INDIANAPOLIS — When Whitney Austin woke up to the news of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on April 16, her heart sank and she felt a pit in her stomach.
It's a feeling she knows all too well.
That's because Austin, a Kentucky native, mother and gun owner, is also a mass shooting survivor herself. And now she is an advocate for real change.
On Sept. 6, 2018, Austin slumped over a revolving door at the Fifth Third Bank headquarters in nearby Cincinnati. Playing dead was her last big effort in the fight to survive for her kids and her loved ones.
Austin had just been shot 12 times by an active gunman in the facility and was somehow still alive. She says during those moments, her heart filled with guilt. Just months prior, she thought about volunteering in an organized effort to reduce gun violence. But like many of us, she got busy and had ignored the text messages she signed up to receive.
In that moment, she wished she had done more.
But she survived. She was given a gift to continue on with her life with her family. And this second chance would not go to waste.
"What can I do, what can the community do to both help heal in this moment and to take action to prevent it?" Austin said. "I say all the time that I am the luckiest person that ever lived because I survived. So I am in a different position. I got everything I ever wanted out of that moment. And so I think it empowers me to be an advocate for change and to bring people together to solve this problem."
That is exactly what her organization "Whitney Strong" is doing in Kentucky, Ohio, and beyond.
On their website, WhitneyStrong, it reads that this organization is "not another failed attempt to make progress on the issue of gun violence."
The organization does not want to ostracize gun owners. They do not focus on political talking points that divide us. Instead, her board consists of gun owners and non-gun owners alike, as well as Republicans and Democrats with different perspectives and opinions. What brings them together is the data and research on effective solutions.
"This is not about ending gun ownership. It's about ending gun violence," says Austin. "I grew up in Kentucky. I'm a southerner. Guns are important to us. They are important and protected within the constitution."
WhitneyStrong pursues solutions to gun violence by promoting responsible gun ownership on both the local and federal levels.
The organization also partners with community leaders on non-legislative solutions to suicide prevention, firearm safety instruction, and more. It works to tackle the issue of gun violence from many angles.
When Whitney/Strong and legislators in Kentucky worked on writing a bill that is considered to be a type of "red flag" law, they looked to Indiana.
As WRTV previously reported, Indiana was one of the first states to enact a red flag law back in 2004. It is also known in the Hoosier state as the Jake Laird law after a police officer who was killed when a man went on a shooting rampage in his neighborhood. That gunman had a history of mental health issues. Guns had previously been removed from his home but he wanted them back and there was no law on the books to stop him from getting his firearms back, despite his documented mental state.
In 2005, Indiana lawmakers approved a bill to establish a red flag law — the Jake Laird Law — that would allow police to temporarily seize firearms from people who present a danger to themselves or others without requiring a warrant or judge's signature. It was later amended.
After the FedEx shooting, the red flag law is still a topic of discussion for Hoosiers and it's still a work in progress in neighboring Kentucky.
The Kentucky State Senate filed the CARR Bill (Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention) with bipartisan support, but the session ended without a hearing on that bill.
According to WhitneyStrong.org, the CARR bill would create a legal path to temporary seizure of firearms from someone in a crisis situation that is neither permanent nor automatic. It would allow for transfer of firearms and ammunition to a responsible party outside of the household. It would also include a judicial review, and the biggest portion of the bill allows for individuals to get access to services they need to address their crisis and work to get back to a better place so they can become responsible gun owners again.
Even though this is still a work in progress in Kentucky, Whitney says it is important to focus on the progress. One thing she is very hopeful for is more research.
"It's very important that we put dollars into research so that we can come to the conclusions that are proven to actually reduce gun violence," says Austin.
She says a big victory was in 2019 when Congress voted to fund $25 million of research on gun violence. This after nearly two decades of no federal dollars going to this cause.
ABC News reported in December 2019 that the money would be split between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
"I was doing my happy dance and crying tears of joy when it happened, in 2019, Congress voted to fund research," says Austin.
For now, in addition to being an advocate for reducing gun violence in communities, Austin continues to work on her healing.
For the victim's families and survivors here in Indianapolis, she says she is truly sorry that they have to go through this. For her, some steps to healing include sharing her story, clinging to her faith, seeking therapy and focusing on making a positive change.
If you want to learn more about Whitney/Strong you can visit their website WhitneyStrong.org.