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Cincinnati mass shooting victim seeks to change hearts, laws

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Pulse of Voter - Whitney Austin-1.jpg

EDITOR'S NOTE: Politicians hear from voters and lobbyists regularly about gun rights vs. gun laws, but Whitney Austin — a victim of gun violence and a gun owner — thinks we should add common sense into the discussion. Through WhitneyStrong, she's working to do just that.

LOUISVILLE — Whitney Austin is on the phone a lot. That is what bank executives do, they solve problems and answer questions, something she does on a regular basis as a product manager.

So on Sept. 6, 2018, as she entered Fifth Third Bank’s headquarters in downtown Cincinnati, Austin was talking on the phone. She was oblivious to what was going on around her, or what awaited her on the other side of the revolving door she was about to enter. Her mind was focused on solving the problem of the day.

But in a matter of seconds her priorities changed from conducting bank business to surviving a mass shooting. Austin was about to become a victim of another act of senseless violence that occurs all too often in this country.

As she entered the revolving door, she was hit by several bullets. She immediately fell to the ground but never lost consciousness and was unable to see what was going on behind her inside the bank’s lobby. All she could do was look out at Fountain Square as her mind raced back to Louisville, to husband Waller and children ages 5 and 7. The person in the quadrant next to her was killed.

“Bullets came through two revolving doors to get to me, maybe it was just one, but either way, I think that revolving door helped protect me,” Austin said.

In all, she was shot 12 times. Four people, including the shooter, were killed that day; Austin and one other person were wounded. Austin's injuries were severe, but her spirit and desire to live were on full display that day.

“There were thousands of things that went right for me on that day,” she said recently from her Louisville home. “One being I was shot 12 times and no major arteries or organs were hit. Secondly, it was preparing me to be mentally strong as a result of what happened. I never saw the shooter. I have done tons of reading about survivors of other gun violence. I don’t have those visual images that I have to push out of my brain. I collapsed in the revolving door and I was looking outward onto Fountain Square.”

CHANCE TO LIVE

Austin credits Cincinnati police Officer Al Staples for getting to her and moving her across the street just seconds after being shot. While losing a lot of blood and in severe pain, she remained alert and was able to talk to Staples and other officers.

“As soon as I pushed [on the door] is when I was hit by the barrage of bullets. I couldn’t see in the door. I just pushed,” she said. “Then I was hit and started processing what was going on and that didn’t take long … I knew it was a mass shooting. I thought I should stand up and run out but didn’t have the strength. I thought to call 911, but when I moved my left arm, that was when I was hit a second time by a barrage of bullets, probably because he saw me move. So I told myself to play dead, play dead.

“Within 30 seconds Officer Al Staples comes out of nowhere. I kicked into mom mode and I start telling him what to do. I told him to get over here and save me, I have a 5- and 7-year-old who need their mother. You need to come and save me.”

She was saved, but the bullets ravaged her body. Austin's right arm was shattered and a tendon was ruptured. She has plates and screws in her arm, but two of the plates are expected to come out soon.

“That is huge,” she said.

Austin has not gone back to work yet, but that day is coming very soon. Every other day, she receives some type of therapy. She has undergone three surgeries and is now able to bend her arm.

“My bones are healing really, really well,” she said, demonstrating her arm movement. “I have worked really hard to get this far. My arm was unrecognizable; they couldn’t even put a tourniquet on it that day.

“But these are things I can live with. I was shot 12 times and I am describing what is wrong with me … it’s a miracle. These are things I will go through every day without complaining about.”

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Whitney Austin was shot 12 times in the Sept. 6, 2018 mass shooting at the Fifth Third Bank’s headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. Austin has established a non-profit to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t own them. 

ESTABLISHING WHITNEYSTRONG

Within two weeks of being shot, Austin had established a non-profit, WhitneyStrong. The goal is to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. She knows it will be a slow process, but it’s one she is committed to for the rest of her life.

“I work very, very hard on WhitneyStrong,” she said. “I have this great opportunity and it helps me be mentally strong.”

She is trying to appeal to two groups — Republicans, who generally support gun rights, and gun owners — to get behind and support laws she hopes will soon be passed.

“This idea of approaching it from the center is an idea people talk about … we are trying to appeal to two subsets,” she said. “There are so many great groups trying to stop gun violence and I support them all. But I feel like our niche is a little different.”

Austin and her non-profit are focusing on three areas — enforce laws that exist; champion new laws and funding on getting the Red Flag Law passed in both Kentucky and Ohio; and implement proven suicide prevention solutions.

Indiana is one of 14 states that has some kind of Red Flag Law — or Extreme Risk Protection Orders — she said. It allows family members and law enforcement to petition a court to keep guns away from a dangerous person “in the throes of a crisis.”

“Fourteen other states have orders in place. If you can convince those two bodies [Republicans and gun owners] to make a change, they need to feel comfortable that this is something effective and works in other places and won’t get them in trouble with all of their gun rights and gun ownership supporters. It has decreased suicide by 7 1/2 percent in Indiana. It’s one of those laws making an impact.”

She has been to Washington, D.C., to speak to Senators and attended a roundtable on Red Flag laws. She recently participated in a mental health roundtable with Indiana District 9 Rep. Trey Hollingsworth on the importance of a national Red Flag Law.

“It comes down to legislative ideas, you need the votes," she said. "Comprehensive background checks go nowhere; they are a non-starter. If you want to make a change you need to find solutions that everyone can get behind. Let's find those solutions. Our goal in all this is to pull in these two subsets and move this thing forward. It will be slow but I am not going to stop trying to fight gun violence.”

Austin said she has spoken to Republicans who are interested, and the governor of Ohio is ready to support Red Flag Law legislation, too.

"They [Republicans and gun owners] care about gun safety," she said.

COMMON-SENSE APPROACH TO GUNS

Austin and her husband own guns that are kept locked in a safe. She points out that there are millions of other responsible gun owners. But she said there has to be laws in place to get guns away from people who are exemplifying violent behavior.

“Guns aren’t going to go away,” she said. “There are plenty of people who have guns and are responsible with them."

Austin is still healing, both physically and emotionally. She still has a ways to go, but instead of trying to forget what happened to her and lock it away somewhere, she wants to use her voice for something positive. To make changes. To pass common-sense gun laws that make a difference.

“There are people every single day of the year who fear gun violence. Think about that,” she said. “If we all get in an uproar about mass shootings, we need to get in an uproar about other gun violence, as well. We just need to end all of it. I won’t stop trying.”

Chris Morris is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Contact him via email at chris.morris@newsandtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NAT_ChrisM.