Slain journalist’s father speaks out on gun control
WARNING: Sensitive content
AS TV journalist Alison Parker smiled into the camera on the morning of August 26, 2015, neither knew it would be the last story they would tell.
Alison was interviewing chamber of commerce executive Vicki Gardner, accompanied by cameraman and WDBJ Virginia colleague Adam Ward, at the picturesque spot of Smith Mountain Lake, when a sacked former WDBJ colleague opened fire on them, live on air.
Alison, who had turned 24 just a week before, and Adam, 27, died at the scene.
Vicki underwent emergency surgery and survived.
Adam's fiancee Melissa Ott was producing the show and in the control room as the shocking images came through.
The couple were set to start a new life in Charlotte, with Melissa finishing work at WDBJ that day.
Three years on, the pain of losing Alison is achingly raw for her dad, Andy Parker.
"There's a statue in Geneva, Switzerland, and it's called Melancholy," he said.
"It's a figure seated with his head drooping through a void that is where his torso is … and that is kind of what you go through every day."
Immediately after Alison's murder, Andy decided he needed to speak out to get the issue of gun control in the US on the front burner, and keep the flame alive.
"It gained traction, and now with the Parkland (Florida 2018 high school shooting) kids, they've put the issue on steroids.
"I think we've been successful in honouring her memory and that's what I do. Everything I do, I do for her."
The statistics on gun crime, wounding and fatalities in the US are sobering, if not astounding.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 235 mass shootings across the country from January 1 to August 26 this year.
The not-for-profit has also counted over 38,000 incidents of gun crime, shooting and non-shooting combined, so far in 2018 - an average of approximately 159 per day.
A June 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre found 42 per cent of people surveyed lived in a household where there was a gun, while 3 in 10 owned a gun.
Alison's parents Andy and Barbara and boyfriend Chris Hurst spent the day of her anniversary together. Chris, then the WDBJ evening news anchor, had moved in with Alison not long before she died, and is now regarded as "like a second son to the family." He is now a serving Democratic Delegate in Virginia, also advocating for gun safety.
They stayed off social media as they gathered, only to hear later there had been another massacre. A suspect opened fire at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, killing two and injuring 11 others before turning the gun on himself.
Asked if the horrific event happening on the same day made it even tougher, Andy said it was a "yes and no."
"You almost expect it," he said.
"After we found out about the shooting, Chris and I were talking about this very topic, that guns are destroying communities in this country.
"Now the big thing is public gatherings, people are afraid to go out.
"It's going to be where people are just going to stay home, and you hate to think that we've descended to this nihilist society, but that's what it's doing."
America's National Rifle Association (NRA) boasts five million members, who fight tooth and nail to defend their Constitutional right under the Second Amendment "to keep and bear arms".
The Parkland high school massacre on February 14 has resulted in a growing groundswell for meaningful gun control reform.
As Republicans and Democrats continue to remain at loggerheads on what should be done, Congress seems to have baulked at taking decisive action.
Andy says it's not about stripping Americans of their Second Amendment rights, but taking a commonsense approach.
"If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times … no, we're not coming to take your guns away. I mean if you're a law-abiding citizen, if you pass a background check, then OK.
"But for me, and I think most people with common sense, they'd agree, we don't need assault weapons, we don't need weapons of war on the street."
"People have had enough. I think now for the first time in a long time, they realise hey, this could be me, one of my family members or a friend.
"I mean everybody's affected by this. And I think they're going to go to the polls and elect Democrats, because the Republican Party is the party of the NRA."
Andy says other gun control supporters often flag weapons buyback programs like those here in Australia, as a possible solution.
"But the one problem, the biggest obstacle, is the NRA. (Australia) didn't have the NRA, and if you did it's not as powerful as this organisation … and that's how (Australians) were able to get gun control done.
"The Congress in the United States has pretty much come to a standstill, and it will be like that until Trump is hopefully removed from office."
For all the despair, Andy says, there is some hope for reform. Right now, that's coming in the shape of Extreme Risk Protection Orders.
Also known as "red flag laws", the legislation allows police or family to apply to a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who might present a danger to others, or themselves.
The man who murdered Alison and Adam, and seriously wounded Vicki, was 41-year-old Vester Lee Flanagan. Flanagan went by the name Bryce Williams when he began work at WDBJ as a reporter in 2012, only to be sacked the following year over "disruptive conduct."
After close to seven hours on the run following the murders, and with police closing in, Flanagan shot himself dead beside a highway.
The red flag gun prevention laws were adopted in Florida after the Parkland shooting, while they will be enacted in Maryland in October, just months after the Capital Gazette massacre there, carried out by a man who had a longstanding grudge and had tried to sue the newspaper.
With 13 states taking the step, Andy says he's pushing for the laws to go national.
"Currently in Virginia, if someone threatens a spouse or threatens to do something in a school, law enforcement is powerless to stop it … that's crazy.
"Had that been law in this state where Alison was killed, she'd probably still be alive. This guy that was the shooter had been escorted out by police (when he was let go from WDBJ).
"At the very least we have to enact those laws. They're reasonable, and the only people against it are the true gun nuts in politics that are fuelled by the NRA - and it's going to be a fight."
President Donald Trump's well-known claims about "fake news" are also a concern for Andy, who fears the culture of demonising the media could result in a tragic end.
"Alison was a journalist and that's one reason why I think my voice is still relevant, because she was respected, and she was one of the fraternity, and people don't forget what she stood for," he said.
"It's a scary time for journalists, and I admire the fact they're not going to break."
While dedicating his life to effecting gun control reform, Andy, along with Barbara, Chris and one of Alison's close friends, also run the For Alison Foundation.
The foundation gives young people in southwest Virginia the chance to experience the world of the arts, theatre, music and dance, all things Alison grew up with and loved.
"We wanted to do something completely different from our advocacy on the gun issue, and we wanted people to remember her for the way she was, not the way she died," Andy said.
The question of what Alison would make of her father's work is one that touches his heart.
"I think she'd be proud of her old dad, I think she would be," he said.
"We feel her presence. I'm not a religious guy and no god that I could ever worship would do to me what he did, if that was his plan. Fortunately I don't hear a lot of that … that's not God's plan.
"But there are little winks and nudges and things that have occurred over the last three years where I know, she's there.
"She's out there somewhere and she's watching, and hopefully she's saying 'you go Dad, you're doing it.'"
- Melissa Seiler is a Brisbane-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @melseilerjourno