Clockwise from top: At the Washington, D.C., offices of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where Goddard works as the assistant director of federal legislation; Goddard (center) and his family — father Andrew, mother Anne Lynam and sister Emma — at his high-school graduation in Cairo, Egypt; Goddard in the hospital following the Virginia Tech shooting. Top and opener photos by Jay Paul; others provided by the Goddards
The first sound is muffled, indistinct. A hammer, maybe, from a nearby construction site, striking steadily and repeatedly.
Bang, bang, bang, bang. Pause. Bang, bang, bang, bang.
The noise is odd enough to momentarily freeze conversation in Room 211 of Virginia Tech's Norris Hall. It is probably nothing. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak resumes instruction to her Intermediate French students. The clock reads just before 9:45 a.m. on April 16, 2007.
Colin Goddard, an international-studies major, had arrived late for class at 9:07 a.m., sliding sheepishly into a desk at the back of Room 211. He rolled out of bed behind schedule at the Foxridge Apartments, off campus in Blacksburg. Like all mornings, he checked his e-mail on his computer. Nothing special. He texted Kristina Anderson and told her he'd pick her up. As they pulled into the parking lot, they thought about blowing off class since it had already started. Why not skip and go get breakfast?
"Nah, we gotta go," Goddard decided. They headed for the second floor.
The handsome, easygoing 6-foot-3 senior never much cared about politics. Yet the events of that snowy Monday morning put him on a collision course with one of the most powerful political lobbies in America.
A few minutes after Goddard and Anderson arrive, Rachael Hill rushes in, flustered. There had been a shooting a few hours before at her dorm, West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall. The building was locked down. She wasn't sure she would even get to class that morning.
Bang, bang, bang, bang. Pause. Bang, bang, bang, bang.
It's that sound again, but this time it's louder and closer. "You could tell it was moving towards us," Goddard remembers. His teacher, Couture-Nowak, pokes her head into the hallway and then pulls back immediately, slamming the door shut. The color is gone from her face.
"Everyone get under your desk!" she commands. "Someone call 911."
Goddard pulls out his cell phone and dials. But instead of getting the local dispatcher, he is inexplicably connected with the Nextel emergency line in some unknown location. "I think someone's shooting in Norris," he tells the operator.
"Norris Hall," Goddard says.
"Blacksburg," Goddard says, starting to panic. "Virginia Tech."
The first bullet splinters the door. Goddard dives for the floor, scraping his face on the upturned desk. "He's here," Goddard whispers into the phone.
When the gunfire was at last silent, 33 people were dead, including gunman Seung-Hui Cho, a deeply disturbed 23-year-old student with a history of mental illness. Within hours, the gun debate in this country — never dormant for long — roared back to life.
One side immediately called for better enforcement of gun laws, including laws that are supposed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. The other side argued that this was even more proof that people need to arm themselves; that if only the students and teachers at Virginia Tech had been armed, they could've shot back.
One hundred and seventy-four rounds of ammunition flew through Norris Hall that morning as Virginia Tech took its inglorious place as the site of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history by a single gunman. The two semiautomatic pistols used had been purchased weeks before by Cho, who was bent on exacting revenge against imagined tormenters.
Cho started his spree in the West Ambler Johnston dorm just after 7 a.m., killing two students. Police initially declared it an isolated "domestic dispute." Two hours passed before Cho renewed his rampage; enough time for him to change clothes, clear his computer, reload and go to the post office to mail a rambling manifesto to NBC News, time-stamped 9:01 a.m. He then walked into Norris Hall, where he chained the doors shut from the inside so no one could escape. The first e-mails and text messages warning students that a gunman was on the loose did not come from school officials until 9:26 a.m. — long after students were already in class.
From the floor looking up, Goddard never sees Cho's face, only boots, khaki pants and two holsters loaded with ammunition. For a split-second, he thinks Cho is a cop sent to rescue them. The shots come in the rapid, steady stream of semiautomatic weaponry. Cho picks off his victims without a word. Then Goddard hears the boots turn toward him.
