by David Burnett
America’s 1st Freedom, December 2013
Holly Adams is no stranger to tragedy. Thirty-six years ago, she escaped a violent and abusive marriage. Six years later she was attacked and raped while stationed in Hawaii.
But nothing could prepare her for April 16, 2007, when Virginia Tech University student Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 classmates and faculty and wounded 17 others on the school campus in Blacksburg, Va. While the day’s imagery is unforgettable—students fleeing, sirens screaming and armed officers rushing to the scene—Adams has a different reason to remember: Her daughter, Leslie Sherman, was one of the victims.
Some Virginia Tech victims and survivors, several no doubt coached by gun control lobbyists, responded to the tragedy by demanding harsher gun laws. (In reality, the perpetrator had passed a background check when purchasing the firearms he used in his crime, even though he had been court-ordered to undergo mental health treatment. The failure was in the reporting of the information, not the gun laws.) Like most, however, Holly preferred to grieve in private rather than politicize her loss. But after five years of watching a vocal minority continuously use their victimhood to advocate for gun bans throughout the nation, Holly released a statement through the Virginia Citizens Defense League that read, in part:
There is an unfortunate drive for more gun control and the continuation of preventing guns on campus by parents whose children lived or survived during that fatal day. Several family members of those victims have actively voiced their support for increased gun control measures. As a result, it has been assumed that they speak for all families of the Virginia Tech victims. I am writing this to make it clear that this is not the case. They do not represent me and my views.
Speaking for myself, I would give anything if someone on campus—a professor, one of the trained military or guardsmen taking classes or another student—could have saved my daughter by shooting (Seung-Hui) Cho before he killed our loved ones. Because professors, staff and students are precluded from protecting themselves on campus, Cho, a student at Virginia Tech himself, was able to simply walk on campus and go on a killing rampage with no worry that anyone would stop him.
I ask a simple question: Would the other parents of victims be forever thankful if a professor or student was allowed to carry a firearm and could have stopped Seung-Hui Cho before their loved ones were injured or killed? I would be. I also suspect that the tragedy may not have occurred at all if Cho knew that either faculty members or students were permitted to carry their own weapons on campus.
Recently, Holly opened up to America’s 1st Freedom about her experiences and her decision to join the NRA and fight for the rights of gun owners.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Can you start by telling us about your daughter? Leslie was 20 years old on April 16, 2007, when she was gunned down by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech while she was sitting in her classroom doing what she loved to do most—learn. She was a quiet little girl; very, very bright. She had an enthusiasm for learning and for life. She was a track and cross-country participant at school. Because I was military, she and the rest of the family traveled and moved quite a few times, and she was nothing short of resilient and always showed a positive attitude about everything. She participated in a lot of fundraisers. She spent three years as an assistant coach for Special Olympics. She grew her hair to donate to Locks of Love. She went down to New Orleans to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina. She didn’t spend a penny on anything frivolous for herself. She was a delightful child. “Perfectly imperfect” is the way I like to describe her. Nobody’s perfect, but even her imperfections were perfect to me. I would give anything—anything—to have her back for a day, to tell her one more time how much I love her.
What was your exposure to guns growing up? I was born and raised on a farm in Washington state. As long as I can remember, there was a huge rifle in the work closet that my dad had for times of need. He occasionally brought it out if a coyote was attacking our sheep, or he would put down a sheep that was critically ill to keep it from suffering. So, in my mind, this rifle was a tool, something that everybody needed. Myself, I managed to learn how to use a BB gun and a pellet gun when I was still young—I think about 10 years old—and I shot birds for sport, magpies particularly. But I didn’t do much more than that until I joined the military in 1980 and learned how to use both a .45 and 9 mm handgun and M16 rifle. I qualified as an expert on both, and while I never had to actually use them on anybody, I did carry a firearm each time we had a defensive exercise. That was the extent of my exposure until just recently when I bought a firearm of my own. It was just a part of the job, I never thought of it as anything unusual.
