The real cost of gun violence

Parents of shooting victim share personal story with students, community leaders

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips (back row, far right) are pictured with Washington University students and Risa Zwerling Wrighton (back row, third from left) at a luncheon at the chancellor’s residence Oct. 13. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photo)

In the blink of an eye, everything​​ changed for Lonnie and Sandy Phillips. On July 20, 2012, their daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was one of 12 people killed when a gunman opened fire at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. With another 70 people in the theater also injured, the incident represents the largest number of casualties in a mass shooting in the United States to date.

As part of Washington University in St. Louis’ ongoing efforts to understand the public health implications of gun violence, the Phillipses visited the university this week to meet with students, faculty, administrators and community leaders to share their story. At the invitation of Risa Zwerling Wrighton, wife of Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, the couple joined a small group of invited guests for a luncheon at the chancellor’s residence Oct. 13.

In addition to six Washington University students, other attendees represented fields including academics, clergy, government, medicine, social activism and victim support. Two of those guests also are themselves survivors of gun violence.

The Phillipses discussed with the group their personal tragedy, which took an even more difficult turn when their lawsuit against the ammunition and gun merchants associated with their daughter’s murder was thrown out of court. The judge in the case held the couple liable for the defense counsel fees, leading them to sell most of their personal belongings and travel the country in an RV to support regional and national efforts to curb gun violence.​

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips (seated, front) are pictured with luncheon guests, including Risa Zwerling Wrighton (back row, middle). (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photo)

The visit to Washington University was the first trip for the Phillipses funded by Jessi’s Message, a nonprofit organization established in their daughter’s name that allows them and other survivors to travel to advocate for gun violence prevention.

Last year, the university’s Institute for Public Health launched “Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis,” a yearlong initiative that brings together scholars, medical professionals, community leaders and citizens to take a hard look at the serious, tragic public health consequences of gun violence in America. The initiative’s next scheduled event is a symposium, “Preventing Gun Violence: Evidence-based Optimism in a Realistic World,” which will be presented by the Brown School next month.​​​

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