They are, sadly, growing in number: Americans devastated by gun violence. The connections they've forged are strong. But can they defeat the NRA?
Story by Wayne Drash, Jessica Ravitz and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Video by Tawanda Scott, CNN
Photographs by John Loomis for CNN

Their personal families are shrinking, while their ranks are growing: Families whose loved ones have been killed or wounded by guns.

They vow this time is different. They're no longer a loose patchwork of grass-roots groups that emerge after the latest mass shooting -- only to get outspent by the NRA's war chest, their hopes for "common sense" gun measures dashed.

The Loneliest Club

They are survivors of gun violence. But they have more than that in common. They share a conviction: to use the worst days of their lives to make America a safer place. READ MORE

This time, they have the backing of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his $50 million donation. They are Everytown for Gun Safety, which in 2014 brought under one umbrella Bloomberg's two previous gun groups, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Their focus is on field operations, to mobilize their 3 million members on this single issue and then get supporters to the polls. They steal tactics from the National Rifle Association and study other groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving that have won victories against massive industries.

They gather in cities around the country to learn how to target policymakers and stay unified. They plan rallies and organize on social media. They circle states where change is most possible. They work with the Brady Campaign and Gabby Giffords' organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, on federal legislation. They've found an ally in the White House.

They are the "other" gun lobby, unafraid of the NRA and its fervent backers.

Andy Parker took on the NRA after his daughter was killed on live TV.

The most powerful message lies within its survivors' network -- some 800 people who've had a loved one killed or wounded by a gun.

This determined crowd turns the conversation around on the most stridently pro-life conservatives: What are you doing to save the lives of America's children from gun violence?

They make lobbying one click away:

• Call your senators and demand a vote on universal background checks

• Send your condolences to those affected by the mass shooting in Oregon

• Join your local Moms Demand Action chapter

Everytown's efforts have already scored some victories. In Washington state, nearly 60% of voters supported mandatory background checks on private gun sales, closing a loophole that advocates say will keep guns from falling into the wrong hands. Oregon voters earlier this year passed a similar measure -- the sixth state to do so since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Everytown is next turning to background check ballot initiatives in Nevada and Maine.

Victories have taken shape in other forms, too.

Just this year, they defeated bills across 23 states that would have either let people carry guns in public schools or college campuses or would have let them carry concealed, loaded handguns in public with no permit and no training. They also defeated attempts to repeal universal background checks for all gun buyers in Colorado, and for all handgun buyers in Iowa and North Carolina.

Reporter Alison Parker and her cameraman were shot to death in August.

Eight states also passed laws to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

The voices of these mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters have joined forces with the likes of Amy Schumer, Julianne Moore, Yoko Ono, Rosanne Cash and Don Cheadle. Those celebrities have formed an 80-person council to advocate for awareness of gun violence.

There seems to be a renewed urgency like never before -- that enough is enough.

For those within the survivors' group, their message is punctuated by that chilling, awful day when they got the news of a slain loved one. Reliving those memories has become a permanent part of their lives. A message, they say, America must hear.

This time, they won't be silenced. They don't want to ban guns. Many pack heat themselves. They just want to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and others who may pose a danger. If enacting universal background checks saves just one life, they ask, then isn't it worth it?

And so it is through these bonds of determination they unite. Friendships are formed.

"If we have to outspend the NRA, then that's what we'll do," Andy Parker says. "We have dough behind us."

Parker was thrust into the spotlight when his daughter, Alison, a TV reporter in Roanoke, Virginia, was killed along with her cameraman, Adam Ward, on live television in August. Ever since, her father has pushed for new measures to reduce gun violence.

Lori Haas has fought for tighter gun laws since the Virginia Tech massacre.

"I have the moral high ground here," he says.

But even he's been turned away by some of the nation's political leaders, politicians, he says, who take their "cues from the NRA [rather] than trying to save lives."

"They're pro-life, but after you're born all bets are off," Parker says. "It doesn't make you feel really good."

Parker has been aided in his fight by Lori Haas, who has advocated for changes to America's gun laws since her daughter, Emily, was shot and wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead.

Parker reached out to Haas shortly after his daughter was killed when he read a quote of hers about the power of the current movement. "Our elected leaders will be booted out of office if they don't do something," she said.

