Into the Line of Fire : Rebecca Schaeffer’s Death Led Her Parents to Fight for Gun Control
Since her daughter was shot to death, Danna Schaeffer hasn’t thought twice about jumping into the line of fire.
Last spring, the petite woman with short red hair bounced to her feet in a suburban Oregon church auditorium filled with angry gun-control opponents. Without blinking, Schaeffer faced the crowd and said exactly what they didn’t want to hear.
Earlier, the rage in the town meeting had been aimed at Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), a recent convert to the Brady bill, federal legislation that would require a seven-day waiting period for all handgun purchases. But when Schaeffer stood up, the anger arced in her direction.
“I want to commend you for your courage,” she told AuCoin. “And I want you to know that the voices in this room represent a minority of the voters.”
From all corners of the auditorium, outraged gasps gathered into hisses. Then a hail of boos rained down. Schaeffer’s husband, Benson, sitting beside her, gazed stoically into the middle distance. Schaeffer smiled up at AuCoin.
“Were they booing me?” she asked later. “I didn’t even hear it.”
Danna and Benson Schaeffer can live with the booing. It’s the quiet times that are hard: that first waking moment of the morning when they realize again that their daughter is dead.
“We face death every morning,” says Benson, sitting with his wife on their living-room sofa. She reaches across the cushions for his hand. “Sometimes you’re overcome with despair,” he continues. “You never cease missing the person. The gun issue lets us focus our anger.”
Sometimes the anger looms too large to focus. In 1989, Rebecca Schaeffer, their daughter, was a successful actress making her way in Los Angeles. Only 21, she had starred in the television series “My Sister Sam” and appeared in the films “Radio Days” and “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.”
Preparing to audition for a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather III” on the morning of July 18, Rebecca heard a knock at her front door. When she opened the door, a gunman shot her in the chest, killing her almost instantly.
Robert John Bardo, an obsessive fan from Arizona, was accused of firing the shot that killed her. Bardo has pleaded not guilty to the crime. His trial is set to begin Sept. 25 before Judge Dino Fulgoni in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The Schaeffers’ trial began the moment their daughter died.
Recovering from a child’s death can be an endless process. Some couples arm their anguish with recrimination, blaming one another for the wages of fate. Eventually, many also lose their marriages. Aware of the dire statistics facing parents of murdered children, Danna and Benson worked at staying together.
And in mourning their daughter’s lost life, Benson and Danna have resumed theirs with a new sense of purpose. Once relatively apolitical, they have become leaders in Oregon’s gun-control movement.
Danna, a playwright who taught at the University of Portland, abandoned her academic and literary careers last year to help start a gun-control lobbying group, Oregonians Against Gun Violence. She also traveled recently to Washington to accept an award from Handgun Control, the national lobbying group, and to help lobby for the Brady bill.
Danna also plans to write a book about Rebecca’s death. She’s trying to write out some notes for the project, but these days she rarely has time.
“All I write now are letters about gun control,” she says.
Danna Schaeffer was writing a play that morning. Sitting at her basement desk, she tapped dialogue into her computer, working from pages of notes she’d scattered across the desktop. Upstairs, the telephone rang just after noon.
Deep in her work, Schaeffer ignored the call. But 10 minutes later she went upstairs for lunch and played back the message on her answering machine. Call Tom Noonan, it said. She dialed the Los Angeles number. He was a friend of Rebecca, although Danna didn’t know it then. When she introduced herself, he stammered, looking for words.
“Mrs. Schaeffer, I have terrible news for you,” he said.
She didn’t believe him--at least, not at first. Growing frantic, she called the hospital where Noonan said Rebecca had been taken. But the doctor in the emergency room wouldn’t release any information over the telephone.
“She would only say a woman had been admitted and had died,” Schaeffer recalls. “At that point I kind of knew. Then the detective called. And it was all over.”