How did you first learn of your daughter’s death? I first heard on the news about 10:45 that morning on April 16. I was sitting at my desk, and my deputy poked her head into my office and told me there’d been a shooting at Virginia Tech. Almost immediately I had this feeling that Leslie was among the victims. I listened to the news for about 10 or 15 minutes, learning as the numbers went up. I called my husband and we went home before noon. We were frantically trying to reach our daughter. We thought if she was in class and they were on lockdown, she wouldn’t have her phone with her. So there was a little ray of hope that she didn’t have access and wouldn’t be able to respond. But inside, we knew she was one of the victims. … it was something we could feel. We tried all afternoon to reach her. We did reach the officials at Virginia Tech. They couldn’t give us anything, but finally told us if our daughter was a victim, we’d be notified by the local police department. Fifteen minutes after we were told that, there was a knock at the door, and we opened the door and there was a policeman standing there. I heard a noise that I never want to hear again: my husband letting out a wail of anguish. It was the worst, worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life, it was horrible.
What were those days like afterwards? You always hear that behind every cloud there’s a silver lining. In a cloud like this, I wouldn’t say there was a silver lining, but there were things we learned about people in general that we really didn’t know. One of those things was that people are really, truly generous and truly sincere in times like this. We were fed for a couple of weeks. A couple of ladies in our neighborhood association got together. And the church. We didn’t belong to this church, but the church we chose for the funeral—the one that our daughter indicated she liked when she went to a wedding there—they brought breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for several weeks. We had more flowers in our house than we’d ever had anywhere. It looked like a garden. We had asked in lieu of flowers, we wanted to start a scholarship in Leslie’s name at her high school for applicants who had been accepted to Virginia Tech. Ultimately from the settlement from the Commonwealth and the donations we got from hundreds of people, we ended up with a fund of $150,000. We’re able to send one student per year, full tuition, to Virginia Tech.
What’s helped you get past this the most and find healing? Time. The passing of time. Watching my surviving daughter grow up into a beautiful young woman who has a bright education and a wonderful job. My husband by my side through the whole ordeal. I also see a grief counselor, and that has helped somewhat. Also, the people who remember us, who are not afraid to talk about her. So many people are afraid to bring it up because they think it’ll hurt me. But those who are brave to bring it up, it doesn’t hurt me. It helps me to know she’s remembered by others—not just me.
Leslie was in the same class as Colin Goddard, who now professionally represents the anti-gun movement. How has your response differed from that of other victims? Colin is a survivor. He doesn’t look at it from the point of view I do. He can travel the country and speak out on these issues. He’s not the parent of a child who died. So I have trouble with it, the ones who get together as Virginia Tech victims. There are two separate camps—the ones who stand in one corner, who lost our child and will never see them again; and there’s this other group who are celebrating their child made it through. If I were to go back and relive that day, I would give anything if that day, that morning, somebody in the classroom was armed and could have stood up and taken Cho out before he got 32 victims. I wish there had been a gun in the classroom.
Did you ever have any contact with Cho’s family? I knew that almost immediately after people were notified, his parents were identified from the government system and they were put into a witness protection program because they were getting death threats. I tried to reach them by sending them a card. I wanted to let them know that I understood there were 33 people that died that day—not just 32—and as a mother I know how devastating that could be. I wanted to let them know that we forgave them. I had to send my card through the FBI, who screens all of their mail. I never got any kind of response from them, I didn’t really expect to. I’m not even sure they got it. I’m hoping they did, there was nothing condemning or threatening about it. I just wanted to let them know I didn’t blame them. It was one of the last things I had to do to get rid of the blame game.