Bam. The first bullet rips into his left leg just above the knee. It burns as it hits flesh but then, strangely, there is no pain. Goddard's cell phone flies from his hand and is scooped up by Emily Haas, a French major from Richmond, lying on the floor nearby. She tucks it under her long blond hair so she can keep talking to the operator. The gunfire suddenly stops, and Goddard hears a door close. Is it over?
Seconds later, he hears the door open, and the sound of footsteps returns. The shooting starts again as Cho methodically moves down the aisle, now cluttered with book bags, bullet casings and crumpled bodies. He shoots his victims first in the legs to immobilize them and then returns to kill them. Goddard plays dead but can sense someone standing at his feet. Bam . He is shot again in the left thigh.
By now the police are shouting from outside. A shotgun blast shatters the chains holding the exterior doors closed. Bam . Another bullet flips Goddard over and passes through his bunched-up shirt, striking him in the armpit. Bam . A fourth bullet hits his right hip.
There are more shots near the front of the room, and then it's quiet. "Shooter down!" the police bellow as they burst into the room.
Suddenly people are everywhere. Medics set up a triage, coding the students and their teacher by color, depending on the seriousness of the injury. One designation — "black tag" — needs no explanation.
Goddard holds Anderson's hand. Her eyes are fluttering, and her skin feels cold. "Stay awake," he pleads.
Ten out of 17 in Room 211 die. Among them are Couture-Nowak, whose body is found by the door she tried to barricade, and Hill, the 18-year-old freshman from Glen Allen who worried that the dorm lockdown would make her late for class. Cho is also dead, believed to have shot himself as police closed in. Twenty more are dead in four other classrooms, plus the two students killed earlier in the dorm. Another 25 are hurt — either from being shot or jumping out of windows to escape. They include Goddard, Anderson and Haas. Two hundred additional rounds of ammunition are found, leading police to speculate that Cho hoped to kill more.
The assault on Norris Hall lasted just under 10 minutes.
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Andrew Goddard, exhausted and terrified by all that has happened just hours before, sits at his firstborn's bedside at New River Valley Hospital.
Tubes and wires seem to poke from every inch of his son's body. A red stain spreads unchecked, soaking through pillowcases and sheets as blood oozes from five holes in Colin's body. The bullets entered four places, but there is only one exit wound. The gunshot wounds were not closed so that the metal fragments can be expelled.
"No one should ever have to see this, to feel this," Goddard thinks, trying to tamp down his despair. He sends up a pact with the universe: "If he gets through this, I will do something so one less father will have to sit in a hospital room like this."
Colin Lynam Goddard was born on Oct. 12, 1985, in Nairobi, Kenya. His parents, Anne Lynam and Andrew Goddard, met as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa. They built careers helping others in developing nations. He's trained as a machinery designer; she's an expert in social work and public health.
Colin collected passport stamps like other kids collect Pokémon cards: infancy and toddlerhood in Somalia; preschool in Bangladesh; grade school in Indonesia. It is there that his parents adopt his sister, Emma. Six years in Atlanta and then high school in Egypt.
When it's time for college, Anne Goddard is relieved that her son picks Virginia Tech. Despite their global adventures, she is comforted that he will be in the small city of Blacksburg: "I thought it would be safer."
On the morning of April 16, she is in her first board meeting as president of Christian Children's Fund (since renamed ChildFund International). The Goddards had moved to Richmond just four months before so she could take the job. They settled easily into a pretty brick colonial in the Short Pump area, filling their home with exotic art and furniture collected from around the world. Unlike her panicked husband who is home, she knows nothing of what is unfolding on live television.
She is puzzled when her assistant tells her she has an urgent call. A doctor says her son has been shot but is alive. He hands the phone to Colin.
"Colin?" she asks, her brain trying to catch up.
"Mom, I'm fine. Just come."
None of the bullets have hit vital organs. Three remain in his body. Yet the prognosis is astonishing. With physical therapy for his fractured leg, he will make a full recovery. He pesters the doctors until they release him just six days after the shooting.
