On January 8, 2011, a would-be assassin opened fire in a Safeway parking lot on the outskirts of Tucson just as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was starting a Saturday morning meet-and-greet with a crowd of constituents.
Knocked face-down by a bullet through the chest, Pam Simon thought she was the only survivor. “I just saw bodies falling,” she told me, “and I found myself on the ground. So I assumed, oddly, that everybody had been killed and it was just a fluke that I was still alive.” Thinking the gunman might return, she decided to play dead. She lay so still, she was mistaken for a fatality. “When the first responders came,” she recalled, “they jumped over me, and one of them hit me with their shoe.” She heard someone near her chide the EMT, “Hey, watch it, buddy!”
As ambulances sped toward Tucson hospitals, few of the injured could anticipate the avalanche of medical, psychotherapy, and rehab bills about to descend. But news of Tucson’s shooting spread quickly and people across the country quickly channeled their sympathy and outrage into private philanthropy. U.S. incidents of mass violence often prompt swift and generous responses. Contributions to Newtown’s diverse nonprofits exceeded $28 million. Compassionate aid for Boston’s bombing victims topped $79 million. But the surge of charity that follows high-casualty crimes brings a tangle of complications to communities hit by freak violence. Accepting the money turns out to be the easy part. Deciding how to give it away equitably is where the trouble starts.
With no national guidelines or protocol to follow, local officials and nonprofits in tragedy-stricken towns suddenly face unforeseen issues: As the public reacts to news of a mass assault and begins sending donations to help victims, questions about how to handle the funds fairly soon arise. Who should receive aid—only bereaved families and the gravely wounded? What about individuals with less severe injuries or witnesses with psychological trauma? In private, ad hoc committees struggle over how to proceed and weigh one potential good against another. Confronted with overwhelming needs, each locale works to define the scope of its relief effort and the categories for assistance. Outcomes vary, but the same tough question persists: What is the most ethical way to divide the money?
Some answers prove divisive. For example, shooting victims’ families in Newtown, Connecticut, engaged in a bitter tug-of-war with a local foundation over $11.7 million in donations. The foundation, which had been created solely to distribute the money, announced that only $7.7 million would go directly to the Sandy Hook survivors and victims’ families. Divided among so many, the awards were fairly modest: $281,000 to each of the 26 families that had buried a loved one and $75,000 apiece to two wounded teachers. Twelve families whose first-graders had narrowly escaped death received $20,000 each. The remaining $4 million was set aside to meet community needs stemming from the crime.
The resulting uproar prompted a state investigation, which found the board’s decision legal but faulted the fund for a lack of transparency that led to misunderstandings. The state attorney general and the department of consumer protections summed up the problems in a June 2014 report, warning:
One of the biggest challenges charities faced in the wake of the shooting was ensuring transparency… The public response to this tragedy was immediate and the pure volume of gifts that poured in from all over the world was staggering. Ongoing or existing charities should take the opportunity to learn from this experience and conduct an inventory of their preparedness for future high stress events.
A month after the controversial award amounts were announced, a fund director told The Stamford Advocate that concerns about the community’s mental health had driven his original decision: “We have to look at this in the long term and not cave in to demands being made to distribute the money immediately.” So far, the fund has spent about a quarter million on mental-health services and public initiatives to reconnect the fragmented township.
Fairness was also a sore point in Aurora, Colorado, where a relief fund took in $5.3 million in tragedy relief. After two months of rocky communication, survivors and victims’ families became irate when they received checks for only $5,000. Their fury increased when the recovery committee gave $100,000 to several community-service agencies. Donors had wanted their contributions to go directly to the victims, one bereaved father insisted. “Victims are paralyzed,” he told the Associated Press, “facing multiple and painful surgeries, unable to walk, to work and pay their rent, food and medical bills.”
The survivors accused the foundation of committing fraud and breaking state law by using their images and personal information to solicit donations. Stung, officials brought in the experienced compensation attorney Kenneth Feinberg to meet with victims and develop a speedy, transparent distribution plan. Ultimately, the nonprofit awarded more than $5 million, mainly to 12 murder victims’ families and to survivors with permanent brain damage or paralysis. Neither the foundation nor Feinberg took any fee for months of work. Yet even such exemplary steps could not fully restore the good will lost at the start, and some survivors later signed a White House petition calling for a national fund to take over all victim compensation.
