For the love of Daniel

It's a year since two teenagers ran amok and murdered Daniel Mauser, 11 other children and a teacher at Columbine High in Denver. A year during which, in the area around the school, three sisters were killed by their father, an 11-year-old was dumped in a skip, a gunman opened fire in Wal-Mart and, on Valentine's Day, two sweethearts from Columbine were shot to death in a sandwich store. Which is why Bill Clinton will be there today. As will Daniel's father, Tom, making his voice heard, just as he did the moment he knew his son wasn't coming home...
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The Independent US

A year ago, Tom Mauser was just an average, white middle-class guy from the suburbs of Denver with a steady job, a stay-at-home wife and two bright, happy teenage children. But then his 15-year-old son Daniel was killed in the carnage at Columbine High School, and nothing was to be the same again.

On the evening of 20 April last year, Mauser was waiting, along with dozens of other parents, at a makeshift collection centre set up in a local elementary school. He knew there were 15 dead at Columbine, victims of a shooting rampage by two deranged seniors spouting hate messages at the world, but in a student body of 2,000 he figured the odds of Daniel surviving unscathed were pretty good. Busload after busload of unharmed children arrived to be reunited with their families in scenes of unrestrained joy that became increasingly hard to bear with each repetition. Mauser's optimism gave way to despair.

At length the few remaining families were told a last bus was on its way. Hope was rekindled. But as time passed - first 15 minutes, then 30, then 45 - it dawned on them that no bus was coming and that their children were most probably dead.

The anguish must have been indescribable, but Mauser did one remarkable thing that was to foreshadow everything that followed. When Colorado's governor, Bill Owens, arrived at the elementary school to sit it out with the parents, Mauser went up to him and, without thinking entirely straight, began upbraiding him about his support for a controversial state bill permitting the carriage of concealed weapons.

"Please," the governor said, "this isn't the time to talk about politics."

It wasn't long, however, before politics became tightly interwoven into the shock and the grieving of America's worst ever school shooting. Right around the time the Mausers received confirmation that Daniel had been shot at point-blank range in the library, along with nine of the other victims, Governor Owens sensed which way the opinions of a stunned public were blowing and vetoed the concealed weapons bill. Tom Mauser recalled how Daniel, a brainy, rather shy boy, had talked to him just two weeks earlier about loopholes in the Brady Bill, a federal law that mandates background checks on gun purchasers everywhere except at gun shows - which was precisely the venue where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two Columbine killers, had bought their semi-automatic machine pistols.

So, while other parents invoked God and sought to turn their slaughtered children into martyrs, Mauser threw his energy and his anger into political activism. Ten days after the shootings, he spoke at a rally against the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobbying organisation that by bizarre coincidence was due to hold its annual congress in Denver that very weekend. "My son would want me to be here," read the sign he brandished.

Shortly afterwards, he joined Hillary Clinton at a Mother's Day rally against guns in Washington. He was invited to Washington again at the end of last year to attend President Clinton's last State of the Union address, and has thrown himself so wholeheartedly into the fight to restrict access to lethal weapons that he is currently on a one-year sabbatical from his job with the Colorado Department of Transportation to be a full-time political lobbyist on gun control.

"I can put it in real simple terms," Mauser says. "We might look the other way when the violence is in the inner cities, but now we are seeing random shootings in schools, in churches, in the workplace, in McDonald's, and that's shaking people up. When they see a person like me, not just a photo in the paper, it makes it much more real."

As Mauser's campaigning suggests, the wounds inflicted by the Columbine shootings are far from healed; the ideological and cultural battles are still raging. Gun control has been only one contentious issue. Hollywood, too, has come under fire for the supposedly corrosive effects of its crass, violent images. In the community around Columbine, there has been dismay over the massive police investigation, whose publication is now six months overdue, and fury at the media, which has come under attack for making a public spectacle of private grief and not knowing when to let well alone.

All of these conflicts are coming back to the boil as the first anniversary of the shootings approaches. While the bereaved families are dreading another media onslaught, many people are seeking to take advantage of the attention to push their own interests. Journalists and authors have been rushing out books - everything from a respectful in memoriam photo album to a rant by the pastor of one of the dead teenagers, who blames the slaughter on the moral iniquities of a godless age. A local businessman who runs a chain of striptease joints has made the grandiose announcement that he is donating 9 per cent of his company's stock to a school rebuilding fund set up by the bereaved parents. Everyone seems to have hired a PR consultant, and everyone has set up a website as a memorial, or a platform, or a pulpit.

The obsession that binds the disparate factions and conflicting interests remains constant, however: the blinding fear of a recurrence of such senseless violence. It has been a terrible year for the area around the school. A local father murdered all three of his daughters; the body of an 11-year-old boy was found in a rubbish skip; a gunman opened fire at a Wal-Mart supermarket; and, on Valentine's Day, two teenage sweethearts from Columbine were found shot to death in a sandwich store.

Tom Mauser is not the only one outraged at the failure of both the Colorado legislature and the US Congress to close the gun-show loophole in the Brady Bill. Patti Nielson, an art teacher at Columbine High who narrowly escaped being killed in the shootings and was subsequently so traumatised that she took an open-ended leave of absence, was in Washington last week to lend her voice to the gun control campaign. Today, President Clinton will speak near Columbine High School to muster support on the same issue. And on Mother's Day (held on 14 May in the US), gun control advocates are planning peace marches they hope might involve up to one million people.

This is a tough battle to fight anywhere in the United States, but especially in the heartland of the American West. Mauser has received dozens of hate letters since he began his campaigning, including one he considered threatening enough to pass on to the local sheriff's department. That, in turn, has taken a huge toll on his fragile family, especially his wife Linda who has been far more private about her grieving and feels "burdened" by the glare of publicity that has surrounded the pain of the past year.

Privacy has been a big issue for everyone. In the initial media frenzy that followed the shootings, the parents of Daniel Rohrbough were forced to watch television footage - over and over - of their son lying dead on a pavement as panicked students ran by him on their way out of the school. Patti Nielson's emergency phone call to the police from the library was broadcast widely, her voice taken over by sheer incoherent terror.

Since then the families have campaigned hard to keep the most gruesome 911 emergency calls - including ones where the execution-style shootings can be clearly heard - out of the public domain. They have also successfully persuaded police investigators to keep the details of the autopsies out of their final published report. "Nobody needs to know those sorts of details," Tom Mauser said. "I've heard the shots that killed my son. I don't think there's anybody else on earth, apart from the police, who should have access to that."

The notoriety of the Columbine shootings has more subtle effects too. "It's the long, slightly pitiful look people give you, that you learn to avoid at all costs," Mauser said. "I find myself giving a different name when booking a restaurant, just so I don't get stared at."

What is impressive about Tom Mauser - and what, no doubt, impressed the President about him - is his utter level-headedness. He will talk frankly as long as he is willing, then will wave away difficult or excessively personal issues with a simple "I don't want to get into that". His reaction to Daniel's death seems to be a determination to make his own life as positive as absolutely possible. In June, he and his wife went to Guatemala for three weeks to oversee an education sponsorship programme. This autumn, they will travel to China to adopt a baby girl. They are busy raising funds, together with other bereaved parents, to replace the Columbine school library - which has been closed since the shootings - with an atrium area that would enable the building to breathe once more.

Not everyone finds his high profile or his activism appropriate. Some find his activism downright indecent, for reasons of appearances as much as political proclivity. To these people Mauser throws back something a counsellor told him the day after Daniel died: "Everyone grieves differently - get used to it." And meantime he has a campaign to run.