MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today, we're going to be talking about something that preoccupies many Americans, no more so than since last December. That, of course, is when that awful shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., took place.
President Obama has called it the worst single day of his presidency. He's been urging lawmakers to change some of the country's laws pertaining to background checks of potential gun buyers, among other matters. We'll hear more about the politics behind that, and how that effort is going, in a few minutes. As part of that campaign, though, President Obama has been demanding that the country not forget about what happened.
First today, we're going to hear from one of the people who cannot forget. Jillian Soto wasn't even in Connecticut when she got the phone call that there had been the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. That's the school where her 27-year-old, big sister - Victoria - taught. Later, Jillian learned that Victoria was one of the victims killed at the school that day.
Now, she's in Washington with the hopes of pressing the Congress to take up gun control legislation. That's how we caught up with her. And she was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you for coming.
JILLIAN SOTO: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You know what? It's such a stupid question, but I have to ask. How are you?
SOTO: I wish I could say that I'm good, but I think I'm as good as to be expected with what has happened to me and my family. I get through day to day stuff very - not easily, any longer. It takes a long time to just get up in the morning and bring myself to go take a shower, or go do homework that has to get done. And your life changes completely. So I don't think I will ever be as good as I was, but I think I'm doing a little better than I was.
MARTIN: Can you explain to people who have never been through something like this - you know, what it's like? I mean, a lot of us have experienced losses; and then there's the thing of wanting to call the person and tell them something you saw, or a joke that you think they would like. And I just wondered if there was any way you can try to describe that, for people who haven't been through it.
SOTO: I don't know how to actually describe it. I've had loss throughout my whole, entire life. Around four years ago I lost a very dear person to me, who was 7 years old. He had cancer, and it was extremely hard. But this is something that is on a completely different level because I didn't lose somebody who was sick. I didn't lose somebody who was old. I lost my 27-year-old sister, who was brutally murdered.
So it's hard to even explain what the feeling that I'm going through, or anyone in my family is going through, because it's just - it's very much a surreal feeling that we still have. And, you know, like you were saying before - that you want to call the person, and tell them things - I message my sister daily on Facebook and just tell her, like, I wish you were here. Because my cousin just found out she's pregnant. And that's something we have to now go through without my sister. And I just - I had to tell her - you know, Heather's pregnant. Like, what are we going to do? And it sucks to know that she's never going to respond to that message. But it's my life now.
MARTIN: Speaking of Facebook, I understand that that's, in fact, how you found out that your sister - one of your sisters and your mom were trying to keep the news from you, and tell you in person. And you found out because you went on Facebook, and there were already messages offering condolences. I don't know how to say this - I am so sorry.
SOTO: It was probably the worst thing ever. I was driving home with my boyfriend and two friends, from Vermont; and I get a phone call from my younger sister, telling me just to come home. And we were already on our way. And she was like, just come home. Don't go to the school. Just come home. And I said, oh, we know where Vicki is. Vicki's on her way home too, right? And she's like, no. She's like, we don't know where Vicki is still, but we just - it's too late; we don't want to stay up there anymore.
Within minutes of hanging up, my phone wouldn't stop going off with Facebook messages. And I have an iPhone so you can see, like, the first blur to whatever someone posts on your wall. And all I can see is: I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for your loss. Your sister's a hero.
And I start freaking out in the car, and I look over at my boyfriend, who is crying. And he already knew the news because he was told. And he was like, we don't want her to find out. You know, just try to keep her calm until we get - she gets home. And I remember calling my father, and he was like, everything's OK, baby. Just get home. Just drive home. Drive safely. Where are you?
And I told him we're in Hartford, stuck in traffic, and he was like, it's fine. Just take your time, get home, and we'll see you when you get there. And I was like, tell me what's going on! And like, I demanded right then and there; I needed to hear him say it. And he told me that they were 99 percent sure that my sister was killed inside Sandy Hook. He was waiting to identify the body.
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
SOTO: So am I. (Starts crying)
MARTIN: Does it - does it help at all that the reports are that your sister was shielding her students? She was trying to protect them.
SOTO: I wouldn't say it necessarily helps. It helps, in a sense, where that there are 11 kids that I can go and talk to now, who were with my sister right before she was killed. There's kids that I even got to see yesterday, who were just so excited to see us and in that sense, it helps to know that my sister died protecting these kids, and helped them get out of the classroom.
In that sense - but hearing, like, my sister died shielding kids or my sister died a hero, it doesn't necessarily help because she's still dead. And she's always been a hero to me. She's my big sister. She could do no wrong, in my eyes. And when I found out that there was a shooting at the school, I called a very good friend of mine, and someone who was very dear to my sister. His name is Ted, and I called him. And he is a pharmacist at Norwalk Hospital and I said, can you find out anything you can? He was like, I will find out everything. And I was like, what am I going to do? And he was like, I promise; everything's going to be OK. And I said, Ted, we both know if a gunman walks in that room, she will do whatever she has to, to protect those kids. And he goes, I know, but it won't come down to that.