With no template to guide their decisions, nonprofits and relief-fund panels are still being left to improvise in a charged atmosphere. Many cities today have no better option than picking up the phone and calling Columbine for advice. Small towns and suburbs may be especially hard-pressed to meet the challenges that come with dispersing victim funds, but claims of mismanagement and insensitivity also dogged New York following September 11th and Oklahoma City after the bombing there. Tucson, Arizona, is one community that found its way through the complexities of distributing aid to victims without a fight.
Tucson plunged into the gray area of victim compensation as unexpectedly as any other city. January 8, 2011, was the kind of blue-sky winter day that makes people move to Tucson. The scene was mundane as locals lined up to speak with Congresswoman Giffords near stores like Walgreens, Sparkle Cleaners, and Jenny Craig. The suburb of Oro Valley had been named one of the “10 Best Towns for Families” by Family Circle a few years before; the area is lower-crime, pricier, and whiter than much of Tucson.
Then Jared Loughner, a young man with untreated schizophrenia, showed up at the shopping center with a Glock semi-automatic handgun. He shot Giffords pointblank in the head, fired more than 30 rounds into the crowd and reached for his next high-capacity magazine. Four people, including one who had been grazed by a bullet, tackled the killer and held him down for five minutes until sheriff’s deputies arrived. Helpers emerged from adjacent stores and improvised first aid. A married doctor and nurse who had been shopping at Safeway started triage and assigned top priority to a 9-year-old girl who had been shot through the chest. Paramedics put her into the first ambulance, the Congresswoman into the second.
After a mass-casualty incident, identifying victims and survivors can be a major undertaking and complicate the compensation process. Few people outside the criminal-justice system have DNA or fingerprints stored in searchable databases, and vast destruction at a crime scene may make victims’ bodies or ashes irretrievable. Remains have still not been identified for 1,115 of the people who went missing after 9/11. In Oklahoma City, some identifications had to be made through latent fingerprints collected in victims’ homes. After the Boston Marathon bombing, when some wounded people fled for safety, the initial chaos forced One Fund to do extensive outreach to find claimants and allowed several opportunists to submit fraudulent claims for cash awards. Moreover, when lives hang in the balance, paramedics waste little time on IDs and hospitals admit trauma victims under code names. Pam Simon, for instance, went into emergency surgery as “Cactus LB.”
To identify Tucson’s victims, Kent Burbank, the director of Victim Services at the Pima County Attorney’s Office, immediately dispatched a team of 35 victim advocates, who raced to the crime scene and area hospitals to assist survivors, interview witnesses, and gather information. When Burbank pulled into the Safeway plaza, the final group of gunshot victims was being readied for transport and a sheriff’s patrol car had been set up as a command center. Officers were writing site and incident details in Magic Marker on the cruiser’s white hood. “It was a big puzzle,” Burbank recalled, “who was where, what the injuries were.”
As the hours unfolded, the damage became clear. The gunman had murdered six people and injured another 13 in less than 20 seconds. Nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green was pronounced dead at the hospital and Giffords was in critical condition.
Identifying the 19 people killed or wounded in the shooting turned out to be fairly straightforward because all the victims were local and, according to the first firefighters on scene, lay in a small area, “some stacked on each other.” Most had dropped in their tracks in a row about 30 feet long. Eyewitnesses, including members of Giffords’ staff, provided some victims’ names and phone numbers; other clues came from the event’s sign-in sheet.
Toward midnight in a hospital lobby, Burbank met with his local team, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Victim Witness staff to collate data collected from nearly 200 victims and witnesses. “We knew who was who that day,” he told me. “The victim, the next of kin, contact information, an email list.”
Still, some identifications took time to piece together and verify. For instance, there was Phyllis Schneck, a sociable senior, widowed and living alone. She had popped into the Giffords event on her own. Schneck’s son in New Jersey learned his mother’s fate when local police came to his home about nine hours after the shooting. One of Schneck’s daughters, driving frantically from Colorado toward Tucson, heard the confirmation of her mother’s death that night on the car radio in an updated list of the fatalities.
