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Slain teen’s dad directs grief into action

Not all Columbine parents criticize Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”

Tom Mauser, whose son was killed, said, “Moore is using this tragedy to make us question what we’re all about. He challenges us to think, and that just doesn’t happen very much in the film industry. My concern has always been that not enough would be known about what happened and what underlies it. That’s what is important.”

Mauser, now a fervent anti-gun activist, agrees that using the name “Columbine” opened Moore to charges of exploitation, but he adds, “If you want to talk about exploitation, it’s the mainstream movies that put violence out there with no redeeming social values. They just glamorize guns and violence.”

Tom’s son, Daniel Mauser, was a gentle, bright 15-year-old in 10th grade when shot to death at Columbine High April 20, 1999. He was preparing for Confirmation at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Littleton, the church where his funeral was held.

Interested in current events and social issues, Daniel, two weeks prior to his death, had told his dad there were loopholes in the Brady bill (the federal law requiring background checks for certain gun buyers). Daniel was shot with a gun purchased at a gun show -- one of the loopholes. Tom saw this connection and directed his grief into action.

In 2000, Tom Mauser took a one-year leave from his job with Colorado’s transportation department to work as a lobbyist for SAFE Colorado, a group advocating increased firearm regulation. The group successfully pushed a Colorado voter referendum closing a Brady bill loophole that allowed unlicensed individuals to sell weapons at gun shows without doing a background check.

The movie’s most affirming point for Mauser was Moore’s display of statistics on U.S. gun deaths. The film states that 11,127 victims die annually from gun violence. Mauser said it was great to see those numbers in large graphics, “boom, right there on the screen.” He thinks most Americans simply do not know those numbers or haven’t thought about them. “If they did, they would be ashamed -- they should be ashamed.”

Mauser is a realist, saying that stricter gun laws can take the edge off of gun violence, but stricter laws alone would not “stop the flow of guns in this country.” He said, “Gun control has to be based in education, education, education.”

He said people must learn that “when you bring that gun into your home it is 22 times more likely to be used to kill someone you know than it will be used to kill an intruder.” He said, “Look in the paper and see the cases of domestic violence, of road rage, of teen suicide. Those are the real things happening with guns, and they’re not just happening with criminals. They happen to ordinary people.”

Mauser doesn’t blame filmmaker Moore for aiming the spotlight on Littleton. He believes the Columbine incident clearly demonstrates that gun violence has become part of everyday American life. Mauser said people look at the massacre and ask, “Is there something wrong with this community?”

He answered, “No, there isn’t anything wrong with this community. It’s a typical American community in most respects. It [gun violence] happens in American communities every day. … It just doesn’t usually happen 13 at a time.”

Littleton is a suburban community, with a population of 30,000, located south of Denver and home to Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor.

Mauser cautioned that he does not presume to speak for the Littleton community in general, because his experience of Columbine was so different from the rest of the city’s. He said he speaks only from his own narrow experience, “We were at the epicenter. The farther out you are, the easier it is for you to observe and see what’s going on.” When asked how the Columbine community is healing, he answers, “I can’t tell you that because I’m in a totally different world.”

How is Daniel Mauser’s family healing? Daniel’s “little” sister, now 17, is attending high school in Littleton (not Columbine). The family has adopted a baby girl from China. Mauser said, “My wife decided we needed to turn this into something better, have some other good come out of this. She said, ‘Let’s give the time we would have spent with Daniel to another child.’ ”

His gun control activities have forestalled, but not negated, sorrow over the loss of his son. Back at his job now, Mauser tries to fit in a few interviews and political activities. He also maintains a Web site honoring his son, www.danielmauser.com. He said, “There’s satisfaction in doing what I thought Daniel would want me to do, but it doesn’t take away the grief.”

-- Melissa Jones

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002