Despite fatal shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, gun control remains a thorny issue in the United States. For Christian Heyne, personal tragedy caused him to devote himself to fighting for tighter gun laws in the US.
Deutsche Welle: In 2005 your parents were shot while returning a boat from a holiday vacation. Your father survived multiple gunshot wounds, but your mother was killed in the attack. How did you go about picking yourself up after that tragedy?
Christian Heyne: When everything happened, there was anger and confusion. The man that shot my parents had a history: He had a restraining order against him where a judge had deemed him a credible threat of violence to the very man that my dad was returning the boat to. [Like Wade Michael Page, who shot six dead in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin], this man had also been discharged from the military. This man had also been arrested multiple times. He actually went on to bludgeon a mother in front of her two children. He put those two children in ICU, shot and wounded a police officer and then took his own life in a store soon afterwards.
Did he own his guns legally?
He legally owned three weapons, as well as extended magazines and ammunition.
The suspect in the Colorado shooting had been flagged as mentally disturbed, and the Wisconsin shooter was a notorious white supremacist who had been less than honorably discharged from the US Army. How is it possible that both these men could have had legal access to guns?
You don't even need a background check to buy a gun in this country. Essentially, when the Gun Control Act of 1963 was passed, there was a loophole, which says if you're not engaged in the business of selling weapons, then you don't have to run your purchaser through a background check. What that means is that you have these private sellers going from gun show to gun show or online, and they're selling weapons to people. There's no background check, no paper work, no way of tracking these people. I have personally gone into a gun show in Virginia, handed somebody cash and purchased a gun without any kind of background check. The guy just put the gun in a paper bag and handed it to us.
Gun lobbyists argue that the right to carry arms is enshrined in the US Constitution and that most gun owners use their weapons responsibly. How do you respond to that?
I strongly agree. Our Supreme Court has announced that Americans have a right to self protection. That doesn't mean that we are not allowed to regulate who these guns are going to, who can carry these guns. Just because we have a gun tradition in this country, that doesn't mean that it should go unchecked. We're not trying to take guns out of the hands of law-abiding individuals, we're trying to take weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals who mean to do harm with them.
The families of the victims of the Colorado and Wisconsin victims will soon have to begin the process of picking up the pieces and looking for answers and solutions, as you yourself once did. What message do you have for them?
[Each victim of gun violence] is a brother, a father, a son or a daughter. This is a network of individuals who are forever affected because of somebody's actions, and because of the laws [that] allow dangerous people in this country to acquire weapons. What I would say to these people who just went through this horrific tragedy is: There is no road map. Everyone deals with things in their different way. Eventually, you have to pick up the pieces and try to do what you can. What I did is I turned my negative situation into something positive. I'm trying to do what I can to prevent other people from going through the same process. And if I'm able to save one son from losing his mother, then we've done our job.
Christian Heyne has served as a legislative assistant and grassroots coordinator with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence since May 2010.
Interview: Kate Laycock, Gabriel Borrud