The first January 8th-related fund opened in response to a distress call from John and Roxanna Green just 48 hours after their daughter Christina-Taylor’s death. Still absorbing the shock, the parents found themselves suddenly surrounded by TV crews and overwhelmed by phone calls from sympathetic strangers. The Greens contacted the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona for help fielding all the calls, letters, generous offers, and memorial arty pouring in. Within 24 hours, the nonprofit had established a P.O. box, an online account for credit-card donations from around the globe, an in-house team to sort what became months of mail, and a tax-exempt fund to receive the contributions arriving in memory of the slain third-grader.
Launched just as fast was a bit of likely cyberfraud, a Tucson tragedy donation website purportedly connected to an out-of-state nonprofit. “We suspected it was not fully legitimate,” says Burbank. “Our Investigations Division tracked it, and we were prepared to go forward with investigating and prosecuting if we had to, but the website died out quickly, so we let it go.”
To head off further scams, County Attorney Barbara LaWall convened a meeting of key community players to create a single January 8th fund. Safeway had already jumped into fundraising mode, as had the local NBC affiliate, in partnership with six Tucson banks and credit unions. But the businesses had soon realized they had no mechanisms for disbursing money to the victims. LaWall asked Clint Mabie, CEO of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, if his nonprofit could become the January 8th clearinghouse and manage the payout process. Mabie agreed, and the Tucson Together Fund was born.
To protect donors from con artists and unify the city’s message, the foundation whipped together a website, stating: “The Tucson Together Fund is the only officially sanctioned fund established to assist victims, families, and witnesses of the January 8th tragedy.”
“We wanted to make the communication about that very clear,” said Carol Gaxiola, a fund board member and the executive director of the Tucson-based group Homicide Survivors Inc., “because you always get the fraudulent funds popping up, seizing the opportunity. People who want to contribute after a horrific event, they want to do it very quickly. So that’s just good pickin’ grounds for fraud.”
Burbank now faced the challenge of helping Tucson coordinate a plan for allocating victim funds. Needing advice, he began making phone calls to Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who had overseen victim compensation funds after 9/11, Virginia Tech, and the BP oil spill.
“Oklahoma City told us what not to do,” said Burbank. “Kenneth Feinberg talked to me for a long time and recommended a very programmatic approach. But we didn’t exactly follow his model. We’re a smaller community. Every city is different.”
After a similar round of calls to consult with cities that had experienced mass violence, Mabie made it a priority to seek out victims’ perspectives and take their timelines into account. Goodwill efforts, he explained, can easily steamroll the fragile survivor groups they’re intended to help. “Donors wanted personal meetings with victims to whom they were giving checks. And we said no. Construction businesses wanted to get started putting up a memorial. We said no. You need to take time and let the victims lead the process. And people accept that.”
One of the Tucson Together Fund’s most important early decisions was to give all donated money to the survivors and the families of those who were killed. That plan streamlined the process, sent a clear message to the public, and pre-empted the kinds of controversies that have erupted elsewhere. “Victims are the intended recipients,” said Mabie, reflecting the local outlook. “Grieving and trauma are personal. Whether there are ongoing mental-health issues or physical-therapy issues, it’s really dependent on the victim’s situation and how the person wants to handle that. I want to give them the money to be flexible.”