The two now meet regularly. They stay at each other's homes. They've targeted Virginia lawmakers who they believe are vulnerable in November and are working to get their message out in those districts. They write op-eds. They speak on TV and radio. They share posts over Facebook and Twitter. Anything to spread the word.

"The connection is purposeful, but it's also very, very personal," says Haas.

Just this week, Parker and another survivor posed questions on Facebook for the Democratic candidates debating on CNN in Las Vegas.

"As president, will you commit to working towards requiring background checks for ALL gun sales?" Parker asked. Erica Lafferty Smegielski, whose mother was killed at Sandy Hook, wanted to know what three things the candidates would do as president to keep other families from experiencing her pain.

Emily Haas was shot and wounded during the 2007 attack that killed 32.

"The NRA has a 30-year head start on us, but we're catching up now," says Parker. "That's why I have reason for hope."

Haas says there was little in the way of support after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. At times, she felt alone in her despair to take on the gun industry. Those days are over: "We now have a platform."

"Everything about the movement has just grown and grown and grown," she says.

Don't mistake their grief as a pity party. Their determination remains unwavering. Undying.

"We are pissed off and we want to do something about this," Parker says.

The war for them starts in their home state of Virginia. They've begun drawing up proposals to strengthen what they say are loose gun measures. They've earned the backing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Winning in the state where the NRA is headquartered, they say, would be monumental.

"The fun is about to start," Parker says.

-- Wayne Drash, CNN

Erica Lafferty Smegielski and Jenna Yuille
Tale of two daughters

Erica Lafferty Smegielski, left, and Jenna Yuille lost their mothers to gun violence.

Their mothers were killed three days apart, in shootings that made national news. Not long after, they both began working to change gun laws.

But it was more than two years before they finally met, during an advocacy training program for survivors in New York.

Participants were gathered for an informal dinner, sitting in a circle and telling their stories. When it was Jenna Yuille's turn, she wept as she spoke.

As she did, Erica Lafferty Smegielski broke down -- "those big ugly sobs," she says, which continued as she hugged Yuille later.

"I didn't know this at the time, but apparently [Erica] was known for being very strong, never crying and just amazingly always holding it together," says Yuille.

"I'd never met someone who'd been so impacted in such a similar way," says Smegielski. "It hit too close to home for me."

Their connection has only grown since then.

"There's a certain drive between us," says Yuille. "We so want to change things for our moms."

It was December 11, 2012, when Yuille lost her mother to gun violence.

A masked gunman armed with a stolen AR-15 semi-automatic rifle entered a Clackamas, Oregon, mall and fired off more than 60 rounds. Cindy Yuille, a hospice nurse who'd spent her life caring for others, was killed -- along with another man. The shooter then took his own life.

Sandy Hook principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung was killed in the 2012 rampage.

Three days later, on the opposite side of the country, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed six adults and 20 children. Among them was Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the school's principal and Smegielski's mother.

Just that morning, Smegielski had been texting with her mother about her upcoming wedding. They'd picked out the strapless white, long-tiered taffeta gown Smegielski would wear. Now she sent her mother a photo of custom teal-colored Converse sneakers with the words, "Wedding shoes!"

"You're not going to really wear those, are you?" her mother typed.

No stranger to her daughter's nontraditional ways, she must have already known the answer. She added a smiley face, one with a wink and a tongue sticking out.

"Yeah. Yeah I am," Smegielski, 30, remembers replying. "I never heard back."

Seven months later, as Smegielski prepared to walk down the aisle on her wedding day, she rushed off to the nearby cemetery with her grandmother, sister and cousin. She needed a picture with her mother.

Wearing a veil, the dress they'd selected together and those Converse sneakers, she bowed down to kiss her mother's headstone, a moment that was photographed and stays with her always.

"If the closest thing I could get was a piece of granite in the ground, that's what I was going to do," Smegielski says.

Yuille, too, treasures an image with her mother.

She holds tight to a photo from her college graduation, taken a year and a half before her mom's death. Around Yuille's neck, and atop her green University of Oregon gown, is a collection of cords, each one representing an honor she'd earned. Her mother stands beside her beaming.

"I miss her every day," says Yuille, 26, who works in communications for Nike in Portland. "I think about how proud she'd be of everything I'm doing."

Yuille's commitment to reducing gun violence kicked in early. A friend in politics began making connections for her. She testified at hearings. She wrote op-eds and did media interviews. She got involved in statewide elections and helped start Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership. And from the moment she was introduced to Everytown for Gun Safety, she was on board with the cause.