What would you tell other people going through what you have? Keep your hands busy. One of the things—that first day we went to Virginia Tech following the shooting—one of the phrases I kept hearing was, “You will need to set a routine to be your new normal.” The words “new normal”—I hated those words, you know? I wanted my old normal. I know that the people saying that had the best of intentions, but that’s not something you need to hear over and over again. Give yourself time to let it all soak in before making changes. Give yourself time to get used to the idea. Do a few things your child would want you to do. Donate belongings to shelters or charity. A couple of the mothers went home and got rid of every single thing in their child’s bedroom so there was no evidence of their child ever living in their home. It was a kneejerk reaction. We didn’t do that. We still have some of her clothes hanging in the closet, and in the dresser. Her dog goes into her room at night.
Also, don’t say anything in haste. Give yourself some time following the incident before answering questions of a political nature. If I had been asked these questions the day of the shooting, I would probably have different answers than I have right now.
When did you first decide to purchase a gun? I’d been tinkering with the idea for the last couple of years, and I’d done some target shooting in the Navy and enjoyed it. My husband really didn’t like the idea of me getting a firearm. My surviving daughter and parents didn’t either, but I think they were looking at it in terms of, “Well, gee, if Holly gets depressed, is she going to do something stupid?” Well, Holly’s not that stupid. But I told them it wasn’t their decision to make: I just wanted to let them know what I was going to do. So I went to the range.
And what did you buy? I bought a 9 mm Beretta with two 15-round magazines. It’s nice, I buy boxes of rounds by 50, so I only have to reload the magazines once. If I had smaller magazines, it’d be more annoying to stop and reload. I’ve enjoyed going to the range and trying to better my score. Seems like my score’s getting worse instead of better, though.
Has that decision affected the situation with the other victims? I’m not sure they know. I’m certainly not hiding it. I remember reading about how [anti-gun lobbyist] Lori Halas’s husband has a couple of guns, but she’s still for more gun control. You know, having one in the family and owning it yourself are two different things. The way I look at it, I haven’t gone on record yet touting my ownership of a firearm, but I’m definitely not trying to hide it.
Until now, of course? When they know, they’ll know. Virginia Citizens Defense League invited me to participate in their meetings, they asked me to speak for a few minutes about my ownership. They gave me a standing ovation for having the courage to go out and buy a gun on my own. It’s kind of nice—it’s really kind of a fellowship.
How do you respond to the people whose response is to ban guns? I say, “Aren’t we lucky you’re not the one making the decisions about our rights?”
Let’s talk about your artwork. It was featured by The Washington Post? Yes, there was a picture featured of one of the paintings I had in an exhibit. When I was in Iraq, that’s one of the things I did. That was something that kept my hands from being idle. When I retire, I want to devote a class to teaching victims of post-traumatic stress disorder—it doesn’t have to be wounded soldiers, but people who have been traumatized by a death in the family, like in my case. I want to find a sponsor who can help defer the expense of materials. It’s something on the bucket list.
Where do you go from here? Affiliating myself with the NRA, doing some target shooting, answering the call if anybody wants to talk about why I believe what I do—why I don’t support tighter controls on guns, why I do support classroom concealed carry. From day to day, I’m open to answering the same kind of questions we just discussed. I’m not hiding from it, but I don’t pretend to represent a whole group of people. These are my views, and I’m not afraid to tell you.
The anti-gun movement frequently coaxes victims to tell their story with the promise of translating their pain into action. But there’s often an agenda lurking beneath their compassionate façade; the use of victims as human shields of a sort, assuming the sensitivities of their opponents will inoculate them against the rigors of political discourse. These groups then ignore people like Holly Adams, or Nikki Goeser, or Amanda Collins—the ones who testify that if only someone had been armed, they might not have been victimized. When brave voices like Adams’ are heard, more Americans see through the lie that being disarmed is safer than being armed.
Now that Adams has spoken, it’s up to law-abiding gun owners to continue retelling her—and other victims’—story, while continuing to introduce more of our friends and neighbors to responsible gun use. And, most importantly, we must continue doing everything we can to make sure stories of people disarmed and victimized in supposed “gun-free zones” become a thing of the past.
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