I don’t want to ask, but I have to. I need to know what it’s like to stand up from your desk one afternoon and find yourself looking at the end of a gun.
Cheryl Stumbo has done that. She faced an armed madman, and survived. And she remembers.
“He looked intense,” Stumbo said of Naveed Afzal Haq, who walked into the Seattle Jewish Federation on July 28, 2006, and opened fire. “A little excited, but not out of control. He looked like, ‘I’m here doing what I want to do. I have the power.’
“He looked like he was reveling in the moment.”
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“Reveling.” You let the word hang in the air for a moment, out of disbelief, out of despair — but mostly out of gratitude that Stumbo, 50, is still here to tell us what happens when gun control means something else entirely, something sinister.
It means a man can show up outside your office on a summer afternoon, put a pistol to your 14-year-old niece’s back as she walks in to meet you, and then start shooting.
Stumbo and five of her co-workers were shot that day. One of them, Pamela Waechter, was hit in chest then tried to flee. Haq chased her down and shot her in the head.
Throughout the ordeal, Stumbo’s niece, who was able to flee, remained locked in the bathroom, on the phone with police.
It has taken six years of healing and therapy for Stumbo to talk, but after 20 elementary students and six school staffers were killed in Newtown, Conn., she couldn’t stay quiet anymore.
Nor could President Obama. On Jan. 16, the day before our talk, he signed executive orders that, among other things, require background checks for gun sales, reinstate the assault-weapons ban and ban ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds.
“I felt like I had my breath held, and then yesterday, I could breathe again,” Stumbo said. “I’m relieved. I’m energized. But it hurts.
“A Congresswoman getting shot?” she asked of Rep. Gabby Giffords, gravely wounded at an Arizona shopping center while visiting with constituents. “That wasn’t enough? What’s it going to take? I didn’t know the answer.”
Now she does; we all do.
“When Newtown happened, I had made the decision that I was going to do something about this,” Stumbo said. “I was going to use my personal perspective to help people understand.”
She compared the gun-control issue to gay marriage. The more people realized they knew gay people, the more invested they became in the issue, and the quicker they were to act.
“Victims of gun violence are walking around every day,” Stumbo said. “You know someone, or they know someone who was shot, or had a gun held to their heads.”
Stumbo wants to speak for them: for those lost, those injured and those too traumatized to relive any of what they went through.
She feels she must.
It was a summer Friday, around 4 p.m., and many staffers had already left to prepare Shabbat dinner. Stumbo was in her office, listening for her niece, who was coming to meet her after an art class on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
Instead, she heard a man’s voice. Jarring, and full of rage.
Stumbo poked her head out of her office door and saw her co-worker sliding down the wall of the office with her hands up.
“Cheryl,” she whispered. “There’s an angry man here and he has a gun.”
Then he was right there, in front of her.
“I remember seeing the gun in my face,” Stumbo said. “I remember asking him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He said something about religion and politics, and then I remember thinking that he had poked me with the gun.”
The man raved incoherently about getting U.S. money out of Israel, and demanded to talk to someone at CNN.
Staring down the gun’s barrel, she dropped to the floor, put her arms over her head and closed her eyes.
“I can still smell the carpet,” she said.
Before it was over, co-worker Carol Goldman would be shot in the knee. Layla Bush and Christina Rexroad were each shot in the abdomen. And Pamela Waechter was killed with a bullet to the head.
“I got to Pam and realized there was nothing I could do,” Stumbo remembed. “Her eyes were open and there was nothing there.”
Stumbo herself was treated at Harborview Medical Center for six weeks; the bullet had entered just under her rib cage at point-blank range.
“It was a hollow-point bullet that destroys as it goes,” she said. The fragment surgeons removed from her looked like “a shredded quarter.”
She was released to the care of her parents, especially her mother, a retired nurse who cared for her until her own cancer made it impossible. And though Stumbo’s mother didn’t live long enough to see Haq sentenced, Stumbo is convinced that she somehow had the extra 120 years added to the gunman’s two life sentences. Just to be sure.
In addition to the emotional trauma, the shooting left Stumbo with a scar from her sternum to her pelvis — and strong opinions about The National Rifle Association, which, she said, used to be focused on safety.
Now, she said, it’s about arming up.
“I would nominate the NRA for a marketing award, if it wasn’t so gross,” she lamented. “It’s deplorable. To sell a product, you create more need, and they did that. They created a marketing segment of people who believe they have to be afraid of their government.”
What people need to be afraid of is the impossible becoming reality.
She was at work on a summer afternoon, in a cotton dress and sandals, waiting to walk into the warm evening.
Moments later, she was running down Third Avenue, holding her bleeding side, while SWAT officers called to her to “Run! Run!”
She was loaded into an ambulance.
“They laid me down, the mask came over and I woke up a week later,” she said.
Six years later, she still shakes her head.
“You think, ‘This will never happen to me, this is an extreme case,” she said. “But there I was, in my summer dress and sandals. You can’t let that outrage slip away.”
Nicole Brodeur: 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org