And to this day, he is heartbroken that he made that promise to me. And he didn't know, but I knew that if it came down to it, she would die doing whatever she could to save her kids. So to hear that she's a hero just shows how much of a person she is - and the fact that her family knew that if it ever came down to it, that's what she would do; that she would protect those kids just like every one of those teachers and the principal did, to protect those kids. They would do anything. These kids are their lives.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Jillian Soto. Her sister Vicki Soto was one of the teachers who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. So now it comes down to what to do next. What are your thoughts about what should happen next? I know you're not an expert in this, but what are your thoughts?
SOTO: Right. I am not an expert in - any means. You know, before any of this happened, I knew zero about guns. We weren't allowed to even play with water guns in my house; you couldn't have a Nerf gun. So the topic of them, and anything regarding them, was never brought into my house. So with all this happening, I've made it a point - to myself - that I needed to educate myself on what is going on and around me, and how to protect myself.
And I strongly support what Obama is doing. I strongly support an assault rifle ban because these guns do damage to people. And so many people say that, you know, guns are not the problem. I know firsthand what guns can do. I have seen the damage that it did to my sister. It's not just people; guns are a problem as well. So I support this ban because I've seen what an assault rifle does.
I've seen the holes that it leaves in a person's body. It's not fair that anyone ever has to go through that. I also strongly support a background check because I never knew until this happened that I can own a gun and sell it to my neighbor, and never have to go through a background check. You know, that is unreal because how does anyone know what their neighbor has done, in their past? How do you know they don't go around and hurt their children, or hurt their wife, and - you know, they're getting this gun because one day they're just going to snap? You know, we have to do something to protect everybody.
MARTIN: Do you have any thoughts about - and again, I know you're not an expert in this - why it is that we seem to be having such a hard time coming to any agreement about this? Any thoughts about that?
SOTO: My personal thing is - and this is just from personal experience, and I'm not an expert, like you say. But I know so many people who are so upset with me for speaking out on this cause, and what I'm saying.
MARTIN: They are?
SOTO: Yes. There's a...
SOTO: Because they feel that I'm trying to take away the Second Amendment, and I know a lot of people have felt that that's something, like, Obama's trying to do. And I don't think people are seeing that no one's saying you can't go and get a handgun; and no one's saying you can't get an assault rifle, if you want. There are certain assault rifles that are put into this assault rifle ban. It's not even every single one of them. There's a certain amount that is - and if it's something you choose to have, you can still get one; and you still have the right to bear arms. You just have to abide by certain rules, and you have to go through a background check.
And I think a lot of people misunderstand what is actually getting done. And they're not looking at everything and reading everything. They hear that we're trying to ban guns, and we're trying to do this and that; and think that we're just taking away the Second Amendment.
MARTIN: Has anybody said this to you directly; or is it mainly through social media and stuff like that?
SOTO: Mostly through social media. Anything that gets said to me face-to-face is more about how Sandy Hook is a hoax. They...
MARTIN: A hoax? You mean...
SOTO: Yes. There's a lot of people out there that actually believe Sandy Hook is a hoax, that it never really happened; and that all of these families - and even me - are paid actors and actresses, to go on about this. And I've had - countless times, been told this to my face. I was at Dunkin' Donuts one day, and had someone ask why I support Sandy Hook because it never really happened. And when I mentioned that my sister was one of the people who was killed in it, they said, you're a liar. None of this happened.
And at that point, you want to just scream at them. But you just - you have to walk away because you know the truth, and you know that there's a handful of these people who think this, but there are so many who don't, and who support what you're doing.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for coming to see us.
SOTO: Thank you.
MARTIN: I'm sorry this is how we're meeting, but I am glad I met you.
SOTO: I'm glad I met you, and I'm glad I got to do this - and had this opportunity to share my story.
MARTIN: What's next for you? What's on your mind these days? I mean, I know that this is a lot, but what are you up to, if you don't mind telling me?
SOTO: This is what I'm up to. This has now been my passion, and it's now kind of like my full-time job; fighting for this change, and making sure people do not forget what happened in Connecticut because my family will never forget what happened. And that's my job - is to make sure nobody else forgets, and to keep putting it out there that I'm not going away. I'm staying here. I'm here for the long run, until something gets done.
MARTIN: Jillian Soto is the sister of Victoria Soto, one of the teachers who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of last year. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. She's visiting Washington, along with other family members of victims, to press the case for more gun laws and more gun control laws.
And once again, I want to express my sympathy to your family, to your entire family and to everybody who loved Vicki.
SOTO: Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: Please stay with us. We are going to continue our conversation about this issue. We're going to speak with journalist Paul Barrett. He's an assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. He's the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun," and he's been following the course of legislation around gun rights. That's just ahead, at TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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