The mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Southern California was devastating for the country waking up to it Thursday morning, but it brought back excruciating memories for Robert Gaafar, who survived the massacre in Las Vegas last year.
“You know exactly what these people are going through,” Gaafar told Yahoo News. “Once you experience a mass shooting, you’re connecting to these people and what they went through, because you know how long that road to recovery is and how awful what they experienced and saw was.”
When he first heard that a gunman opened fire in a bar popular with college students in Thousand Oaks, Calif., about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, killing 12 people, Gaafar said he thought, “Why? Why again?
“And for something like this to happen in such a quick turnaround from Pittsburgh — it’s like you barely had time mentally to recuperate,” he said. “And to learn that there were Las Vegas survivors at this bar, it’s just like ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s absolutely insane.”
According to early reports, dozens of people who were at the country music bar Wednesday night were also at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, when a shooter, Stephen Paddock, killed 59 and wounded hundreds more. Paddock killed himself after the massacre, and his motive remains unknown. Authorities have yet to identify the motive for the Thousand Oaks shooting; the suspected gunman, Ian David Long, apparently killed himself after the attack.
Gaafar, who’s from New York, was at the Route 91 Harvest festival working for the Anheuser-Busch brewing company with an innovative vending machine near the main stage. At around 10 p.m., the crew was getting ready to pack up when he heard a pop, which at first they thought was part of the performance.
“A stream of bullets went off, and it clicked because the stage went dark,” Gaafar recalled. “We quickly sought cover behind the machine we were there with. It saved our lives. When round after round goes off and 20,000 people are silent, that’s something you don’t forget.”
When the gunman reloaded, Gaafar would hear awful screams from women and men alike. He started to hear bullets hitting nearby and felt a strange pressure. (Talking to a friend in the military later, he realized that what he had perceived was the shockwave of a bullet.) In that moment, he decided to run the next time the gunman stopped to reload.
His reaction to the Thousand Oaks shooting was similar to the Rev. Sharon Risher’s reaction to the Pittsburgh shooting last month, which left 11 people dead in a synagogue. Risher, whose mother and two cousins were murdered in a Charleston, S.C., church, said she thought, “Oh my God. Not again. Not again,” and, “I knew automatically what those families were going through.”
Just days after Las Vegas, Gaafar was sitting at home in a daze, processing what he had just experienced, and determined that he wanted to work toward a solution to gun violence. He got involved in the Everytown Survivor Network because he was enraged by the response of politicians from both parties, and he has been fighting for policies to prevent future gun violence ever since. On the one-month anniversary, he traveled to D.C. to meet with congressional representatives.
“That was extremely valuable for me just to understand that this is going to take a long time to change,” Gaafar said. “It’s a part of my healing where I can kind of effect change.”
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