Personal History: One Woman's Lifetime Of Losses From Gun Violence

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Guest Contributor

"Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.” — John Knowles, A Separate Peace

When I first read that sentence in 8th grade English, my grandfather had been dead for about two years. I wondered about the validity of the sentence when I read it then. Thirty-five years later I know it’s not true. Violent deaths, and the survivors they leave in their wake, endure – painfully so.

Hans Wachtel, husband, father, grandfather, doctor, murder victim. Dr. Wachtel is pictured here, in the 1970s, after delivering a colleague's baby. (Courtesy)
Hans Wachtel, husband, father, grandfather, doctor, murder victim. Dr. Wachtel is pictured here, in the 1970s, after delivering a colleague's baby. (Courtesy)

My grandfather, Hans Wachtel, escaped from Nazi Germany and became an obstetrician-gynecologist in Chicago. He received a Bronze Star for his bravery as a medic in the United States Army during World War II and, according to my family, he was one of the first white doctors in the Chicago area to treat African-American patients after the War. My grandfather made a successful life for himself, his American-born wife, and their five children (2 of whom he adopted after their birth parents died).

In 1977 my grandfather suspected that one of the doctors in his OB-GYN practice was performing unnecessary Cesarean sections on low-income women in order to get more money from Medicaid. When my grandfather confronted the other doctor, the doctor hired two people who shot my grandfather as he got into his car one cold February morning on his way to work.

For $2,000 two men killed my wonderful grandfather — a heroic, generous man who truly loved his family, his patients and life. One of the killers gave my grandmother “the finger” when he was being led out of the courtroom during their trial. Since there was no death penalty in Illinois in 1977, the killers sit in prison to this day. Every couple of years the Illinois Prisoner Review Board holds a parole hearing – and we have to relive the grisly facts of the murder. Violent deaths certainly endure.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]For $2,000 two men killed my wonderful grandfather — a heroic, generous man who truly loved his family, his patients and life. Violent deaths certainly endure.[/module]

As a child, I remember thinking that if only the two men “just” had knives, my 68-year-old grandfather, who seemed so big and strong, could have had a chance. Even though I’m much older now, I can still hold the same fantasy. In any event, I know he had absolutely no chance when he rolled down the car window to answer the strangers’ question and was shot with several bullets through his temple.

Time passed after my grandfather was murdered.

I became a Bat Mitzvah without him, went to college and became a lawyer. My younger brother, Jeff, became an Illinois State’s Attorney because he wanted to help other victims of violent crimes. My grandmother lived for 28 years after her husband’s death, volunteering at Children’s Memorial Hospital and maintaining an active life despite the gaping hole.

On July 1, 1993, my life — and the lives of so many others — was turned upside down again. A man with a semi-automatic TEC-9 walked into a San Francisco office building, took the elevator to the 34th floor and started shooting. Eight people were killed and six were injured before police closed in and the gunman killed himself. I was a new lawyer at the time and my boss and mentor, Jack Berman, was one of the people killed at 101 California Street that day. Jack was 35 years old, had a 1-year-old son, and was deeply devoted to promoting social justice. He was a person with a big heart and an infectious laugh, just like my grandfather. Hundreds of people attended Jack’s funeral, including his parents who were Holocaust survivors.

Our strong-spirited and accomplished 30-year-old client, Jody Sposato, died that day, also leaving behind a 1-year-old child. Later, I met Michelle Scully, who was seriously injured, but survived because her 28-year-old husband, John, threw his 6’4” body in front of hers to shield her from the gunfire. John died. The Scullys had only been married nine months.

Spurred on by many of the families and friends of the victims of the 101 California Street shooting, Congress enacted the Federal Assault Weapons Ban on September 13, 1994. Among its provisions, the law prohibited the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic weapons, including the gun used at 101 California Street and later at Colombine High School, and limited ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire on September 13, 2004 pursuant to its sunset provision and no bill to renew the ban has reached the floor of the Congress for a vote since then.

Now, as the children of Jack and Jody complete their junior years of college, we’re tearfully watching yet another senseless mass shooting — this time of twenty young children and six adults. Soon after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January 2011, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, of New York, whose husband was killed and son injured in the mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, introduced a bill solely to limit the number of ammunition rounds a semi-automatic weapon can hold — back to 10 — for non-military, non-law-enforcement use. I am in utter disbelief and deeply saddened that our legislators can’t agree on this most basic, reasonable limitation.

I’m not a hunter, but I can’t imagine why a hunter or other law-abiding gun owner would need an ammunition clip with more than 10 rounds (or a semi-automatic weapon for that matter, but that’s not even on the table for debate). Representative Giffords’ shooter was subdued by bystanders only when he needed to stop shooting in order to reload his weapon, as was the Long Island commuter train gunman 17 years before him.

Earlier this year, former Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts told The Associated Press that it should be left up to individual states to decide whether to approve new bans on assault weapons. Obviously, attitudes towards guns vary widely across the United States. However, as a nation we are only as “safe” as the most lax state law since guns and ammunition clips are easily transported across state lines. If the federal government regulates things like food safety, why not guns and ammunition clips?

Some people purchase guns in order to give themselves a sense of being “safe.” Rep. Giffords expressed that she felt “safe” in an interview a year before her tragic shooting, boasting, “I have a Glock 9 millimeter and I'm a pretty good shot." Giffords’ gun didn’t save her life. The quick thinking and bravery of those around her did – as the gunman was forced to stop shooting to reload.

As a tribute to the innocent victims in Connecticut — and to the almost three dozen Americans who are killed by gun violence each day — our legislators have the opportunity to make us all a little safer without compromising anybody’s rights or freedoms. They need to display common sense, stand up to the NRA and pro-gun lobby and pass Rep. McCarthy’s bill now, as a first step to ensuring that no one else endures the pain that my family, and so many others, experience every day.

Ilyse Levine-Kanji lives in Westborough, Mass. with her husband and two sons and serves as Chair of the Westborough School Committee.


This program aired on December 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.