. I think, unfortunately, it's possible that it's going to get worse because I don't think we're really doing enough to address it. We're doing it in terms of the layout of the school and some of those kinds of things, but we're not taking care of some of the-- enough care of some of the root problems. The bullying, the impersonality of, of, of the school environment. We've made progress-- I think some of the places where we need to make the most progress are getting care for the kids that they need to get when they become disturbed or upset. We need to do a better job of having kids talk about what they're seeing and hearing. They, they hold a big key to prevention by speaking up. And they-- we have stopped some, some tragedies by kids speaking up. But we still have instances where kids say those terrible words, "I had no idea he was going to do it. He said something, but I didn't take it seriously." We do have to take those things seriously, and we do need to have parents much more engaged in their kids' lives, so that they see when there are these signs.

As part of our Beyond Columbine Series (http://www.rmpbs.org/beyondcolumbine), Tom Mauser sits down with RMPBS to talk about his son Daniel who lost his life at Columbine High School 20 years ago. This is the interview that was used in "Caliber of Healing":