It was Thursday morning and students at Atascadero High School and North County Christian School were under lockdown following reports of a gunshot somewhere nearby, the third time a local school was briefly shut down for a gun-related threat so far this year.
The lockdown was lifted within an hour and without incident, but Richard Martinez, whose son was murdered in a mass shooting one year ago, said it shows how the threat of gun violence has pervaded everyday life in the United States.
“How is the level of gun violence acceptable in this country when kids have to grow up with lockdown drills?” he asked with a fierce urgency. “How is that acceptable?”
Saturday marks the first anniversary of the day Martinez’s son was tragically gunned down by a mentally ill 22-year-old in front of an Isla Vista deli.
Christopher Michaels-Martinez, 20, lived in Los Osos and graduated from San Luis Obispo High School before attending UC Santa Barbara. He was one of six UCSB students murdered in the spree that injured 14 others.
Martinez, formerly a defense attorney in Santa Maria, has since become the unlikely spokesman for a growing number of Americans demanding stronger gun control measures after his heartbreaking plea in the national spotlight for “Not one more!”
He’s left his job, becoming a full-time senior outreach associate with Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit formed to advocate for sensible gun regulations after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
“I didn’t do anything about gun violence when Chris was alive,” Martinez said. “But there’s nothing about my life before Chris died that’s important to me now.”
The threat is real. According to the organization, more Americans have been killed from gunfire since 1969 than all U.S. casualties in all U.S. wars combined.
Gun safety groups estimate that an average of 88 people are killed as a result of gun violence in this country every day.
Statistics such as these and the agony from the loss of his son often jar Martinez from sleep — even more so during holidays and down time — so he fills his days speaking across the country about things that can prevent gun violence, such as universal background checks for gun purchases.
“It’s not a choice for me,” he said. “It’s the only thing that gets me through the day.”
A year after the Isla Vista tragedy, Everytown for Gun Safety has made modest gains despite a Congress that has taken little action, Martinez says. He blames the inaction on the powerfulNational Rifle Association
lobby and politicians who pander to fringe voters.
A bill introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara that would have provided grants to fund gun control measures in all 50 states never made it out of committee.
Last November, however, the group backed a successful voter initiative in Washington state to require background checks for gun purchases.
A month earlier, in California, the Legislature passed a bill that allows a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to remove guns from the possession of those deemed or suspected to be mentally unstable.
Following the Isla Vista massacre, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office revealed that deputies had visited the shooter three weeks before the killings because of a concerned call from his mother.
“Would (the new law) have worked there? We don’t know. But will it save lives in the future? Yes,” Martinez said.
“It’s not the whole picture, but just because a single solution doesn’t solve the whole problem doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”
As the public face of Everytown, Martinez has traveled to nearly every state in the country — speaking in seven cities in six states in eight days, two weeks before the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook killings, for example — meeting with family members of gun violence victims, advocacy groups, and lawmakers.
Some lawmakers are less than receptive.
Last July, Martinez personally delivered — in a red Radio Flyer wagon — about 60,000 “Not One More” postcards, each individually signed by a supporter, to U.S. Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio as Florida was debating a measure to expand background checks.
Rubio did not meet with him. The measure eventually failed.
Predictably, in his mission Martinez has attracted his share of criticism from what he calls “the gun folks.”
“I don’t care what they say,” the lawyer said. “In a courtroom, no attorney thinks they’re going to change the mind of a (prosecutor). All you can do is present the best argument to the people who are deciding the case. I’m presenting this to the voters.”
Impact on his life
Personally, the work has taken a toll. He’s rarely at his home in San Luis Obispo County. When he is, he said, he spends one day resting, the next packing, and then he’s back on the road.
“The hardest times are those when I’m not busy,” he said.
As such, he’s lost contact with friends in his home county. But he does keep in touch with Chris’ college friends.
“They’ve been deeply affected by all this,” he said.
On June 2, Martinez will be in Chicago for the first-ever National Gun Violence Awareness Day. He will be there with the family of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen who was shot and killed while standing with friends in a park only a week after singing at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Just as hunters wear orange in the wilderness to prevent being shot, the event’s sponsors —including Everytown, Amnesty International, the Newtown Action Alliance and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — encourage people across the nation to wear orange in support of gun reform.
When he returns home afterward, it will likely be one day of rest before the mission continues.
Asked how long he plans to keep up the rigorous routine, Martinez was blunt: “Till I’m dead.”
“This is serious for me. People are dying every day, and that’s not acceptable,” he said. “I’ll work the rest of my life to stop it.”