On the morning of April 17, 2007, Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Va. Tech) student Colin Goddard was sitting idly in his 9:00 a.m. French class. Suddenly, a strange sound emerged from the hallways. After briefly stepping outside to investigate the source of the sound, Goddard’s professor came rushing back into the classroom and ordered all the students to take cover under their desks. Without warning, Goddard was thrust into what would become one of the largest mass killings in U.S. history.
The shooter — a mentally disturbed student named Seung-Hui Cho — eventually made his way into the classroom and shot Goddard four times before turning the gun on himself. Upon recovering from the incident, Goddard become a staunch advocate for the Brady Campaign, a nonprofit organization founded to enforce stricter gun laws and regulations.
On Tuesday, Emory’s White Hall played host to a screening of Goddard’s documentary short “Living for 32.” Directed by Kevin Breslin, the film documents Goddard’s traumatic experiences with the Va. Tech shooting, as well as his grassroots campaign as part of the Brady initiative. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with Goddard and producer Maria Cuomo Cole.
“This film was made to show people what it’s like to have something like [the shootings] happen in your life,” Goddard said in the Q&A. “It’s an effort to say, ‘Don’t let gun violence have to happen to you or your family before you choose to get educated about this.’”
The initial idea for the film first came about in the summer of 2009. After delivering his testimony at a Brady Campaign fundraiser at Martha’s Vineyard, Goddard was approached by Cole.
“I had been involved with the gun issue as an advocate, and I always felt strongly that the issue needed a human face and that we needed to bring those stories alive,” Cole said in the Q&A. “When I heard Colin speak, I really felt compelled to capture this story right away.”
Gathering a skeleton crew and acquiring a RED Camera, the two set out with the intention of creating a five-minute public service announcement that they would attempt to distribute over Twitter and Facebook.
As the two gathered more and more footage, this small project turned into a 40-minute documentary. On the suggestion of their editor, Cole and Goddard submitted the film for Academy Award consideration. To their surprise, the film was short-listed.
According to Goddard, the film’s title not only refers to the 32 students killed in the Va. Tech shootings but also to the average number of people killed by firearms every day.
“One tragedy exposed the great tragedies that happen every day that may not make it into the news,” Goddard said.
In a shocking sequence in the film, Goddard goes undercover as a customer at a gun show, where he purchases a hefty assault rifle without having to show a permit or even a license. This sequence embodies one of the central tenets of Goddard’s campaign: the dismissal of the so-called “gun show loophole.”
Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of these loophole abuses involved the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, where three of the four guns used were purchased from unregulated sellers at gun shows.
On a larger scale, Goddard hopes to promote a bill that would institute a universal background check. Under this new law, background checks would become mandatory for the purchase of almost every firearm, most notably those purchased from newspaper ads and the Internet.
“The system does work, but I’m here to say that it’s not perfect,” Goddard said. Speaking publicly about the incident has provided an outlet for dealing with the shock and grief of the shootings.
For college junior Zachary Philyaw, the screening was an enlightening experience. “It was a great opportunity to give a face to the whole situation,” he said. “Seeing someone who really lived through that puts things in perspective and really gives a really significant scope to the whole thing.”
Though the film has many intense sequences, Goddard believes its message is ultimately empowering.
“Everyone will have to deal with adversity at some point,” he said. “The message is that it doesn’t matter what the event is that defines who you are, but rather how you choose to come forward and what you choose to do after the fact that determines the type of person you are.”
— Contact Mark Rozeman