Father of shooting victim on crusade to end gun violence

Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, who was killed in the violent rampage near UCSB in May, looks out across the water at Port San Luis, a place he and his son loved to visit together.
Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, who was killed in the violent rampage near UCSB in May, looks out across the water at Port San Luis, a place he and his son loved to visit together. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In the month since his son was brutally and senselessly shot to death inside a deli in Isla Vista, Richard Martinez has been thrust into a crusade he will now embrace for the rest of his life: to reduce gun violence.

“This is the only thing that makes sense to me right now,” Martinez said. “I don’t have any illusions; I firmly believe in what I am doing and I firmly believe in everything I have said.”

Martinez, who has taken a six-month leave of absence from his job as a criminal defense attorney in Santa Maria, said he is committed to advocating for gun control policies through the November election. The goal, he said, is to get people elected who will carry the torch of policy change.

“I will go anywhere, do anything, to try and get this done,” he said. “I care about bringing meaning to my son’s death. I don’t care about anything else.”

Martinez recently partnered with two advocacy groups: Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention group fighting for polices aimed at reducing gun violence, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The latter grass-roots movement was founded the day after 20 children and six adults were shot to death in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Since the day after his only son Christopher was killed May 23, when Martinez gave an impassioned speech blaming his son’s death on the failure of “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA,” he has honored his pledge to do everything he can to effect change.

In his grief, it is the only thing he knows how to do. Sleep is futile. Work no longer makes sense. Each morning, he gets up and once again flees from the unspeakable sorrow that  engulfs him.

Christopher Michael-Martinez, who lived in Los Osos and graduated from San Luis Obispo High School before attending UC Santa Barbara, was one of six students murdered in a stabbing and shooting spree before the killer fatally shot himself.

Last week, Martinez traveled to the capitals of four states to deliver postcards to elected representatives as part of the now-international “Not One More” campaign.

So far, 2.4 million postcards have been signed electronically through the campaign and Martinez has personally delivered more than 200,000 of them.

‘We are all to blame’

The anguish is visible in his eyes as Martinez talks about the days since Christopher’s death.

On his left wrist, Martinez wears the watch that he had passed on to his son just a few weeks before he was killed.

Christopher, 20, died wearing it, and Martinez has worn it every day since it was given back to him in a small bag of Christopher’s personal items from the morgue.

On his right wrist he wears three rubber bracelets. The purple one bears the names of two young children, Alex and Macaila, who were shot to death in an act of gun violence. It was given to him by their mother after he gave a memorial speech at UCSB.

A white bracelet honors Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School who died trying to protect her students. It was given to Martinez by Hochsprung's daughter, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, while she helped him deliver the Not One More postcards.

The third, blue bracelet is for his son.

Martinez said he has not inquired more about the details of what happened the night of the Isla Vista rampage.

He is asked constantly who is to blame. And although he holds politicians and the NRA accountable for what he sees as a lack of laws to protect against such gun violence, he also blames himself.

“All of us are responsible,” Martinez said. “Yeah, I do blame the NRA, but I didn’t do anything either. I was just as complacent as everybody else until it happened to my family.”

Martinez can now tell you that every day, 86 people in the United States die from gun violence. He also knows of each mass shooting that has happened since 1999 — when he says most of those incidents began.

“We are all responsible for this,” Martinez said. “Everybody hasn’t done enough. … When Sandy Hook parents went to Congress, nothing happened. We are all to blame.”

He now spends his days researching existing gun laws and studying new legislation being proposed.

He stands resolutely behind a plan to reduce gun violence that was introduced by President Barack Obama in 2013 following the Sandy Hook massacre.

Obama’s proposed plan, called “Now is the Time,” combined executive actions with a call for legislative action to require stricter background checks, create a new, stronger ban on assault weapons, make schools safer, and offer better mental health treatment for young people, among other new requirements.

It failed to pass Congress.

“This situation with gun violence is just one example of Congress being unable to do stuff,” Martinez said. “Somehow we are expected to think this is a normal situation and that it is something we have to live with. But it’s not normal, and it’s not like this in other developed countries.”

Martinez was recently invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with 13 families who also lost children to gun violence. The next day, he met six more in New York.

He was given a briefing paper before meeting them that included their names, their children’s names and ages and the circumstances of their deaths. It included victims from tragedies in Aurora and Columbine, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Chicago.

“It was the hardest two pages I have ever had to read in my life,” Martinez said. “It was horrific.”

Sensible gun ownership

Martinez knows that he alone can’t bring about the change he is seeking. He also knows his time is limited in holding the media’s attention.

“Everybody handles grief differently,” Martinez said. “We have all had grief in our lives. We all lose people we love — it is part of living. But losing a kid? There is no way to be ready for this.”

Martinez grew up in a rural area where guns were commonplace. From 1974 to 1976, he was a military policeman for the U.S. Army, carrying a gun every day that he was on duty.

He is not looking to ban all firearms. But he wants it to make sense when someone owns one.

“A gun is a tool,” Martinez said. “And if you have a legitimate purpose for that tool, and you have the appropriate tool for that purpose and you handle it safely, I have no problem with it.”

Now, he finds himself scanning gun magazines and reading the NRA website while also studying political reform methods.

“You always want to know what the other side is thinking and what their concerns are,” Martinez said.

On the day that Christopher died, the 22-year-old who killed him had three guns and 400 rounds of ammunition. The family has told Martinez that their son was in and out of counseling for years.

Martinez said that, because of his experience defending clients with mental illness, he can empathize with the shooter’s family.

“I can appreciate the difficulties that a family has when they have a severely mentally ill child,” Martinez said. “But if you can’t keep guns out of the hands of those people, anything can happen.”

Martinez has met with the family and has said that he is willing to work alongside them to make change.

“I’ve had people ask me how I think that seven more dead is going to make a difference,” Martinez said. “But it is not just seven. It is seven on top of hundreds … thousands. There is a cumulative effect.”

It’s possible to put laws in place to stop the tragedies, he said.

“It is not beyond management, because other countries have mentally ill people too,” Martinez said. “They manage the situation — they keep guns out of their hands and do a better job with health care. We do a miserable job of health care in this country.”

Politics should be noble, Martinez said.

“This is a conscious choice for me to do this because I have to find some meaning,” he added. “I can’t accept that this just happens and he is forgotten and it doesn’t mean anything.”

For Christopher

Christopher, who had just finished his sophomore year, was studying English and wanted to be a lawyer. He was going to attend Queen Mary University in London in the fall. Not too long ago, Martinez received his son’s transcripts in the mail. Christopher had a 3.79 grade-point average.

When Martinez talks about his son, his demeanor changes, and a slight glimmer slips through the sorrow in his eyes.

“He was humble, kind, generous, funny and one of the most ruthlessly competitive kids you’ve ever come across,” Martinez said.

He carries snapshots of Christopher on his phone, pictures of his childhood artwork and other memories.

Martinez said he has been asked by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker to do a documentary and has received multiple requests to write books.

But he has no interest in either. Nor does he plan to run for political office.

Martinez is doing this for Christopher. He is doing this so there is not one more.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.