Gun Violence

Rhonda Hart on Going to the SOTU with Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher

Hart, who lost her daughter Kimberly in the Santa Fe High School shooting last year, also attended the House Judiciary Committee hearing on HR 8.

By Catherine Matusow February 11, 2019

On May 18, it will be a year since Rhonda Hart lost her daughter Kimberly Vaughan after a disturbed student walked into Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, and opened fire. Kimberly was one of 10 people who lost their lives that day. Another 13 were wounded. Since then, Hart has fiercely advocated for stricter gun laws, sharing her heartbreaking story in hopes of effecting change.

Last Tuesday, President Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address, and when he did, Hart was there, the guest of newly elected Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, and one of several parents in the room who had lost their children to gun violence. The next day, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HR 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would require unlicensed gun sellers to perform background checks. Hart was there, too. She graciously agreed to discuss her efforts, and her trip, over the phone with Houstonia.

How was your time in D.C.? When did you get back?

I got back Wednesday night. Just to be there, if you didn’t focus on the everything that’s going on, it was really, really cool. We went to a reception hosted by Speaker Pelosi in her offices, and it was a really beautiful and amazing office. But it was also for me, as kind of a political junkie, it was nice to see all of these people that I’d seen as celebrities in real life. I got to shake a lot of hands. Congresswoman Fletcher was really, really gracious about introducing me to everybody that I wanted to meet.

Was this your first time to meet Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher?

Marcel McClinton and I went and spoke in her district a couple of times before the midterms to rally the volunteers and keep their motivation up. I hadn’t seen her for a while, then we bumped into each other at the Women’s March in Houston. At that point the government was still shut down. We didn’t even know whether they were going to have a State of the Union at the time.

When did she ask you to attend the State of the Union?

She asked about a week before. She called me at home and said she was really, really sorry that it was short notice, that she understands I have another child at home, but since everything cleared up, would I like to go and help spread the message about gun violence? I immediately said yes; I said I’ll figure everything out later. Because it really was a chance of a lifetime. But you also have to think about why I was there and why others like Fred Guttenberg and Andrew Pollack were there: because our kids were shot. And that’s sobering.

Was this your first time to meet these other parents?

I’d met Manuel and Patricia Oliver in October in Dallas, they were the first family besides the ones in Texas that I met face to face that have experienced gun violence like I have. Fred and I had only interacted online; Tuesday was the first time I met him. This is a path that none of us… This is the most grotesque fan club you could ever be a part of. Nobody wants to be in this club, but the people that are in it are some of the best people you will meet ever. You connect with another survivor, you make that phone call—I know what you’re going through. It’s instant kinship. 

What did you make of President Trump’s address?

He talked about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and he really only brought that up to speak about anti-Semitism. He was not focused on the weapon that the guy used. He did have a member of the SWAT team that rushed in and intervened at the synagogue, and he had a survivor from a concentration camp, who’d survived that and the shooting at Tree of Life. But it wasn’t about the shooting. When you know that there’s families out there that are in this audience that have lost family members to gun violence, and you can’t acknowledge that, that’s kind of disappointing.

I understand a number of Democratic lawmakers brought guests as part of an effort to make a point about gun violence, and that the next day, the House had its first hearing on the subject in eight years.

Congresswoman Fletcher’s office was spectacular. They said, “If you want to take a tour or if you need anything, just let us know.” I said, “I just want to meet Congresswoman Lucy McBath from Georgia, just as another mom that lost a kid.” And then I said, “If you could please extend my flight so I could go to the hearing for HR 8 I would appreciate it.” They pulled strings; they got me a chair in the actual room in the hearing. And I also got to meet Lucy.

It sounds like the hearing got heated.

The hearing got a little contested before we broke for lunch. Honestly, I stand with Fred and Manny. For a representative from the state of Florida, which is not a border state, to say that building a wall would prevent and reduce gun violence, is pretty ridiculous in my opinion. And to say that in front of an immigrant family like the Olivers is especially insulting.

Do you think progress was made?