In addition to the relief funds being coordinated by the nonprofit, each January 8th shooting victim was eligible for state assistance. Like every state, Arizona makes compensation available to victims of violent crime through its Victim Compensation program, which is coordinated locally. The revenue comes from convicted criminals—not tax-payers—through fines and forfeited property. Pima County’s program offered the shooting victims reimbursement up to $20,000 for a fixed list of expenses, including medical bills, counseling fees and up to $5,000 for a homicide victim’s funeral. A low-profile public resource, Victim Compensation is sometimes criticized for the strict criteria that limit access: Crime victims may be excluded, for instance, if they fail to cooperate with police in identifying or filing charges against perpetrators. Nationwide, Victim Compensation mainly serves the working poor, and in that respect, the January 8th victims were an unusual set of claimants, because several were well-to-do, and many had generous health plans. Yet even some with Cadillac coverage reached the limits of their plans once they’d been shot and needed multiple surgeries, ongoing physical therapy, and extensive counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ron Barber, a congressional staffer who was later elected to Congress, was one survivor whose gun-blast injuries required a lengthy course of treatment. When I first met him, three months after the shooting, he was home recuperating and propped up in a squeaky leather easy chair. He wore a leg brace and had recovered just enough to take his first shaky steps. Shot twice on January 8th, Barber had briefly faced the threat of an amputation, but surgeons at UAMC’s Level 1 trauma center had saved his damaged left leg with a vein graft. He was experiencing PTSD, seeing disturbing mental replays of the crime. “That smirk,” he said, recalling the shooter’s affect. Barber’s cheek is permanently dimpled by the bullet that zinged through, exiting just millimeters from his carotid artery. A visible scar from a medical incision forms a pink seam from wrist to elbow.
Barber told me that he would have bled to death had it not been for a passing stranger applying pressure to his wounds. “If you saw an image on the news of a woman in jeans covered in blood, that was Anna, covered in my blood,” he said. He described how the violent attack had traumatized many bystanders and witnesses, including the woman who helped save his life. “Those who of us who are actual shooting victims, there are funds available for us to get what we need,” he told me. “I’m concerned about people who were not in that category. They need help too. We want to make sure that they get the resources they need for counseling and other kinds of support.”
To bring in enough money to benefit the entire pool of survivors and victims’ families, Burbank and his office submitted a comprehensive grant proposal to the federal Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program. The $1.7 million grant boosted service for the shooting’s direct victims and also addressed the needs of secondary victims, including 100 members of victims’ families and 150 eyewitnesses. Some, like Barber’s helper Anna Ballis, had staunched wounds with their bare hands or with workers’ cotton aprons from the nearby Safeway during the tense six minutes before ambulances arrived.
After seven weeks convalescing at home, Pam Simon, Giffords’ community-outreach coordinator, went back to work in the Congressional office with a bullet in her hip. “I was exhausted all the time, but I was trying to put on a brave face and raise other people’s spirits,” she recalled. “So I was a joke a minute, and I think it was totally override: If you keep laughing, you don’t have to deal with this sadness.”
Particularly painful, she said, was seeing Gabriel Zimmerman’s empty office. The 30-year-old director of community outreach had been slain while reportedly running to assist the first victims. His father, Ross, found comfort in dropping by to sit at his son’s desk and soon began eating lunch most days with the congressional staff. “I like the company of people who knew Gabe,” he told me, “and the folks here have indicated to me that it’s a help to them.”
Public interest in the crime was high. Local groups and schools called the office for speakers, requesting “one of the ones that got shot.” The only wounded member of the staff well enough to be back on the job, Simon felt driven to comply. “I guess I felt like if I could stand up there and say, ‘I’m from the Giffords office, and I’m recovering,’ it would give everybody hope,” she said. She was taken aback by how often kids and adults asked to see her bullet holes.
Meanwhile, support for Tucson’s victims was growing to $1.6 million, mostly through small donations. Around town, car washes, bake sales, and street concerts raised money to build up the Tucson Together Fund. Locals tucked cash into collection boxes at Safeway, Eegee’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Off-duty sheriff’s deputies waited tables at a couple of steakhouse fundraisers, and 66 local artists donated work to an auction event that raised $6,500 for the survivor funds.
Big checks were few, though $100,000 came from the Safeway Foundation and $50,000 from the owner of a local car dealership chain. A benefit concert at the Tucson Arena brought in $153,000, and a local couple pledged $100,000 for a memorial college scholarship. Many local fundraisers reflected personal ties, and some were baseball-themed: John Green, Christina-Taylor’s father, supervises scouts for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His father, Dallas Green, has spent six decades in the major leagues, including managing and advising the Phillies, the Cubs, the Mets, and the Yankees. To benefit the Greens’ memorial fund, the Dodgers took on the White Sox in a spring training charity game. A second exhibition game—Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks—earned the Tucson Together Fund nearly $71,000. In addition, Little League board members from Christina-Taylor’s league issued a commemorative sleeve patch in honor of the 9-year-old, the only girl on her team and a popular, determined player. The $4 baseball patch sold briskly online and netted more than $14,000, presented to the Greens in a jumbo check at the opening game of the spring Little League season.
