Story at a glance

  • After nine people were killed and 27 injured by a shooter in Dayton, Ohio, a community was left searching for answers.
  • Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is helping her community recover from the trauma and is advocating on behalf of gun control reform.

After Aug. 4, Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley was ready to support the residents of her city, which had just become the location of the third deadliest mass shooting of the year in the United States. She wanted to do something. 

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine came to Dayton and delivered a speech at a vigil one day after the mass shooting took place in the city’s Oregon District, where nine people were killed and 27 injured by a shooter in under one minute, the residents of Dayton spoke up. The restless crowd began chanting “Do something” as DeWine spoke, almost drowning him out, but marking the start of a new era for Whaley.

“I think the night of the vigil, the people of Dayton kind of organically rose up and said, ‘Do something’. They wanted movement on commonsense gun legislation,” Whaley says. “When your community says that, it's very clear what direction they want you to go in.”

Since the shooting, Whaley has been pressing forward in that direction. She immediately began speaking out for the need for movement in Congress on gun control legislation. In early September, Whaley, a Democrat, headed to Washington as part of a bipartisan group of mayors rallying support for universal background checks. She keeps doing her job, even when the president has been making it harder.

“This isn't a partisan issue in Dayton, it's not a partisan issue in any part of the country, except when you get to the state houses or you get to Washington, D.C.,” she says. A recent poll supports this, with 89 percent of those surveyed saying they support universal background checks for anyone looking to purchase a gun.

“It's probably the one issue where you just see such an extreme disconnect between 90 percent of the public being for background checks, and no movement happening,” Whaley says.

A long trail of trauma

As the immediate aftermath fades and day-to-day life eases into a new normal, the community has been left to figure out how to make sense of the trauma left in the wake of senseless violence. Dayton isn’t only dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting, but the destruction from 15 tornadoes that touched down on May 27, killing one and damaging more than 1,000 structures.

Dayton residents contact Whaley daily, sharing everything from artwork to personal stories. Whaley spoke of a constituent who recently messaged her on Facebook, describing how she was trying to overcome her fear of going back to college at Wright State University after having been in the Oregon District on the night of the shooting.

Whaley noted the strength of the residents and expressed how resilient they have been, saying “What is interesting to me is this shooting has made the community stronger than it was before.”

Immediately following the shooting, the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) opened a recovery and resiliency center in the Oregon District. While that was only open for a limited time, the county continues to provide support to the community.

“We know that trauma can manifest itself much later,” says Ann Stevens, a public information officer for Montgomery County ADAMHS.

The agency launched DaytonHeals.org, so residents are able to easily find support and counseling for trauma related to both violence and natural disasters. They have even erected 24 billboards advertising the website so everyone is informed. There is free counseling, Stevens said, for anyone who has any kind of connection to the Oregon District.

“We have a lot of mental health providers in the community that may be able to offer some kind of treatment and support. It doesn’t matter if you have health insurance or not,” Stevens says.

Ohio has been proactive in thinking about resilience for children, too. On Sept. 26, DeWine hosted an event on resiliency and pediatric mental health in Dayton with the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association. The event was for adults who work with children in some capacity so they can learn how to spot signs of trauma and address them.

The fight continues

As summer turned to fall, Whaley continued on the road. She is forging new relationships with groups like Giffords and deepening existing relationships with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. She continues to work with DeWine, noting that the “Do something” vigil moment may have motivated him to act. He announced a series of legislative reforms relating to gun violence and mental health treatment in Ohio the following day.

She is on the tip of the spear, making sure Dayton won’t be forgotten — although she says they are used to the feeling of being left behind, living in a noncoastal city. She clearly isn’t worried though, she knows her city after six years as mayor.

“We see really tough issues, and what I love about my city, and what I love about Dayton, is it just attacks them unflinchingly in the face. ... And I just know they're going to be this way on this issue,” she says.

Published on Nov 04, 2019