It was good to be in there, and I felt like, we’re doing something here. Texas has had a lot of good representation. The chief of police from HPD was there; we had Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee, Veronica Escobar, and Sylvia Garcia, which was awesome. I felt like at the hearing they all made good points as to why we need universal background checks, and we need to acknowledge that not everybody is fit to own a gun, and we need to take a good look at that. The chief of police said it well—after his officers were shot, the members of the church community can pray for us and that’s great, but at the end of it, we need the politicians to support us and do some action.

The SOTU wasn’t the first time you were in the same room as President Trump. What happened last time?

The first time I encountered him was at Ellington Air Force Base shortly after the shooting. He flew in to, I guess, have a round table with some of the families and some of the students that had been through the shooting.

Let me first off say that he probably did provide some comfort to the other families, but there was no way he was going to provide comfort to me, because I have never supported him. He was really adamant about arming the teachers, which I don’t support. He kept carrying on about the shooter being wacky. I’m an early childhood educator by trade, and I don’t believe in using that kind of language, especially if you’re an elected official, so I called him out for it. I said, “His clothing was wacky, but he was probably mentally ill. But if that’s the case we need to have access to healthcare.”

It really grinds my gears hearing these elected officials talking about mental illness being part of gun violence, which it is, but you can’t talk about that and talk about gutting the Affordable Care Act at the same time, it doesn’t work that way. And I think at one point they started talking about abortion—that’s when I really had to leave. That’s another one that grinds my gears. The junior senator from Texas has been pretty adamant about protecting the lives of the unborn, but he won’t say anything about children who have died from gun violence. I looked over at the State of the Union, and I said, “I’m so pro-life, I don’t think people should get shot.” And that’s what it comes down to. If someone is going to shoot you, they’re not going to check your voter registration card first. There were kids in that room that—their parents supported one part, while I supported the other. And guess what? They’re all gone, it doesn’t matter. This is not a partisan issue by any means. 

You and your son now live in Texas City. Why did you decide to leave Santa Fe?

It was a lot of different reasons. Number one was, I’d had a roommate for a few years, and it just was not working out anymore. I needed a clean, fresh start for Tyler and me. It also was really, really hard to go around town and see these ribbons and my kid’s name all over the place for a negative reason. And it was really hard because I was an employee of the school district for several years, so I looked at it as—as a coworker you couldn’t keep my child safe, and as a parent you couldn’t keep her safe either. And so for me it was really like a double betrayal almost.

What does the future hold for you? Will you continue as an activist?

I was talking to somebody else, and they said, “Are you going to stop?” Is the Pope Catholic? Of course I’m going to keep going. This has been going on for 20 years. My own school in Alaska had to be evacuated following the events of Columbine. That was 1999, honest to God 20 years ago. We are losing 35-40,000 people a year to gun violence. Let’s put this in perspective. You remember the 9-11 attacks: 2,996 people died in one terrorist attack. We created the TSA. Have we had any more plane hijackings? No. But the amount of people who die every year because of gun violence is the equivalent of 13 times that, and we haven’t done one thing to prevent it.

How are you doing personally? How has your daily life changed? 

I get a lot of flak for this: People were very, very generous with their donations, friends across the nation. And I haven’t needed to work. But at the same time, when you’re going to leave in the middle of the week to go to D.C. to go to an activism event, what employer is really going to tolerate that? And when I do travel and I go to these events, it’s very emotionally and physically draining. I come back, I need a nap, and to chill out for a day, and do some self-care. It’s really hard. Whenever I go to these events, I do not take a paycheck, I want to make this abundantly clear.

All that does seem exhausting.

Especially in Texas. It’s very gun-centric; everybody knows their rights; we’ve had all number of open-carry laws; and there’s a strong tradition of hunting and shooting for recreation, which I get, I do. And I know there’s responsible gun owners, but not everybody is, and we seriously need to take a look at that. I can tell you the family in our shooting, they didn’t need to have guns in their presence. The son had shown signs of mental distress for a couple of weeks leading up to the event. But Texas doesn’t have a system where that could be reported and the weapons would be removed for his own well-being. 

How do you want the world to remember your daughter Kim?

I say all the time—she was a Girl Scout, she had been one for 10 years, this would have been number 11. She loved to read, she always had at least one thick book in her hands from the library. She loved our cat. She loved her brother. She was just too awesome for us. She was too good to be here.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

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