While Goddard is in the hospital, the sister of his slain French teacher visits him. She looks so much like Couture-Nowak that he breaks down. It is the first time he allows himself to remember. To this day, it is the only time he has cried over what happened in Norris Hall.
Colin stays in Blacksburg in the weeks immediately after the shooting, trying to remain connected with the trappings of his old life. More than anything he wants to find normal again. His father moves in until the semester ends, and then they both return to Richmond.
There, Goddard throws himself into physical therapy, moving quickly from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane. In June, less than two months after being shot, he boards a plane for Madagascar, an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa.
He is scheduled to begin an international internship with CARE, the relief and development organization his parents once worked for. Goddard is impatient to push the fast-forward button on his life. To not go, he says angrily, would mean Cho won. His parents think it might be good for him to get away, to become anonymous again.
But distance won't save him from doubt. In Madagascar he begins to second-guess himself. Should he have tried to stop Cho? Could he have saved his classmates?
One day he meets an American donor to CARE visiting Madagascar who listens to his story. The man tells Goddard he has met many people who have survived terrible tragedies. Those who did best talked about what happened to them. Do something, the stranger urges: "Go tell your story."
Colin Goddard's heart is pounding as he walks into Richmond's Showplace Exhibition Center. He is sure he will be recognized, his cover blown. Rows of tables are crammed with guns and ammunition for sale. It's July 12, 2009, more than two years after the Virginia Tech shootings, and the gun show is packed on this Sunday afternoon; many people are still in church clothes, some with children in tow. No one gives him a second glance.
He fiddles with a button on his shirt, worrying that someone will notice that it's slightly different from the others. Inside is a tiny video camera. By his side is Lily Habtu, who was shot in the arm and face at Virginia Tech. She is just as nervous. They start down the aisles.
A middle-aged man walks past with a rifle slung over his shoulder. A handmade sign reads that the gun, with its advertised high ammunition capacity, is for sale.
"Excuse me, sir. How much you selling that for?" Goddard asks.
"Four?" Goddard verifies the $400 price.
"You want to take a look at it?"
"Yes, sir. I think you got yourself a deal." Goddard peels off the cash and walks away with the rifle. The gun seller has not once asked him for any background information or identification. The camera records the entire transaction.
This is all perfectly legal in Virginia, as well as in 36 other states. Although a licensed gun dealer must complete mandatory background checks under the Brady Handgun Control Act, the unlicensed ones — those making private sales as collectors and who often set up shop in gun shows — can sell a gun to any adult without such checks. They call it cash and carry.
Goddard's gradual evolution from victim to advocate is in no small part because of his father's growing anger. Almost immediately after April 16, Andrew Goddard spends hours trolling the Internet for information about Cho and gun laws. The previously soft-spoken man with no taste for the spotlight and no real understanding of the gun debate starts with "why" but always circles around to "how." According to the latest estimates, there are more than 250 million guns in this country. The elder Goddard rails at the dinner table: "How can we live safely with this many guns and not have these piles of bodies?"
Cho's two pistols, a .22-caliber and a 9mm, were purchased legally — one at a gun store in Roanoke and the other out of state but shipped to a pawn shop in Blacksburg. He passed the background checks because of a gap between federal gun law and Virginia's.In 2005, a Virginia court found Cho mentally unstable, and he was told to undergo outpatient treatment. By federal law that would prevent Cho from ever legally buying a gun. However, Virginia gun law had a different threshold. When Cho lied on his gun-purchase application about his past, there was no way to check it. Under state law, since Cho had not been involuntarily committed, the 2005 court finding was never forwarded to law enforcement. While federal law should trump state law, in this case it did not happen. Since then, Virginia has tightened its prohibition of gun sales to those diagnosed with mental illness.
