"The most horrible thing": Richard Martinez on his slain son -- and the NRA

The courageous father of UCSB shooting victim Christopher tells Salon about his tragic week -- and the path forward

Published June 2, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

Richard Martinez        (CNN)
Richard Martinez (CNN)

It's been just over a week since Richard Martinez's son, Christopher, was killed along with six other students in a mass shooting in Isla Vista, California. He doesn't seem to have taken a moment to rest since. In the wake of unimaginable personal loss, Martinez has gone from a private citizen to a father grieving before an entire nation. And he has used that platform to talk -- rawly and frankly -- about pushing our elected officials to take action and pass the gun regulations that most people in this country want and support. This, he says, is the least he can do to honor his son's memory and that of every other person killed by such predictable, preventable violence.

On the phone early Friday morning, Martinez's voice is strong but low. His tone convicted but weary. He is clearly exhausted. But, as he tells me, he wants talk to anyone willing to listen about what needs to change in the United States to make sure there is "not one more" -- not one more life lost because of political cowardice or the influence of well-resourced special interests. Not another Columbine, Oak Creek, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Isla Vista.

He spoke over the phone with Salon about the shock of his grief and the power of simple language and strongly held emotion to change the conversation. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The raw emotion that you've brought to the national conversation about gun violence and our broken political system is a radical departure from how we generally talk about these things. Do you feel that -- through your willingness to share your grief -- you've given regular Americans permission to be emotional? To be furious? 

As I am going through this I think I am beginning to understand it a little more. Do you know the line, "There is nothing as powerful as a good idea clearly stated?" Well, I agree with that, but it's more than just that. There's nothing as powerful as a good idea clearly stated with conviction and deep emotion. Ideas are more powerful when they are combined with deep emotion, when combined with grief. I think that's why what I'm saying has resonated.

I had no idea any of this would happen. We weren't invited to that press conference. We found out about it by accident.

Now one of the ways people are attacking me through this is to say, "Well, he enjoys the attention. He is posturing to run for political office." I have a history in politics. I have been around politics. But I will never run for political office at any level -- ever. I will never write a book. I will never sue anybody. Karen and I -- Christopher's mother and I -- had this conversation early on. Our kid was a terrific kid. We're not going to cheapen his memory by doing those things. He deserves better than that.

My son can't make the world a better place now. He's gone. But to the extent that I can -- that's all that I can do now.

But I don't blame people for being suspicious. That's what they've come to expect from people they look to for leadership. That is the problem with our country. People are starved for genuineness. And it's more than just that. The people who are our leaders and the people in our public life can't seem to muster what it takes to really solve our problems. And for me, that has led to a personal tragedy.

What do you think is missing from the political equation here? In the wake of the Aurora, Oak Creek and Sandy Hook mass shootings, the overwhelming majority of Americans were in favor of common sense initiatives like strengthened background checks, and yet the Senate couldn't pass even those modest reforms.

I grew up in a rural community. I had guns. I do understand the appeal of guns. I'm not about banning guns. Hunters and farmers and ranchers -- you need a gun. I'm telling you, it's a tool. Respect it properly and it serves a purpose. But many people -- most people -- don't have a real reason to own a gun. I don't have an objection to owning a gun for personal protection in your home. But that gun ought to fit that purpose and only that. And you don't need three of them. You don't need a nuclear weapon in your basement. For home protection you don't need 400 rounds. What are you expecting? An army to attack you?

I have friends who are in the NRA. These people are hunters, they have a weapon that's appropriate to their target in hunting. They don't go hunting with semi-automatic weapons. They go hunting with weapons appropriate for that purpose.

But now there is a whole class of weapon out there now that didn't exist previously. These are weapons for fetishists.

Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, one of the Democrats who voted against reform last year, said at the time, "It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment." What's your response to that? 

Hannah Arendt wrote a book called "On Violence" and in it she points out that it's a fallacy to think that just because a person is emotional that what they say is irrational. The words themselves are what you have to judge. The emotion can convey in a subjective sense and give more power to what you say, but you judge it based on what is said.

And I think that is what is getting lost here. The agenda is being set by an extreme contingent of a very powerful and well-resourced special interest group. Wayne LaPierre seems to be dictating the terms of how we can talk about these issues -- about what counts as common sense and how we can judge these things. Do you think it's possible to center this conversation in a way that reflects the change that most Americans want?

The NRA are people too. They have kids. I have friends who are in the NRA, and they don't think like that. I don't think it's a monolithic organization, it's like any organization. But the leadership. I make a distinction between the leadership and the people I see on the ground -- the ones I know who are my neighbors and friends.

How do we bridge that gap? 

We need to use simple language. Speak directly and honestly. There's a tendency to want to use big words.

I was discussing this recently and this question of policy came up. The longer I talked, the more I began to sound like a politician. So I stopped and I said, "I don't really know what I'm talking about." That's kind of the problem. Too many people don't know what they're talking about.

Unfortunately, we just haven't had models of good leadership. People like FDR knew how to communicate. Churchill knew how to get an idea across.

And that speech I gave -- that wasn't off the cuff. The emotion was raw, but I was reading something I'd prepared. It was reviewed by four other people. I was writing it before we left, I wrote it in the long ride down to Santa Barbara. I was sharing it with other people. It was well thought out. If you look at the language, it is --regardless of the emotion it was delivered with -- if you look at the language, you'll find it's very simple. And I want to publicly thank Adam Gopnik [of the New Yorker] because after giving that speech, I had done one interview with "Good Morning America," and that was it. And I was in bed that night thinking, "Well, I came across like an angry crazy person." And we then spent time filming that "Good Morning America" segment, and I thought, "Justin Bieber could run over a rabbit and bump this story." I had no expectation that this would become what it has. But when I read the Gopnik piece, I realized that what I said had gotten across -- at least to someone.

Even if nothing had happened -- even if on Sunday morning that was the end of my story -- I felt validated and heartened at that.

There seems to be a critical mass building of parents and others who have lost people they love to deadly gun violence in the form of mass shootings. Add to that the number of families impacted by other forms of gun violence, and it feels like a majority of Americans have some personal stake in this issue. It's been cultivated under tragic circumstances, but do you think that this growing coalition will eventually be impossible for our leadership to ignore? 

A woman came up to me this week with a card in one hand and a bracelet in the other. She hands me the bracelet and the card and says, "These are my two children. They were shot to death." Now I wear that band on my left wrist. On my right wrist is the watch my son was wearing when he was killed. On my body, I have the results of three kids killed.

These other people [impacted by gun violence] have been working for far longer than I have. I just think there is going to be a point where they can't ignore this any longer.

I have only been living with this for less than a week. It's unreasonable for people to expect for me to have the answers. I don't know the answer to most of these questions. How could anyone expect that I do? Combined with just the horror -- I viewed my son's body the day before yesterday. That is the most horrible thing -- to have the last image of your son to be lifeless on a table. For that to be the last image of my son is horrible.

He had so much potential. He was such a great kid. He would have made the world a better place if he'd been able to do it.

Father of UC Santa Barbara Shooting Victim Speaks Out

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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