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November 15, 2010

One Who Can't Walk Away

On the morning of April 16, 2007, students and teachers alike went to their classrooms at Virginia Tech as if it were any other school day. Before the morning was over, 32 of them were murdered, and an additional 17 wounded, in the deadliest shooting rampage in the nation's history. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had previously been evaluated in a psychiatric facility. A judge determined that Cho “present[ed] an eminent danger to [him]self or others as a result of mental illness, or [was] so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for [him]self.” According to federal law, Cho should have been prohibited from buying firearms, but because of a loophole in Virginia law he was able to pass background checks and purchase two handguns.

Colin Goddard was one of the students wounded on that snowy day in April. He was shot four times by Cho—in his left knee, left hip, right shoulder and right hip. A new, critically acclaimed short documentary, “Living for 32,” tells the story of the Virginia Tech tragedy through his eyes (a trailer for the film is available here).

In the film, Kristina Anderson, another survivor who was shot that day, says, “There’s three ways that I’ve seen that people react to things like this. The first is they completely deny it. The second way is probably that they admit it, but also don’t want it to have any effect on their future life and they go on. [The] third person can internalize it, turn it around and put it towards their future to kind of make something come out of that; and that’s a survivor’s mission. It’s usually something that was so traumatic, and so powerful, and so life changing to you that you have to do something about it ... You can’t walk away from it.”

Colin Goddard is the latter type of person. He doesn’t believe that he was “saved” as part of some divine plan. “I was one of seven students to survive out of a class of 17,” he says. “I don’t know why. I know that there were people who were killed all around me who did nothing different than I did. I just got lucky.” Not wanting future Americans to have to rely on similar good fortune, Goddard has chosen to use his story to promote and create a safer America.

Soon after graduating from Virginia Tech, Goddard began interning for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where he offered to go undercover to expose one of the most dangerous aspects of our nation’s weak gun laws: the Gun Show Loophole. Goddard traveled to gun shows across the country and legally bought everything from an AK-47 to the exact model of handgun that he was shot with with nothing but cash. He never underwent a background check as part of these “private sales,” and in some cases didn’t even have to show identification. Goddard’s father, Andy, explains that his son secretly filmed these purchases to, “make it easy for people; put it right there in front of their faces; hang it in front of them on the TV screen and say, ‘Look, this is legal, all of this is legal; everything that was done is legal. Do you want it to be legal? Do you think that that makes you safe, that this kind of thing’s legal?’”

In “Living for 32,” however, Colin Goddard learns that changing things is tough even when the overwhelming majority of people are on your side. On July 14, 2010, Rep. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA)—the Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security—co-hosted a Congressional Forum with Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). The forum was designed to explore the merits of H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.” Goddard provided moving testimony at the forum—Rep. Castle described Goddard’s words as the “most compelling” he had ever heard during his time in Congress.

Nonetheless, H.R. 2324 has not received a full hearing or a vote on the House floor despite having 112 co-sponsors. “I didn’t think that changing some laws in Washington was going to happen by me telling my story,” Goddard states. “As I learn more I’ll change my strategy, I’ll change it up to do whatever I have to do to get what I want changed ... It’s not changing the whole world, it’s not getting guns from every man. [I’m] talking about two or three small little things that I think would make America a better place.”

“Living for 32” documents Goddard’s courageous journey from tragedy to triumph—which is still in its infancy. The film has received a strong reception after multiple public screenings across the country. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that “Living for 32” is among the eight finalists for this year’s Best Documentary Short award.

The film’s next big screening will take place at New York University’s Skirball Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, November 17, from 6:00-8:00 PM. Members of the public are invited to attend and can RSVP here.

It will be just one more night of work for Colin Goddard. “There is no meaning in our tragedy,” Kristina Anderson reflects in the film. “We didn’t ask for this, but unfortunately there are people that don’t have a voice anymore, and so it’s kind of like we should speak for them ... I think that’s what Colin has done.”

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