“Hopefully we can keep this energy going and expand it,” Carol Gaxiola told me, “and continue the dialogue about the response to tragedy.” As the executive director of Homicide Survivors Inc., a local victim-resource group, Gaxiola helped the Tucson Together Fund better understand survivors’ needs and reduce red tape in order to minimize stress. Her own 14-year-old daughter, Jasmin, had been murdered in 1999, five years after her older child, Anna, had died from an inoperable brain tumor. Gaxiola first connected with Homicide Survivors as a parent seeking help after Jasmin’s death and now leads the organization’s victim support work on as many as 100 murder cases a year. “There are a lot of hidden costs to homicide,” explained Gaxiola. “Your inability to act in the aftermath can really affect family finances. And then also the extended expenses down the line.”
Court proceedings, she continued, put additional stress on survivors, who feel compelled to attend, however painful that may be. If litigation moves out-of-state, or if family members live far from the county where their relative was killed, being present at trial can mean staying in a motel for months. “Costs can really skyrocket,” Gaxiola said. “And your conflict between wanting to represent your loved one and having to earn a living can be excruciating for families.”
In the case of the January 8th shootings, an unusual legal twist seemed likely to move the trial location far from home: One of the fatalities, John Roll, had been the chief federal judge in Arizona. Surveillance camera footage shows Roll pushing Ron Barber to the ground, likely saving his life. Roll had been so widely known and liked among his colleagues that a judicial order recused all the possible judges in Arizona from handling the case.
With an out-of-state change of venue looming, Tucson’s Victim Services sought federal travel support for 100 survivors and victims’ next-of-kin. The trial-related support came from a $50 million federal fund created in response to victims’ demands after the Oklahoma City bombing. So many people had been killed or injured in that 1995 bombing that no courtroom could seat all the victims’ families. When the trial was assigned to Denver, many survivors could not attend. They ended up in a hometown auditorium watching fuzzy, closed-circuit images relayed from the Denver courtroom.
But the Tucson case never went to trial. After months of legal wrangling over whether the mentally ill defendant was fit to enter any kind of plea, the case took a major turn. Jared Loughner, restored to competence through medication, pled guilty to 19 federal charges, including the attempted assassination of a member of Congress. In November 2012, he was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences plus 140 years for the 20-second shooting spree.
Many survivor families attended the sentencing, but Christina-Taylor Green’s parents did not. Nor did Gabriel Zimmerman’s. “I don’t have any desire to go look at this in the courtroom,” his father, Ross Zimmerman, told me as we sat together in his office on the morning the sentence came down. He sounded sad and a little testy. “I don’t get any particular feelings of closure. I don’t have any feelings of wanting to see punishment or justice done here. The sense I’ve had with my family members is—we’d just as soon not hear about it anymore.”
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall had the option to take Loughner to trial on state charges to seek the death penalty, but she declined: The killer was already headed to prison for life with no chance of parole or appeal. Besides, the victims themselves opposed having litigation wear on. Thirty-five January 8th survivors and victims’ relatives signed a letter asking LaWall not to pursue further prosecution: “It is not a perfect verdict, but it is one we can all live with. Please, allow this to end here.”
Three months later, the Tucson Together Fund announced that it was making its final payouts and would soon disband. Each shooting victim and bereaved family had already received $15,000. Now the fund gave another $12,000 to every family that had suffered a death and $5,000 to each individual who had been shot. The fund made special awards of $17,000 to Mavvy Stoddard and George Morris in recognition of their compound losses: On January 8th, each of them had been both wounded and widowed, holding their dying spouses as they lay on the ground together waiting for help.
Doris Tucker was one of several victims awarded $2,500 due to endangerment, even though she hadn’t been physically injured. She’d been chatting with Giffords as the barrage began and had stood so close to the shooter that an ejected bullet casing landed inside her purse. Pushed downwards and screaming on the ground, she had first thought her husband, Jim, was dead and then scrambled to aid him. Months later, she learned from Loughner’s psychologist that the would-be assassin had shoved her out of the line of fire to make her “his witness.”
