Debra Fine, who survived being shot five times by the gunman, calls for greater focus on mental health services at Brady Campaign-sponsored event
By Gary Walker
Dozens of families who have been impacted by gun violence attended an interfaith service at St. Monica’s Catholic Church on Saturday honoring victims of last year’s deadly shooting spree that ended at Santa Monica College.
Marking exactly one year since the June 7, 2013, rampage that killed six people including gunman John Zawahri, the service was organized by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Attendees included Debra Fine, a nonprofit executive who survived being shot five times by Zawahri.
Fine, 49, was driving down a side street off Pico Boulevard when she saw Zawahri — who had just killed his father and brother and set their home in the 2000 block of Yorkshire Avenue on fire — pointing his semi-automatic rifle at another driver. Zawahri sprayed Fine’s car with bullets as she stepped on the gas to put her sedan between the shooter and his potential victim.
While she does not oppose the Brady Campaign’s advocacy for gun control laws, Fine, who has since started a foundation to assist victims of violent crime, took the somber anniversary to call attention to the need for greater mental health resources.
“I’m taking the front line on the importance of mental health and the lack of resources for mental health services. I’m also going because I want to see face-to-face some of the people who are still going through so much trauma and I hope everyone puts that first above everything else,” Fine said prior to the service. “I want to support anyone who lost loved ones that day, people who are still facing the effects of [the shootings].”
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D- Santa Monica), who also attended the ceremony, acknowledged that mental health services are severely underfunded.
“Unfortunately [state legislators] really cut back on mental health services across the board. I think we need to bring those services back in a smart and cost-effective way, but it’s a challenge right now because we’re trying fund education as well as a lot of other priorities,” Bloom said.
Suzanne Verge, the Brady Campaign’s Los Angeles chapter president, said she was moved during a moment of the ceremony in which dozens of people got up to ring a bell for loved ones they had lost to gun violence.
Verge, a Santa Monica resident, has also been touched by tragedy involving firearms. In 1978, Verge’s 18-year-old brother was murdered just before Christmas.
“I, too, am a member of a club to which nobody wants to belong,” she said.
Verge said she believes a focus on the mental health side of the gun violence epidemic is the best way to galvanize public opinion and appeal to lawmakers whom she described as caught in a “stranglehold” of the powerful National Riffle Assn.
“[Gun reform] has to be reframed to a public health approach, in my opinion,” Verge said. “We’ll never get gun reform by trying to out-lobby or outspend the NRA.”
Fine, who had her fifth and final shooting-related surgery last week, said her slow recovery has not prevented her from building on her traumatic experience to begin a new phase of her life.
She founded the victims services nonprofit FineLine Foundation three months after the shooting.
“Being with people who have suffered some of the same tragedies allows you to understand these situations better and to offer help to them,” Fine said.
Fine, who was driving home from a voice lesson when she encountered Zawahri, has also relied on singing to help her along in her recovery. She recently released an album called “By Design.”
“Music has absolutely been my saving grace. I know for some people it’s writing or meditation, but for me it has absolutely been music,” she said. “[The shooting] changed my life in many ways. If it hadn’t happened, I don’t think that I would have taken the time to figure out what the next step in my life would have been.”