"When people tell you to move on, they are being unrealistic."

Patricia Maisch, 68, Pima County, Arizona. Tucson shooting, Jan. 8, 2011.

Patricia Maisch runs a heating and cooling business with her husband. She was last in line to meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) during one of the congresswoman’s “Congress on Your Corner” events in a Tucson shopping center parking lot. Maisch, who helped pin down the Tucson shooter until law enforcement arrived, believes having escaped without physical injury means it’s her duty to step up as an activist against gun violence.

It was such a contentious election that when I got a call on Friday afternoon, I decided I was going to go over and tell [Giffords] that I appreciated all the work she had done.

I was quietly waiting in line when I heard a pop. Some people thought it was fireworks, some people thought it was balloons coming out of the grocery store that had just popped, but I knew immediately that it was a gunshot. There was that initial pop and then a slight pause and then a continuous pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

I decided my best option was to lay down on the ground and hope [the shooter] didn’t notice me. All the while, I’m wondering, ‘What is [the] bullet going to feel like?’

I saw people go from animated, talking, to lying on the sidewalk. People going from pink to gray to blue in a matter of seconds, hands curling up, mouths gaping and eyes wide open.

I was fortunate. For some reason, I’ve never had a nightmare about it. My psyche is being kind to me. But in spite of the fact that I don’t have nightmares or terror dreams, I find myself staying up as late as possible so that sleep comes easy. I guess it’s enough in the daytime to think about it.

I drive by the intersection [where the shooting happened] nearly every day and think of it every time. I find myself clutching the steering wheel and going from being sad to being mad. That intersection has become like holy ground for me.

I didn’t have to pay for counseling because of the generosity of my customers. I have several customers who are professional counselors, and two of them called me immediately and offered their services. I took advantage of them whenever I felt like I needed to. For me, talking to professional friends was a comfort, rather than having to talk to a professional stranger. It might not be the same for others, but for me it worked well. 

I received a check [from Community Foundation for Southern Arizona] after everything was done. I’m sure it was a lesser amount than other people who were more impacted, but it was substantial. They said they were closing the fund and that was my portion. I said, ‘I can’t take this. I can’t take money from people dead on the sidewalk.’ So I donated it to several different community causes. 

When Columbine happened, I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible. Somebody should do something.’ Then Virginia Tech. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, why isn’t anybody doing anything about this?’ And so when it happened to me, I said [to myself], ‘It was supposed to be you. You were supposed to be doing something about it.’

My life has changed. The shooting is always either at my back, right beside me or in my face. I don’t want anybody else to have to experience what I did.

My good fortune forces me to be an activist and to try and keep that from happening to other people. I consider it payback for being very fortunate and not being injured physically that day. I would be ashamed of myself if I stopped. I have a duty to be outspoken. We pay for gun violence in many ways: emotionally, physically, monetarily, socially. I’m not a Pollyanna. I know we won’t stop every shooting. But we can stop some of them.

When people tell you to move on, they are being unrealistic. You have to give yourself whatever space you need to incorporate what happened into your life. Sometimes your life is totally consumed by it, and sometimes it’s half of that.

One of the survivors from the Aurora shooting is coming through Tucson, so we’re having a potluck. It’s the club nobody wants to belong to, but if our shooting is any example, you can gain a great deal of comfort from somebody who has an inkling of how you’re processing and what you’ve been through.

As told to Erin Schumaker. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.