A year and a half later, Schaeffer found the notes from her play, dusty and stiff, where she’d left them on her desk. She still carries the telephone bill, the one that shows the precise moment--July 18, 1989, 12:15 p.m.--when her life changed.
The Schaeffers still treasure their past. In the living room, the mantle overflows with dozens of framed photographs, many of them souvenirs from Rebecca’s fashion shoots or from her movies and TV shows. She stares down from every direction, and at first it gives the room an eerie, melancholy feeling.
But Benson and Danna don’t linger in tragedy. They laugh easily, and both can toss off sharp, witty remarks when a target strikes their fancy.
In the days immediately after Rebecca’s death, the Schaeffers did much of their mourning in public. Given Rebecca’s celebrity and the circumstances of her death, the national media flocked in. The crowd of reporters was therapeutic then. “I wanted to talk about it,” Danna says.
Later, the attention faded and the grieving process moved behind closed doors. As a child psychologist, Benson had some professional insight into his feelings. But understanding pain doesn’t make it any less painful.
For months, both lived the misadventures of the preoccupied: They lost their keys. They wrote down appointments on the wrong pages of their calendars. They forgot entire conversations they’d had.
“If I hadn’t known,” Benson says, “I would have thought I was going crazy.”
They joined a support group for parents of murdered children. Gradually, they fell back into the flow of their everyday lives.
The emptiness never leaves, but eventually it somehow becomes manageable. “I feel more aware of people’s suffering,” Danna says. “The Holocaust means more. The Kurds mean more. Anyone’s unhappy death hits you personally.”
A month before Rebecca died, Benson accompanied Danna to a playwrights’ conference in Colorado. While she attended workshops, he had time to wander and one afternoon got to talking with a local man. The gun-control issue came up, and Benson laid out a case for banning assault weapons. It turned into a lively conversation.
“For a moment, I convinced him they should be banned,” Benson recalls. “Then he changed his mind. We disagreed, but it wasn’t a passionate thing for me. It seemed like an intellectual discussion.”
A month later gun control seemed much more significant. Three days after Rebecca died, Benson and Danna sat in a friend’s living room in Los Angeles, talking to reporters about the man who had killed her. Danna said she was less angry at him than at the system that made it so easy to get a gun. A few days later, The Times published an editorial based on her quote and suddenly the Schaeffers were gun-control activists.
“We were cast into the role early, without intending it,” Danna says later. But they quickly discovered they didn’t mind.
A month after Rebecca’s death, the Schaeffers flew back to Los Angeles to meet with Charlie Oraison, the president of the national lobbying group Handgun Control Inc.
Later that fall, Rick Bauman, a Mulnomah County commissioner in Oregon, called Danna to ask her to testify in favor of an ordinance to limit sales of assault weapons. When she stood up to speak, gun-control opponents booed loudly.
Fallout from that incident fired up dormant gun-control activists. Soon the Schaeffers started receiving calls and letters from people wondering where to sign up to help work on the issue. Danna discovered that Oregon had no central lobbying group pushing for gun-control legislation. So, working with other gun-control activists, she decided to start one.
Once the executive board of Oregonians Against Gun Violence got together in early 1990, lobbying for gun control grew into Danna’s full-time job. Now Oregonians Against Gun Violence has more than 500 members.
The Schaeffers say they have two goals for national gun control:
* All gun sales should have built-in waiting periods.
* Guns should be sold only by licensed dealers.
They know it might take a while for the government to accept their ideas, but they’re willing to wait. They know that, like recovery, political change doesn’t happen overnight.
Not everyone agrees with their cause. The Schaeffers know many gun owners view their freedom to buy and own guns as religious convictions.
It’s a tough battle. But the fighting keeps them close to the photos on their wall. For now, it keeps the spirit behind the frames from slipping away.
“There’s so little we can do about Rebecca’s death,” Benson says. “We feel good about doing this. It’s the only public way to say that what happened to Rebecca isn’t all right.”
A version of this story appeared in the Portland Oregonian.