Keeping children safe from guns

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John Johannessen and daughter Shanelle, who survived a gunshot to her face. John founded the nonprofit Stop Our Shootings to address gun control issues and laws. Photos by Dana Fineman / TMT

Local contractor John Johannessen works for tougher gun control laws “because no parent should have to go through what me and thousands of other parents across the country have gone through.”

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

John Johannessen said he would never forget how everything went black and white when he received the phone call at work on a sunny July day nearly 12 years ago.

“Your daughter’s been shot,” the voice said. “She’s at the hospital on life support and they’re trying to save her.”

That day and the subsequent nightmare of helping his daughter Shanelle survive the damage from the bullet that entered the left side of her neck and exited near her right ear, shattering everything in its path, led to Johannessen founding the nonprofit organization Stop Our Shootings. It was his way of fighting back against what he sees as an epidemic of gun violence in the United States.

“Nationally, 30,000 people are killed by guns each year and another 90,000 are wounded,” Johannessen said while at his Malibu office, the walls of which are lined with public service commendations and photos of him with California legislators. “In most of these shootings, the guns were illegal or had not been secured properly. Our goal is to make sure that all guns have security systems, preventing children’s access to them.”

Johannessen wasn’t always a social activist. A building contractor, he came to California from Utah when he won a contract to build the Martin Luther King Transit Center in Compton in 1987 and decided to stay. He lived in Cerritos, established a successful business and brought his family out.

But during the riots of 1992 following the acquittal of white police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King, Johannessen confronted a deep unease about his adopted city.

“I remember actually asking myself if I should buy a gun,” Johannessen said. “The riots made me think twice about where I was living. So I moved to Orange County, where there were good, safe schools and neighborhoods.”

The irony of his daughter’s shooting after moving to a supposedly secure area is not lost on Johannessen. Shanelle was 12 years old, a gymnast and aspiring model that summer of 1997. One day at a sleepover, her friend found a gun in an unlocked briefcase and decided to show it to Shanelle. The magazine was not in its chamber, so the 13-year-old believed the gun was harmless. It wasn’t.

“Even if the magazine is removed, there can be a bullet in the chamber,” Johannessen said. “The gun’s owner was a detective with the Department of Defense and he kept his gun in an unlocked briefcase!”

The teenaged friend’s frantic 911 call can be heard at the Stop Our Shootings Web site. Shanelle went through four hours of emergency surgery and years of surgical rehabilitation. When Johannessen found out that the county District Attorney Michael Capizzi was going to drop all charges of criminal neglect against the gun’s owner, he channeled his outrage into defeating the district attorney’s run for state Attorney General. Bill Lockyer won that year and went on to strengthen California’s gun safety laws.

Convinced that legislation was the only way to institute effective gun laws, Johannessen teamed with state Sen. Jack Scott of California’s 21st district, who lost his own son in an accidental shooting. Together they wrote and passed a bill requiring handguns to be manufactured so they cannot fire if the magazine is removed.

Johannessen then formed Stop Our Shootings and addressed school groups, along with Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Slicker, the first responder to Shanelle’s shooting, and who likely saved her from bleeding to death.

“As part of these workshops, we ask the students to fill out a questionnaire asking them what they know about gun safety,” Johannessen said. “Parents were shocked at the results. Half the kids had played with real guns. Half knew someone who had been shot. Thirty percent knew where their parents stored guns and 20 percent of those parents did not secure them.”

Conceding that it’s not possible to rid our society of guns, Johannessen wants to see effective trigger locks and gun safes a mandated part of gun ownership. He is partnering with Heidi Yewman, a survivor of the infamous 1999 Columbine massacre that saw 15 people (including the teenaged shooters) die at a suburban Denver high school. She has written a book, “Beyond the Bullet- Personal Stories of Gun Violence Aftermath,” which catalogues the toll of guns on American society.

Today, Shanelle is a 24-year-old mother of two children. While she assisted her father at Stop Our Shootings workshops in its early days, she said that having children is now “a full time job.”

“I try to live each day to the fullest,” Shanelle said. “Twelve years ago, I almost died and here I have two children of my own. It’s made me a more mindful person. I want to become a nurse and help hurt children. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that love is everything.”

Johannessen, who recently completed construction on actress/singer Barbra Streisand’s Malibu home, is busy with other home construction projects, but he still devotes endless hours to promoting gun safety.

“If nothing else comes of this accident, I want people to realize what happens with unsecured guns,” he said. “The only thing you can do is scare the parents. Because no parent should have to go through what me and thousands of other parents across the country have gone through.”

More information about Stop Our Shootings can be obtained by visiting online at www.stopourshootings.org