Andrew Goddard was incensed when he first found out how Cho was able to buy guns. But over time, the focus of his fury shifted to the so-called gun-show loophole in Virginia, which allows private gun sales without a background check. Even though Cho did not purchase his weapons at a gun show, Andrew Goddard wonders how many other Chos are out there, buying weapons at gun shows without a paper trail. He says people need look no further than the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, where the guns used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bought for them at a gun show without any background check.
"Gun shows have absolutely nothing to do with what happened at Virginia Tech," counters Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizen's Defense League, a grass-roots gun-rights group with 5,000 members. Van Cleave, who lives in Chesterfield County, says that while he's sympathetic to the Goddards and other families of shooting victims, he vehemently opposes mandatory checks on private sales because "then the government knows what kind of guns you have. The next step is confiscation.
"The word ‘loophole' implies it is an accident," Van Cleave adds. "The way this was set up is intentional."
The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups successfully fought to exempt private gun sales from background checks mandated by the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Control Act. The reasoning was that people wanting to sell a few guns from private collections should not be burdened by such paperwork or go through the process of becoming a licensed dealer. Gun-control advocates, though, worry that the exemption is being used at gun shows as a way to circumvent background checks.
In early April 2009, back-to-back shooting sprees in Binghamton, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa., are a final awakening for Colin Goddard: "I can't just sit here and do nothing." He calls the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., founded and named for James Brady, shot during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan: "Is there a place for me?"
"We'd love to have you," says Paul Helmke, president and chief executive officer of the Brady Campaign. Goddard is hired as a paid intern in the Washington office.
In the meantime, Omar Samaha, the brother of slain Virginia Tech student Reema Samaha, is featured in a 20/20 episode showing how 10 guns can legally be bought in one hour from a Richmond gun show. The purchases are off camera. "But you have to see the transaction," Goddard thinks as he watches the segment.
Goddard comes up with his own plan: He will spend the summer traveling to gun shows around the country to secretly film gun purchases. He knows there is not a straight line leading from a gun-show sale to what happened to him, but he insists that does not — and should not — matter. "I liken it to a farmer with a fence and cattle," he explains. "The cattle get out and the farmer only closes one hole when there are other holes next to it. To think the cattle are going to go out the exact [same] hole is ridiculous. You have to close all the holes."
It will cost about $15,000 to buy the camera, plane tickets and guns. The Brady Campaign raises the money. Virginia, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio and Maine are picked. The only place it does not work is in Maine because all of the gun sellers there asked for ID. In other states either no ID is required, or in one case, a seller accepts a photocopied temporary driver's license. Goddard and Brady Campaign lawyers pore over local laws governing gun sales and videotaping to keep things legal. Outside of Virginia a local resident makes the actual purchases while Goddard films.
In Dayton, Ohio, Goddard meets an unlicensed gun dealer who has a Maadi Egyptian AK-47 assault rifle for sale.
"You want 660 for it?" Goddard asks about the dollar amount.
"Yeah, out the door. You have to be over 18 and an Ohio resident," the seller says. "There's no tax and no paperwork."
As the money is counted, the seller says he needs to see a driver's license.
"I don't have it on me," Goddard's accomplice replies, feigning annoyance that he left it in the car. The seller pauses for a minute, quizzes him on his birth date and address and then smiles. "Oh, OK." As Goddard and his friend walk away, the seller calls after them: "Have fun with it."
The ease of the sales astonishes and infuriates Goddard. All of the guns are turned over to local authorities. In all, there are 12 guns bought at six shows. The secret taping becomes a YouTube hit. So far it has been watched more than 52,000 times.
Goddard knows he is making enemies. At a Richmond rally to close Virginia's gun-show loophole, a gun-rights advocate confronts Goddard. He says if Goddard and other students had been carrying weapons, they could've stopped Cho.
"Don't you feel afraid?" the man asks, wondering why Goddard does not arm himself against future attacks.
"No," Goddard calmly replies. "I feel sorry for you, the fact that you feel you need to protect yourself in every situation."
Goddard insists he is not anti-gun. He has hunted and gone to shooting ranges. He entered Virginia Tech as part of the cadet corps and excelled in marksmanship.
