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Lois Schaffer fights for gun control with book about murdered daughter

Lois Schaffer with her book

Lois Schaffer with her book "The Unthinkable" in her Great Neck home on Sept. 19, 2015. Schaffer wrote the memoir about her daughter, Susan Schaffer, who was killed during a burglary. Credit: Jeremy Bales

When 17-year-old Lorenzo Wilson fired a handgun in the kitchen of a house in Missouri in December 2008, the word "murder" infiltrated the home of Lois Schaffer close to 1,000 miles away in Great Neck.

Wilson shot Schaffer's 48-year-old daughter as she walked into her suburban St. Louis home carrying groceries on a Tuesday afternoon. "What the hell is going on here?" she asked as she interrupted Wilson and another teenager in the midst of a burglary. Wilson answered by firing three times, killing her, according to police and media accounts.

And as angry as Lois Schaffer is -- and she is angry -- her fury at this point isn't primarily aimed at Wilson.

It's directed at what was in his hand: the gun.

Her daughter's question -- "What the hell is going on here?" -- is now asked by Schaffer in a societal sense. What the hell is going on, that a gun can get into the hands of a high school student? What the hell is going on, that a gunman was able to open fire on Thursday at a community college in Oregon?

Schaffer -- about to turn 80 years old this month -- now knows what she'll be doing for the rest of her life. In December 2013, her book, "The Unthinkable: Life, Loss, and a Mother's Mission to Ban Illegal Guns," was published and is available on Amazon. Schaffer said it gives her the credibility to speak anyplace that will provide a platform, to lobby for stiffer gun control legislation, to contribute to reducing rampant gun violence.

"I wanted something that you could hold in your hand to use as a vehicle to get out there and speak," she said. Something that, held in her hand, would be at least as powerful as what the shooter had held in his.


People like Schaffer, telling their stories, can energize people, which is what it will take for lasting, meaningful legislative change, said Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck). They add their voices to the outcries over more publicized, mass tragedies such as the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., the shooting that same year of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the 2015 shooting of church members in Charleston, S.C.

"I think it's all up to private citizens," Schimel said. "The public is always ahead of the curve of government. We've seen it with same-sex marriage. We've seen it with the environment. It's government that has to catch up."

Schaffer has spoken on panels, at bookstore signings, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and at her synagogue, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. She's appeared at legislative hearings in Albany and joined New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. She also wrote a letter that was posted in the opinion section of the Martinsville Bulletin, a Virginia newspaper, expressing her empathy with the parents of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, the TV reporter and cameraman shot to death on Aug. 26 during a live broadcast.

"I was not going to sink," said Schaffer, a former grant writer for the Pearl Lang Dance Theater in Manhattan. "I was not going to suck my thumb. I was not going to go into a corner. Excuse my language" -- she leans forward -- "goddammit, I was going to do something."


When Schaffer submitted her manuscript to Brown Books Publishing Group, she wanted it to be classified as "True Crime," to appear under that heading on bookstore shelves. Her editor thought it was more of a memoir. But above all, the book is a love story; the love of a mother for the daughter she lost.

The book's preface and afterword focus on gun-related crime statistics and stories of other acts of gun violence. But primarily it's the life story of victim Susan Schaffer, whom everyone called Susie.

"Now let me tell you about her," Schaffer said, sitting in her den, with pictures of her daughter and other family members hanging on the wall. She describes a woman "full of life" -- an exuberant fitness proponent with curly red hair.

Susie Schaffer was Lois Schaffer's firstborn; her second child, Eric, is now 51 and lives in Port Washington. Susie graduated from Great Neck South High School in 1978, moved to St. Louis with her then-husband, who was a doctor, had three children, later divorced, taught Pilates and had just opened her own Gyrotonic exercise studio in St. Louis -- Gyrotonic being an exercise method practiced with specialized machines. "She was a doll," her mother said.

Schaffer's book aims to make readers love Susie, so they are outraged enough at her death to join the gun-control effort. "The Unthinkable" begins at the end -- the afternoon of the crime in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur.

Susie Schaffer was on the cellphone with her oldest child, Rachel, then 23, who was living in New York and working as a paralegal. They continued talking as Schaffer walked from her car into the house carrying groceries, according to the book.

Suddenly, Rachel heard her mother say, "What the hell is going on here?" -- and then the line went dead.

When Susie's middle child Daniel, a senior in high school, arrived home after getting a haircut, he found his mother in the kitchen. "She was lying on the floor in a pool of blood," Lois Schaffer said.

The perpetrators -- Wilson was accompanied by fellow student Kenneth Shepard -- fled with a computer, an iPod and a digital camera. Wilson had used a previously stolen gun.

The intruders attended the same high school as Daniel and Sarah, Susie's youngest child, though they weren't friends or enemies, and the Schaffer house was a random choice. Both later pleaded guilty; Wilson is serving 60 years in prison, and Shepard 20.


Lois Schaffer has long been politically active and had been a proponent of gun control before the crime. In fact, in October 2008, two months before Susie Schaffer's death, Schimel, who has known Lois Schaffer for years because they belong to the same synagogue, had asked for her help to support the legislator's bill, Crime Gun Identification Act of 2012, that would require all new semiautomatic handguns sold in New York State to be microstamped with a unique code.

"When you fire the gun, it puts an alphanumeric code on the shell casing," Schimel said. The code could enable police to trace a gun used in a crime without recovering it. The bill passed in the Assembly but hasn't come up for a vote in the State Senate.

Schaffer said she doesn't want to ban all guns -- but she wants to make it much harder for them to get into the wrong hands. During panels that Schaffer has participated in, she said she's talked to members of the Oath Keepers, an association of current and former military, police and first responders who argue that upholding the constitutional right to own guns is their patriotic duty. "Somewhere in the middle there has to be a meeting of the minds," Schaffer said.

The National Rifle Association didn't respond to requests for comment on Schaffer's quest.

Early last month, Schaffer read the first nine pages of her book to a magazine production class at Hofstra University, and students were riveted, said assistant professor Dan van Benthuysen. Van Benthuysen, a former Newsday design director, asked Schaffer to speak because his students will be creating a magazine this semester about the culture of firearms in America.

"She's gone toe-to-toe with guys from the Oath Keepers and she's not afraid to tell you about it," van Benthuysen said of Schaffer. "That's what I like about her."

Schaffer's husband, David, who also turns 80 this month, said he is proud of the path his wife has taken. "I think it's extraordinary, her not just learning to deal with what happened, but to turn it into something positive the way she has."

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