When I was 14, my mother was shot and killed by a neighbor. Twenty-five years later, my oldest son was killed.
The world stood still on that late March evening, as word began to travel about a horrific murder-suicide. Our tiny, rural Pennsylvanian community mourned, in shock that my mother, Gail Koppenhaver, was the homicide victim in this tragic domestic abuse incident. My mom died, the victim of gun violence two days before my 20th birthday.
Her beautiful smile, sense of humor and positive outlook lit up the lives of everyone she knew. Her coworkers, friends, customers and acquaintances all recognized the kindness and genuine happiness she brought into the world.
In addition to a career in banking/advertising, my mom was a dance teacher. She taught hundreds of dancers during the years she spent at the studio. My mother adored these children and took pride in her creativity and passion for the arts.
In 2008, my dad and I created the Gail Koppenhaver Dance and Scholarship Competition to give back to the community in her memory. Dancers from the region compete, share their talents and raise money for the GK scholarships. We have awarded over $100,000 to college seniors in the past 14 years … all in her memory.
Twenty years later … I miss my best friend.
My father, David, was an outdoorsman, gardener, inventor and avid NRA member and gun collector, having over 50 firearms at one point in his life. As he became physically disabled due to osteonecrosis and more dependent on mobility aids, he felt fearful about the need to protect himself and his family—especially after break-ins and robberies of his home.
I grew up surrounded by paranoia and hyper-vigilance about security, but also love. I learned gun safety from a very young age.
My father had a rocky relationship with the woman he married after my parents divorced, and she planned to leave to pursue another relationship. My father was killed by a gunshot wound to the head during an argument, deemed suicide by the Chilton, Texas, police department. His wife donated the majority of his belongings to Goodwill and left the state before his burial. Her new partner, present during the argument, was not formally questioned.
My father deserved another chapter in his life, and his family deserves to know what actually happened to cause his death. It is too easy to write off gun violence as someone else’s problem, to dismiss these lives, until it’s someone you love.
A survivor of domestic violence and someone who was threatened to be killed with a gun, my mother was shot by my father. She survived the attack because as the gun was pointed to her head, she knocked it away and was shot in her leg. My first cousin was also shot and killed by her husband, who then shot himself in 1999. My organization A-Way-Out Ministries, Inc. helps to end domestic violence.
Well, on the night of August 4, 2019, I was out enjoying the night with my father, Derrick Fudge, at a popular nightclub district in downtown Dayton, Ohio, called the Oregon District. A young male came down the side of the building firing a AR-15 weapon, killing my father beside me and eight other innocent lives. I was performing CPR, trying to save my dad’s life; the shooter was still on the street, shooting, until the police took him down. I still cannot believe that I did not die that night, but instead my father died for me, shielding the bullets that could have been for me.
I didn’t grow up with a stable mother-daughter relationship. My parents divorced when I was little, and I hardly knew my dad. My mother was in and out of my life from the time I was three until the age of 14. I did not know it at the time, but my mother has bipolar disorder and refused to take her medication, resulting in her being in a state of mania half the time. I deeply loved my mother, and I still do.
About four years ago, I saw my mother for the first time in about five or six years. I still didn’t understand her condition, and when she wanted to have a private talk with me, I obliged. Little did I know: She planned to shoot me, then herself. The fact that my mother could get access to a gun was disheartening. Thankfully, family members found us and calmed her down. I haven’t seen my mother since then, and I miss her every day.
My dad was a man of tremendous integrity, intelligence and strength—both physical and mental. He had been successful in his work and was enjoying a comfortable retirement, his days filled with hobbies like kite surfing, golf and skeet shooting. He also spent his days with family who adored him—his wife, her children and their grandchildren. I didn’t live as close or see him as often.
It was an Earth-shattering shock when I received the call telling me that my dad had shot himself in the driveway of his house, with his wife inside making the lunch he was supposed to deliver to a beloved granddaughter.
He was a card-carrying member of the NRA and had a cabinet full of rifles, and other guns. I don’t dispute his right to own them, to enjoy hunting or skeet shooting, but words cannot explain how sad I am to count myself among the survivors of gun violence. I wish we had all paid more attention to his mental state, to his physical and emotional pain (hard because he was so stoic), to the myriad risk factors … He’s gone for good, and my heart is still bleeding.
My father had an obsession with guns, a stocked gun cabinet and mental illness. The result of this was his suicide and a lifetime of trauma for my mother and me. On the day he shot himself, he threatened to shoot my mother and me as well. Our story did not end that way, but the impact of that day remains forever burned on our souls.
He was an incredible dad and husband. He would light up every room he walked into with his smile and humor. His generosity continues to amaze me to this day.
He suffered from depression for many years. I know this split-second decision does not define who he was, but it has altered my life forever.
I miss him dearly and hope I can live up to his legacy.
Gun violence also includes suicide by gun. Losing my father was the single most defining moment of my life. Nothing was ever the same. Everything I knew to be true changed. There will never be a day I don’t think of him. I will always be a gun law proponent. No other loved one should be left to pick up the pieces of a life shattered.