But he is dismayed by what he calls a lack of common sense. "They act like it's selling a sofa or a TV. You can't just take the money and never even think about who is buying that gun. People say, ‘What happened to you was a crazy thing, and you can't change crazy things.' That just pisses me off."
E-mails and texts have been flying all day within the small, nondescript headquarters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. It's Oct. 15, 2010, and Oprah's Winfrey's people phone to say they will call back later for a producer to audition Goddard before booking him on the show. (Goddard eventually appears on The Oprah Winfrey Show on Oct. 25 as one of the guests in a segment on life after tragedy.)
Two days before, the film Living for 32 , which tells Goddard's story, was named to the short list for an Academy Award nomination for best short documentary. (In December, it gets selected for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival's short film program.) The film is being produced by Maria Cuomo Cole, daughter of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and sister of incoming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and is being directed by Kevin Breslin, son of journalist Jimmy Breslin. The final nominees will be announced in January. Another documentary featuring Goddard, this one by HBO, is in the works. A TV news crew from New York City arrives next week.
Breakout fame is suddenly knocking on Goddard's door.At age 25, he has been elevated from intern to assistant director of federal legislation at the Brady Campaign. He has testified on the Hill trying to force Congress to close the gun-show loophole on a federal level. He is learning the ropes of D.C. Yet he also spends time in Virginia, working with his father to once again push the General Assembly to make background checks mandatory on all gun sales. The measure has failed each year since the Virginia Tech shootings. Goddard is also pushing to stop an upcoming bill that would allow those carrying concealed weapons to drink in restaurant bars. He also anticipates that there will be a renewed effort to let students and faculty arm themselves on campuses — a measure he also opposes.
Sometimes, though, the mantle of celebrity victim rests uneasily on Goddard's shoulders. When he goes to parties or out to bars, and someone learns he went to Virginia Tech, invariably the next question is if he knew anyone who got shot. If it is a casual, one-time exchange, Goddard just smiles and says, "Nah." It feels good to take a break from it all occasionally. "I don't want that day to define me, but I guess that's where I am now. I'm ‘Colin Goddard the Virginia Tech shooting victim,' " he says.
He knows how to speak in sound bites for reporters. He knows what they want to hear. That does not mean he always likes it or complies. Often he is asked if his survival was God's plan for him. "That's a little hard for me to believe that God wasn't looking out for all of those people who were lying next to me," he says. "They were good people, too."
He also hates it when someone asks if he feels a responsibility to give back and become a public figure. "What is that saying? That the people who don't are being irresponsible? This is what I'm doing. Everyone deals with it differently."
"I don't think anyone begrudges Colin [his emerging fame]," says Lori Haas, a Richmonder who keeps in contact with all of the families. "I am unaware of any tension among the survivors." Her daughter, Emily, was wounded on April 16 and is now an elementary-school teacher in Virginia. Haas, an emerging voice on gun-control issues, says that all of the 25 injured graduated and are now thriving. "I admire and respect Colin for the work he is doing just as I admire and respect all of the survivors."
In September, Goddard had surgery to remove lingering shrapnel. He no longer hates Cho. Mostly he pities him. He may never forgive, though.
Goddard knows he is changed. He tries to avoid direct confrontation. He works at making people happy. He has no taste for violent movies, sometimes leaving the room when the body count gets too high. There is a new urgency to his life. He is off to Colorado to snowboard; he flies to Munich for Oktoberfest. He wants to skydive, buy a motorcycle. His mother discourages the latter. "Slow down there, Superman," she gently chides him.
"I think of these last three years as a wave that I'm riding," he says. "I don't know where it will take me." He hopes to return to an earlier ambition to work for the U.S. Foreign Service. He doubts his life's work will be on a single issue.
In the lobby of the Brady Campaign office hangs a framed copy of the Brady Bill with President Bill Clinton's signature on the bottom. Goddard gazes at it and murmurs: "When we get the gun-show loophole closed, I'm done."
But for today he's still pacing the carpet, waiting for the Oprah show to call.