When Jim had to undergo a second surgery 10 months after the shooting, the fund helped make up for his lost wages. He had been hit twice by bullets and slammed backward onto the ground, where he lay hemorrhaging and, almost without thinking, counted gunshots up to about 20. Shrapnel, severed nerves, and a shattered collarbone, now held together with a steel plate and nine screws, still give him chronic pain. He has persistent walking problems from the bullet wound to his lower leg, which he jokes looked like part of The Visible Man till his incisions finally healed. Bullet fragments and scar tissue press on his vocal chords and make his voice raspy and faint. He clears his throat a lot and says it’s gotten harder to talk.
Describing the shooting’s impact, he says, soberly, “It’s like a ripple effect around your life. It’s not just medical bills, but the things in your life that are affected by your medical condition. I think the coordinators understood that and wanted to make the fund as compassionate as possible.”
“They really thought about the total needs for the family,” added Doris. “And just the sense of feeling cared for created such an attitude of gratefulness towards the community.”
To ensure that the full measure of the public’s generosity reached the January 8th group, the Tucson Together Fund transferred its remaining $50,000 to Homicide Survivors to make support available for a final 18 months. “We know that there’s a need for funds on a long term basis,” said Bill Carnegie, who chaired the Tucson Together Fund. “As much as we humans tend to move on quickly from tragedy or other events—we like to put them out of our minds and get on with our daily lives, the truth is that the people that go through these experiences can’t really do that.”
Jim Tucker still gets spooked when someone walks behind him. “If we go out to eat, I try to sit with my back to the wall,” he said, “so there’s a minimum amount of people who can pass behind me.” On January 8th, he fell facing away from any view of the rampage but now experiences auditory flashbacks and finds sudden noises disturbing. Doris Tucker, now also highly reactive to sound bursts, said Jim has become hyper-vigilant and easily fatigued.
Other January 8th victims diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder told me about their nightmares, repetitive visions of the shooting, and panicking in settings reminiscent of the crime. One of the men who pinned the shooter to the ground later suffered from PTSD brought on by loud sounds, from construction booms to passing sirens. He broke into a wild, sobbing laugh as he tried to talk to me about it.
Getting shot in the chest persuaded Pam Simon to start taking action to prevent gun violence. “It was so random. That bullet could’ve been a quarter-inch over and hit my heart, and I wouldn’t be here,” she told me as we drank tea at her kitchen table, the serrated Catalina mountain range visible in the distance. After retiring from the congressional office, she began to advocate for universal background checks and other legal reforms, as have more than a half-dozen of the Tucson tragedy survivors, including Giffords. Simon received a “Champions of Change” award at the White House in 2014 for her efforts. Soon afterward, she and another January 8th survivor, Daniel Hernandez, became Arizona outreach coordinators for Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-control organization founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Simon’s personal efforts have included connecting with bereaved parents from Aurora and Newtown.
Still, at times her PTSD puts her into a state of high alert, causing her to scan her surroundings for escape routes and tense up in anticipation of an impending struggle against an armed assailant. “When I go to the movies now, I have to remind myself, ‘This is a fun place. You’ve got your popcorn, you want to see the show,’” she explained. “On an anniversary or when another tragedy takes place, I will fall back on thinking over and over how to save the day. ‘Okay, if a gunman came in there, I’d be able to go over there…’ You go through something completely ludicrous in your mind, but it’s set into motion and you can’t just stop.”
Simon used part of her award to pay for therapy. “People who contributed to the fund allowed me to go talk to that counselor,” she said, “and I’ll never know who those kind people were.” Several of the January 8th families were more resistant to receiving money, so the funders set up mechanisms through which survivors’ awards could go straight to charity.
“Victims should be able to make decisions about how they want their funds spent,” said Kent Burbank. “Being able to make choices helps victims get back on their feet.” He noted that though some shaken eyewitnesses relied on federally supported counseling for two years, many of the 150 eligible under the $1.7 million federal grant declined to accept any financial assistance. Likewise, neither Homicide Survivors nor the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona took a fee for administering the Tucson Together Fund, according to their top officers.
