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    A trauma surgeon removed this bullet jacket from Whitney Austin with tweezers. “Your body pushes that stuff out,” her husband Weller says. // Photo by Danny Alexander
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    On Sept. 6, 2018, Louisville native Whitney Austin was shot 12 times by a 9mm semiautomatic handgun while heading into work at the Fifth Third Center in downtown Cincinnati. She survived and, in the wake of the shooting that killed three, started the nonprofit Whitney/Strong.

    Last month, Austin was in Frankfort advocating for a bipartisan bill known as “red flag” that would allow court-approved extreme-risk-protection orders to temporarily remove guns from individuals who are a threat to others or themselves. As of press time, the bill was scheduled to be filed in time for the General Assembly session next month.

    Austin, who is 38 and lives in Louisville, spoke to us about the Fifth Third shooting, and her goals for Whitney/Strong, which she’s now focusing on full time.

     

    “Our kitty cat’s named for Al (Cincinnati Police Department officer Alphonzo Staples), who saved my life. It’s funny because he would not have chosen the cat; he would have preferred a Rottweiler. But our children wanted an animal, and we got Alphonzo the cat about a month after I was injured. If you have a mommy who’s not fully functioning and my husband Waller is trying to take care of everybody, how are you going to get a puppy? Getting a cat was really helpful because my hands weren’t working all that well after the shooting, so to pet a cat was good therapy. 

    “The first barrage of bullets pretty much got my right arm, and the second time it went all the way across to my left arm. I was so laser-focused on surviving that I don’t even remember the sounds of it. I was in the revolving door, and I really thought I was dying. And then I saw Al. He couldn’t immediately save me because they needed to take down the shooter. I can’t tell you the specific timeline because I’ve never watched any of the videos; I know watching the video is not going to be helpful in my healing. But I know that it was a very short period of time. I think I was in there less than three minutes tops. I said, ‘I have a five- and a seven-year-old. You need to save me. I need to be their mommy.’ I was bleeding uncontrollably on the way to the hospital. The left arm had a tourniquet and nobody was putting a tourniquet on the right arm because it was so bad. The first of my surgeries was just to put it all back together.

    “That first night I was strong enough to sit up in my hospital bed. My arms were all bandaged, but my face looked fine and had good color, so we FaceTimed with the kids. They knew that Mommy got shot by what we said was a man with a bad brain, because how do you explain any of that to young minds? By the end of the call they said, ‘Can we go back to watching our show now?’

    “People sent care packages. I mean, we didn't cook meals for months and months because people would drop off so much food. I had a cousin who lived with us for a full month, helping with the kids. One group of moms brought me every cool thing Trader Joe’s makes, but that I'd never allowed myself to buy. Cheese straws. Pair those with some red wine and you're good to go.

    “Waller and I were in the hospital that first week in Cincinnati. I couldn’t physically do anything. It took me a long time to even stand up. But my mind was racing: What are we going to do? The gun debate is so politicized — everybody’s fighting all the time, nobody can agree on anything. We said: Why can’t we come at this from the center? If I show a picture of me meeting with Mitch McConnell, then I’ll follow it up with a picture of me meeting with John Yarmuth. Everything we take on has to be supported by the majority of citizens, with legit polling data, and there has to be good evidence to show it will work. Comprehensive background checks are certainly one of those things.

    “Whitney/Strong is not just about mass shootings. The number of people impacted by mass shootings continues to increase, but that is just a very, very small piece of the pie. The biggest number comes from suicide, and not enough people are talking about that. My experience made me open my mind and eyes and heart to other types of gun violence. I think about the moms and communities that are disproportionately impacted by gun violence and how scared they are to let their kids play in the backyard because you just don’t know when something’s going to happen. And I think about how privileged I am that all I have to worry about is some random situation in a public space, which is still very, very rare.

    “Waller has rifles, some of them more than a hundred years old, that have been passed down for generations in his family. He also has a rifle that he bought in college because he liked to shoot skeet and clay pigeons. So nobody here in this household is anti-gun. As long as you are responsible, you’re good with me. A lot of times people get laughed out of these conversations because they’ve never held a gun. I thought: Who am I to champion responsible gun ownership if I’ve never shot a gun?

    “The firearm training that I have taken has all been through Knob Creek Gun Range in Bullitt County and one of their instructors, Cole (Daunhauer). They’re closed Tuesdays, so he brought me in, let me shoot when nobody else was there. It’s me, Waller, several other board members. I remember going through everything really robotically — putting in the magazine, pulling back the slider, putting my hand on the trigger, leaning forward into the proper position. And then I just pulled the trigger. I was probably a good 12 inches above the center of the target, but it was still right in the center. I remember grabbing Waller and hugging him and having watery eyes and thinking, oh, my God, that was the closest I’ll ever feel to what the shooter felt like.

    “I would absolutely talk to the shooter’s family. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be in that situation. I don’t have any hate in my heart toward him. I have a lot of questions. I wonder what must have happened in his life to get him to that point. What things got in his way of having a fruitful life? And how can we prevent other people from getting there?

    “We’ve come to the realization that incremental progress is the way. One example is getting gun shops to display suicide-prevention materials. Knob Creek has partnered with us. For a gun-violence-prevention organization to partner with a gun shop on what common-sense things we can do together, that doesn’t get the attention that it should.

    “There are so many people who are devastated forever because of losing a loved one to guns. But my outcome is different, and I’m going to try and fight for them because I can do something about this. I don’t deserve to feel anything other than motivated to change the world because I got what I wanted: my kids, my husband, my sister, my parents, my friends. How can you waste any time being upset with what happened to you when you got the most unbelievable outcome ever?

    “The more people that continue to be affected by these shootings, we approach critical mass. And then we are that much harder to ignore in terms of change. Because the thing about us is: We’ll never forget.

    “I like that I have the scars. They help remind me of what I’m fighting for.”

     

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville MagazineRead 2019 from A to Z.

    To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: A trauma surgeon removed this  bullet jacket from Whitney Austin with tweezers. “Your body pushes that stuff out,” her husband Weller says. // Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

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