Cindy Yuille was murdered by a gunman who opened fire at an Oregon mall.

Smegielski couldn't return to the job she had before the Newtown shooting. Growing up with a mother who was a special ed teacher, then an administrator, schools had always been her safe place. So she gravitated to that world and worked as a college admissions counselor. After the massacre at Sandy Hook, that sense of safety was gone.

The more involved she got in gun violence issues, her comfort in other places disappeared, too. She won't go to movies and will only rent them. She avoids grocery shopping at all costs. That's what online delivery services are for, if her husband doesn't do it. She's not sure she can bring children into this world -- not just because her mom, who was her best friend, won't meet them but because the staggering statistics of gun violence terrify her.

"I have to make accommodations in my life because people are killed every day," Smegielski says. "It's not a matter of if it will happen again, it's what town will it be? I have too much life left to take chances."

For two years she's made this cause her profession. Smegielski, who lives in Prospect, Connecticut, is a senior outreach associate for Everytown for Gun Safety. She was in New York training survivor advocates when she and Yuille met.

The commonalities extend beyond losing their mothers to gun violence just days apart and being so close in age. Neither of them had close relationships to fathers or stepfathers. Their mothers were their parents, and their family support systems are small.

Though Yuille has a stepbrother 10 years younger, she was raised an only child. Smegielski has just one sibling, an older sister, who is married with kids. Besides her, her grandmother, her husband and his family, that's it for Smegielski.

They've discussed spending the holidays together. They also think about coming together around the anniversaries of their mothers' deaths so they can celebrate the women who raised them.

They can talk without judgment. They can discuss the merits of antidepressants or anti-anxiety pills without shame. They can lean on each other when new shootings make headlines and, as Yuille puts it, "It feels like it's happening all over again."

In spite of the miles that separate them, they vow to be there for each other as life goes on without their mothers.

-- Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Lucy McBath and Sharon Risher
The mother and the minister

Lucy McBath, left, reached out to the Rev. Sharon Risher after the Charleston shooting.

She weeps whenever she hears of another shooting, but the news out of Charleston, South Carolina, this summer brought Lucia "Lucy" McBath to her knees.

Learning that a gunman's rampage at a Bible study left nine dead made this woman of God crumble.

"I was devastated, as if it had happened to me," McBath says. "I cried myself to sleep."

The Rev. Sharon Risher was struggling, too. Details were trickling in, but the trauma chaplain was at work in a Dallas hospital, far from the city where she grew up. She had to pull it together to tend to a grieving family before she could focus on her own fears.

She hoped the early reports were wrong and that her momma, Ethel Lance, was OK. Her mother was a faithful member of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Calls to Lance's cell phone went unanswered, though, and she understood.

"I knew she was gone because there would have been no other place in the world she would have been," says Risher, who also lost two cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, in the attack.

Risher at her seminary graduation with her mother, Ethel Lance, who was killed in Charleston.

In Atlanta, McBath picked up her pen and got to work. She's a faith and community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, and writing letters to survivors of gun violence -- including relatives of victims -- is a role she embraces.

She knows the importance because she's been on the other side. In 2012, McBath's only child, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station during a dispute over loud music. She was flooded with cards, emails and Facebook messages -- and she's saved them all.

"That's part of Jordan's legacy," she says.

But no one who wrote had suffered as she had. For Risher, she could be that person.

"Nobody can understand what you're feeling and thinking other than someone who's really been through it," says McBath, 55. "I, as a victim, understand completely."

Risher's mother was the first victim buried after the Charleston shooting. Risher stayed in her hometown for the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and Emanuel's pastor. Thousands attended, and President Barack Obama gave the eulogy.

After that, she'd had all she could take of funerals. Back home in Dallas a few days later, she was greeted with a pile of letters and cards, forwarded to her by the Charleston church fondly known as Mother Emanuel. One envelope stuck out because Risher's name was written along the side. Inside she found what she didn't yet know she needed: a two-page handwritten letter with words of sympathy, the story of McBath's own heartache, an outstretched hand in support -- and a personal phone number.

Risher wasn't the only one in need. For McBath, the work she does for Everytown for Gun Safety -- and as a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America -- is a source of comfort for herself as well. She's helped promote two documentary films that feature her and her son's stories -- "3½ minutes, 10 bullets" and "The Armor of Light." She's testified at hearings, spoken at summits, lobbied legislators, created a foundation in her son's name and more.

