‘A gun only has one purpose — and that’s to kill’
It’s an image St. Monica parishioner Suzanne Verge still has in her head, 35 years after the fact:
Peter in a half-wetsuit riding the foaming crest of a small breaking wave, his left foot inching towards the nose of an olive-green surfboard to hang five, left arm thrown back with hand curled for balance. The stoked look on his face — not really hot-dogging it, but a mixture of boyish joy, semi-guarded exhilaration and “I-can-handle-this, man.” No way this little-bitty SoCal wave was going to knock him down. Not now or any day of his easy going, perpetually happy, surfing-centered 18-year-old life. Wasn’t he working as a boxboy at Vons, saving every dollar he could stash away, so he could move to Hawaii and ride the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu?
But the endless summer ended two weeks before Christmas, 1978.
Suzanne was 15, pretty care-free herself back then in high school at St. Monica’s. Her brother Peter, three years older. That Saturday evening in December, he had been out with friends and a new girlfriend he’d just started dating. They came home to where she was crashing, a mile away from the Verge home, put a pizza in the oven and fell asleep right on the floor.
About 4, 5 a.m., the 33-year-old man the new girlfriend was sharing the apartment with in Santa Monica arrived on the scene and started screaming at Peter, “Get the hell out of here!” Startled, the teenager supposedly said, “Hold on just a minute. Let me get my clothes.” Instead, the lawyer, an admitted drug user, shot and killed the teenager.
He then dragged the body out of the apartment and would claim at the trial how he’d simply shot a thief who broke into his apartment. But forensics proved otherwise, and the attorney was convicted of second-degree murder with a special circumstance that basically boiled down to his intent being impaired because of drugs. The judge sentenced him to six years, He would serve three.
“It was a long trial,” recalled Suzanne on a recent Thursday early afternoon, sitting outside Holy Grounds Coffee Cafe, right on the grounds of St. Monica’s. “And so every day it just played out in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook paper. And it just went on and on and on. I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. You know, it was like everything just happened.
“So for a long time after I didn’t know what to do with it. And I thought I was the only one. I thought you don’t talk about this club. Nobody wants to be in this club. My brother was killed Dec. 10, 1978. It wasn’t until the Million Mom March in 2000 that I really did any advocacy. But I learned about the march happening in Washington, D.C., and it was like I had to go there.
“That day there was 750,000 people. All of us were survivors — we had all lost someone. These people had pictures of their sons in their caskets. I mean, it was just so brutal,” she said, her voice quivering now. “And there were too many of us. That’s how I met Bobbi, who lost a daughter, and here we lived a block apart in Santa Monica. And we started this little chapter of The Brady Campaign.”
The Los Angeles chapter of The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — named after President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot and permanently brain damaged during an assassination attempt on March 31, 1981 — today has more than 200 members, with 15 to 20 active on the Westside. Suzanne has been its lone president because, “Nobody wants to be president, so I’m always president,” she said before breaking up.
There are no meetings, with active members mainly demonstrating at events.
Like the yearlong regular protests against California’s “open-carry” folks, who showed up packing firearms at restaurants, parks and even when they did beach cleanups in the South Bay. During 2011 and ’12, she would marshal Brady members to come out as counter-demonstrators, telling managers and owners in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and other communities they didn’t have to allow these open-carry people into their private establishments.
“I would go down there and my knees were just shaking and I wanted to throw up, because I was so scared when these people showed up with all their guns,” she admitted, grimacing at the memory. “But I was like: ‘You know what? The worse thing has already happened to me — my brother has already been murdered.’ So we did that.
The mom-and-pop anti-gun-violence group’s effort, however, brought attention to the in-your-face defiant behavior. And the result was two state Assembly bills got passed, outlawing individuals from openly carrying loaded or unloaded handguns along with shotguns and rifles in public places.
But most of the local Brady Campaign’s work has been less dramatic.
It’s involved educating at the grassroots’ level through talks and presentations as well as lots of lobbying of government officeholders and officials. Suzanne, along with her two surviving children, have been to area city halls, Sacramento and Washington. She has driven an RV across the country, trying to get the assault weapons ban renewed. And she’s been to the anniversaries of mass shootings, like Virginia Tech, where 32 slain victims were honored by family survivors and others signing a “Statement of Principle Against Arming Dangerous People.”
And that’s not even counting all the survivors she’s met and shared tragic life stories with along the way. Strangers have become friends like Bobbi, whose firefighter paramedic daughter was murdered in a carjacking, and the other survivors at an interfaith prayer service she organized June 7 at St. Monica Church.
Such survivors of gun violence have become all too common — from Columbine High School in 1999 to Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Just this month, families and friends are mourning the loss of firearm victims. In Texas, a 33-year-old man shot execution-style two adults and five children July 9. Last weekend in Chicago alone, 43 individuals were shot at various locales, four of whom died.
“I think so, I definitely think so.” The activist was talking about grieving over deaths caused by gun violence, like murders or suicides, is somehow different. “‘Cause there are no goodbyes. There’s just no goodbyes. So it is very different. I think it’s very different.
“And then there’s the justice issues. ‘Cause some people want justice, you know. And that anger can consume them. Instead of grieving, they just pour themselves into the anger. I deal with a lot of people, survivors, who want to become activists against gun violence. And it’s like: ‘You’re not ready to be an activist right now. You’re really so angry.’”
Later that afternoon at the coffee house, she was asked, “How can you continue this work, this ministry? Must be really draining. And it’s been 14 years now.”
For a moment, a look of weariness, tinged with sadness, did, in fact, cross her 51-year-old face. “I’m involved because it affected me,” she said. “But I’m hoping others will become involved. People who are being killed by guns, especially in our poorer communities; they’re the ones who are affected all the time. And it’s wrong. I think it’s a social justice issue that we all should care about. There’s families who put their kids in the bathtub every time they hear a shooting.”
Another pause, another thought: “Finally, if you do buy a gun, that’s your choice. But a gun only has one purpose — and that’s to kill. You’re not going to be able to just maim somebody. Police officers can’t do that, and they’re required to practice their shooting at ranges. And I think as a Catholic, are you willing to buy a gun and kill somebody? That goes against our whole religion, it goes against our commandments.
“I think the reason I can work on this issue is I have my faith,” said Suzanne Verge in a quieter voice. “I believe I will see my brother again. And I also believe in forgiveness. I walked around for a long time really angry at the man who killed my brother and, like, how can he breathe and my brother can’t breathe.
“But I feel very good about, four or five years ago, I wrote a letter to him and said, ‘I forgave you years ago and I’m so sorry I never told you. But I do want you to know now that you are forgiven, and I do wish you peace.’”
The killer of Peter Verge died not long ago.
The victim’s surfing photo ran in a Brady Campaign booklet of collected gun-violence victims’ stories by local survivors titled, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”