Please don’t tell Carolyn Tuft that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Ten years ago, she took her daughter, Kirsten Hinckley, who was 15, shopping for Valentines cards in Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square mall.
They heard a “pop,” and shattered glass. And then Carolyn’s world was shattered, by an 18-year-old high school dropout armed with a pistol-grip shotgun, a handgun, and a backpack full of ammunition.
For reasons still unknown, this loner, who had emigrated as a child from Bosnia and Herzegovina, shot nine people, five of them fatally, before a SWAT team brought him down.
Kirsten was among the dead. Carolyn still battles crippling pain from three gunshot wounds.
“People with guns kill people. People who shouldn’t have guns kill people. And we could do something about that,” she said at this weekend’s Team 26 rally in Morristown, where she was visiting a friend.
Team 26 is a group of cyclists–one for each child and teacher mowed down in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, by a deranged 20-year-old with an assault-style rifle and a pair of semi-automatic handguns.
They ride to Washington every year to lobby for common-sense gun laws such as universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and limits on the size of ammunition clips. This year, the cyclists biked from the capital, a symbolic turning of their backs on lawmakers who have ignored their pleas.
Carolyn now is an advocate, too. She did not ask for this role. She would prefer to be the happy single mom of Kirsten and her three grown siblings, paying the bills with her own cleaning business.
But she cannot work. She is ravaged by pain, and staggering medical bills, and buckshot that is poisoning her body with lead.
“People don’t hear about the survivors and what they go through, and the medical bills and the lifetime of pain,” she said.
‘WHEN HE SHOT ME THE FIRST TIME…’
The night of Feb. 12, 2007, is seared into Carolyn’s memory.
“When he shot me the first time… he shot me through the glass window of the store. And then he came into the store and shot the back of my arm off, so that’s gone. He shot my lung out. And then when I was down on the floor he reloaded and pushed the gun in my low back and shot a hole.”
Getting shot at point-blank range is an “intense, burning, severe,” sensation, Carolyn said. What came next was worse:
“And then he put the gun on the side of my daughter’s head and blew the back of her head off.”
Even though Carolyn felt her body shutting down, she did not black out.
“I remember everything,” she said, softly. “I actually died in the ambulance, I bled out ’cause I had so many holes in me. But I remember everything about the scene.”
How many lives could be saved by background checks before every gun sale? How many survivors could be spared a lifetime of agony? Carolyn wonders.
“One life that’s taken, it’s a ripple effect that destroys not just that life, but the families and the community around it,” she said.
Her other three children are “a mess,” she said. “We talk about [Kirsten] every day.”
Kirsten was the baby of the family, and was especially close to her sister Kait, two years her senior.
“Kait, she misses her sister intensely. All those sister things she’s missing out on. She’ll never know that she got married. She’ll never see her baby. She’s missing out on so many things.”
And the world is missing out on a young lady with a world of promise. Kirsten was an artist who loved Frank Lloyd Wright and dreamed of becoming an architect — in between scary movies with her friends, snuggling with her mom, and hoping for a prom invitation.
“We lost — they lost — an amazing person who wanted to do good in the world,” Carolyn said. “She would have been an asset to many communities. She was really very kind, very sweet. She loved everybody.
“She was one of those kids that included everybody. It didn’t matter who you were, how much money you came from, what you looked like, what your skin color was. She had the biggest, kindest heart. And those are the kind of people we need more of, not less of.”
And so, Carolyn attends rallies and vigils. She has lobbied in Washington for the Newtown Alliance for Action, and stood beside President Obama when he called for stricter measures to curb gun violence.
To do any less would be to dishonor her late daughter, she believes.
“Kirsten would be very disappointed if I wasted the rest of my life, knowing how precious it is, and how easily it can be taken. She’d be upset with me if I wasted my life and not do something about it.
“Her voice was taken away. I can’t waste that time. Nobody else should go through this.”