Barbara Parker woke up at her usual time, around 7 a.m., on August 26, 2015. She went online to watch the news spots her daughter Alison, a TV reporter for WBDJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, had filmed earlier that morning.
“We used to always kid Alison. We’d say, ‘We’re not up at 5:50 in the morning — we’ll watch you when they post it on the Internet afterwards,'” Parker tells Rolling Stone. “That morning when I got up there was nothing there, and I assumed the live truck was down. Sometimes that would happen.”
That’s when she got a call from Alison’s boyfriend, Chris, telling her there had been a shooting. It would be two more hours before she learned Alison had been gunned down that morning, on live TV, in the middle of an interview about the anniversary of a local reservoir. (Cameraman Adam Ward was also killed, and Alison’s interviewee, Vicki Gardner, was shot but survived.)
The shooter, an embittered ex-colleague, uploaded his own video of the shooting to Facebook and Twitter, where it quickly spread around the web.
Neither Parker nor her husband Andy have seen the video. “We didn’t even turn the television on for two months because there was just that chance that we might see it,” she says. In the aftermath of Alison’s murder, they installed a browser extension to block news on Facebook they didn’t want to see, and Andy shut down the YouTube page where he’d posted whitewater paddling videos; the comments sections were flooded with claims that Alison’s murder was a hoax, that she was a “crisis actor,” that she was alive in the Bahamas.
“They did the same thing to the people at Sandy Hook,” Parker says. “We just did everything we could to protect ourselves from those people, and from seeing any of the video because that is not how we want to remember our daughter.”
Both Andy and Barbara grew up in Texas, in homes with guns. They understood the appeal on some level, but less and less as, over the last several years, they and their daughter saw successive mass shootings with no change in policy.
“When the Sandy Hook shootings happened, that hit home for us more than anything. I remember Alison just saying, ‘How can this happen? And why isn’t anything being done? … She kind of felt the way we did: I don’t get the fascination with having all these guns, but they’re out there, and it doesn’t really affect me.”
That changed, of course, that morning in August. Almost immediately after Alison’s murder, Barbara and Andy began speaking out, advocating for reasonable gun regulations. Andy did his first interview the day after Alison’s death. Two weeks later, he was in Washington, D.C., marching in a “Whatever It Takes” rally on Capitol Hill.
Barbara stayed behind in Virginia to take care of the administrative details of burying her daughter, but she wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling on her local legislators, Rep. Bob Goodlatte and state Sens. John Edwards and William Stanley Jr., to consider sensible restrictions on firearms.
Nine months later, the Parkers’ appeals haven’t gained traction with their elected officials, and their activism has alienated close friends. “Southern Virginia is a very conservative area, and the NRA has done a really, really good job of marketing and telling people, You’ve got to protect your family. You’ve got to have these guns to protect your family,” Parker says.
The opposition the Parkers have encountered is all the more striking considering how modest their goals are: They want universal background checks and longer waiting periods to purchase a gun.
“A lot of [legislators] say, Well, it wouldn’t have saved your daughter’s life to have background checks,” Parkers says. “My response is: If it saves one life, is it not worth it? To try to do something? To save even one life? You can’t save everybody, but that’s not a reason to not save anybody.”
Last year, Alison planned a Mother’s Day trip for Barbara, Andy and her boyfriend, Chris. “We all went out to a vineyard out in the Blue Ridge Mountains and they had a food and wine tasting and we just hiked with the dogs,” Parker recalls. “It was just one of those really special kind of days, and I’m just so glad that we had that.”
This year, she’ll spend Mother’s Day weekend in New York City with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She’ll be one of hundreds of mothers, fathers, siblings and friends who have lost someone to gun violence marching across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday to rally in front of City Hall.
This is the fourth year the organization has staged this march. It was first held in 2013, one month after the Sandy Hook massacre. In the wake of the demonstration, New York State passed the SAFE Act, controversial legislation that strengthened assault-weapon regulations, banned high-capacity magazines and created provisions to take guns out of the hands of individuals with mental illnesses.
Parker holds no illusions that such a far-reaching law might be passed in Virginia anytime soon, but she’s hopeful change will come incrementally.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s like marriage equality, it’s like seat belts — ‘Seat Belts Save Lives’ — and smoking. There are so many things that have taken years to change attitudes about, and I don’t think this is any different.
“The biggest difference is the number of people killed by gun violence continues to grow,” she says. “And we just — we have to do something.”