Even survivors who never made use of the formal donation procedure shared their awards with others. Jim and Doris Tucker, for example, accepted the help but gave away about two-thirds of what they received to organizations serving the needy. Evangelical Christians, the Tuckers spent part of their final award attending training for Billy Graham’s Rapid Response Team. They hope down the road to work with the group as volunteer chaplains providing crisis counseling to victims of violence.
“The donated support allowed us to make contributions that are also part of the healing process,” said Simon, who quietly increased her local giving. She calls compensation a “ticklish” subject. “For every one of us that’s alive, no matter how badly wounded, there is that little question: ‘Should somebody else have been allowed to live instead?’” She has donated to a scholarship fund created in memory of her friend and colleague Gabriel Zimmerman, the first U.S. congressional aide ever killed in the line of duty. But, she said, “We don’t really want to be recognized for our contributions. I have wanted it to be very low-key, and I think that’s due to survivor guilt—not wanting to get attention for giving to the Gabe Zimmerman Fund, because I’ve spent every day for months thinking, ‘Why am I alive, when Gabe is not?’”
How did Tucson manage to avoid the the kind of ugly showdowns that have marred the victim compensation process elsewhere? A metropolis of nearly a million, the Southwestern city had more institutional infrastructure and expertise to draw on than places like Aurora, about a third the size, or tiny hamlets like Newtown. Tucson also had certain cultural assets that helped its January 8th compensation process run smoothly, including an experienced community foundation and a history of cooperation among the local nonprofits. As the county seat, the city had a large Victim Services office on hand to assist survivors and also secure the $1.7 million Justice Department grant that expanded counseling to residents touched by the tragedy. In addition, Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, which stepped up—along with businesses, nonprofits, and other government organizations—to volunteer goods, services, and staff time to help individual survivors or to support recovery-related events benefiting the broader public.
Tucson also retains what many locals described to me as a small town sensibility, in which neighborliness and self-reliance are both points of pride. “We all have our differences. You see how divided we are politically, indicated by this latest Congressional election,” said Jim Tucker. “But something like this happens and it’s ‘Circle the wagons and help ‘em,’ regardless of political views, economic status or religious beliefs.”
A leading factor in Tucson’s success was its fund’s commitment to transparency and communication with survivors. “Establish trust. Lack of information contributes to the biggest need,” said Gaxiola. She noted that poor communication fuels conflict because uncertainty can feel unbearable to victims of random violence, as many of them are struggling to regain a sense of control. By involving experienced victim advocates, Tucson bolstered communication and reduced potential friction: Gaxiola, a local leader in grassroots victim support, took part in the fund’s award decisions, while county-assigned advocates helped victims file financial claims and encouraged individual survivors to discuss their needs, preferences, and challenges. Later, when One Fund Boston needed to figure out how to handle nearly $80 million in donation, it turned to the much smaller Tucson Together Fund as a mode, directing relief to the wounded and the families of the deceased rather than towards witnesses or the wider community.
Both cities have won praise for the way they handled victim compensation, yet no national blueprint has emerged. Proposals to help stricken communities by systematizing compensation efforts—perhaps through a new federal agency or coordinating nonprofit—are just being floated, with no clear future. Meanwhile, deadly attacks on the public increased between 2001 and 2013, according to a recent FBI study of active shooter incidents, which shows a steady uptick in frequency to “an average of more than one incident per month,” including 39 mass killings, during the last seven years analyzed. As the number of mass casualties rises, local expertise is also proliferating, but it remains fragmentary.
Tucson now finds itself part of an expanding patchwork of informal crisis resources. Ever since the January 8th shooting, Kent Burbank and other local leaders have been fielding urgent, sporadic calls from government employees, foundations, and families seeking counsel after tragedies. Like Tucson, many communities can identify what worked for them and where they stumbled, yet any national conversation about best practices has yet to emerge. “Each incident is so different,” said Burbank. “I don’t think there’s a recipe. As a country, if we want to develop models for responding to this kind of mass casualty event, they’ll have to be very flexible.”
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