"We're trying to sort of shove the pain away a bit and work through the pain," she says of survivors like herself. "But then, when I slow down, it comes crashing down on me. ... Two weeks ago, I had a day when I was weeping all day because I missed my boy so much."

Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville, Florida, in a dispute over loud music.

After reading McBath's letter, Risher didn't hesitate. She grabbed her phone and began to dial. That first conversation was more tears than talk.

"She was just pouring out her heart," says McBath. "And I was crying because I hate the fact that she has to go through this."

In one another, they say they've found a kindred spirit. They relate not just because they've endured similar sorts of shock and pain but because they are both African-American, God-fearing women.

And while race played a part in the shootings that robbed them of loved ones -- in Charleston the gunman wanted "to start a race war," while in Jacksonville the shooter claimed self-defense and reportedly described Davis and his friends as "thugs" and "gangsters" -- they insist the problem is bigger than that. They want the conversations to be about gun safety, first and foremost.

Risher, 57, is just stepping into the role of activist. She's attended several Everytown for Gun Safety gatherings in Washington and has spoken to media. She thanks God for sending McBath her way. While her own children and others are there for her, McBath offers something no one else can.

"She's been a constant beacon," Risher says. "She's just grabbed me into her bosom and said, 'I'll be here for you spiritually and emotionally, even if I can't be there for you physically.'"

Whether it's quick text messages, phone calls or face-to-face meetings, their connection endures. They've created a safe space for each other. Sometimes they talk about wanting to escape for a girls' weekend, a chance, as McBath puts it, to "breathe the air outside the tragedy." Risher imagines someplace warm, where they can "sit on the beach and drink drinks with umbrellas in them."

Someday they'll get there, but for now there's too much work to be done.

-- Jessica Ravitz, CNN

DeAndra Yates and Diana Alvarado Rodriguez
'From so much pain, there's triumph'

Diana Alvarado Rodriguez, left, was drawn to DeAndra Yates after reading about her son.

DeAndra Yates pounded on the hotel door next to hers. Diana Alvarado Rodriguez, the woman she considers a sister, answered. It was the middle of the night.

"Girl, what's going on?" Rodriguez said.

"My son!" Yates cried. "He's sick and he's been rushed to the hospital."

Yates had been awakened by a call that took her back to the moment she learned her boy had been shot at a birthday party.

That was more than 1½ years ago. The shooting left Dre a quadriplegic at 13.

Now, the voice on the other end of the line was telling her Dre had suffered two seizures, one lasting 20 minutes.

He needed to be taken from a hospital in Carbondale, Illinois, to a more specialized children's hospital in St. Louis.

His condition was critical.

Yates was hundreds of miles away in Denver, at a conference earlier this month with Rodriguez and other members of the Everytown for Gun Safety Survivor Network.

They had talked about the power of uniting, how to organize and spread their message. How to lean on each other when dark moments strike.

In Rodriguez's hotel room, Yates broke down. Consumed by self-doubt, she wondered: Why did I leave my son's side? How am I going to get back to him?

Dre Yates was shot at a birthday party; the bullet left him a quadriplegic.

Rodriguez immediately swung into action. She rounded up other members of what she calls Team Dre. "We were able to put to practice what we were being taught," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez knows pain. Her 18-year-old daughter, Samantha Guzman, was shot and killed as she walked home from a party with friends in the Bronx on Mother's Day 2006.

Soon, about six people were gathered in Rodriguez's hotel room. Rodriguez and another woman prayed, while others began booking flights. They weren't going to let Yates fly home by herself. Rodriguez would escort her to the hospital and stay until family arrived.

"I was scared to death. I didn't know what was going to happen to my son," Yates says. "That's the power of the network and the power of the connection that she and I have on a personal level."

"That was an honor," adds Rodriguez. "It's about being compassionate, about being there for the person when they need you. That's what I wanted: I wanted to be there for her."

The two women have been constant companions since meeting over Facebook about a year ago. Rodriguez was drawn to Yates after reading posts about caring for her son. A bullet had entered the back of Dre's head and left the former middle school football star using a wheelchair, unable to speak. Success these days is measured by incremental victories, like seeing him smile.

Rodriguez's daughter, Samantha Guzman, was killed walking home from a party.

"It was beautiful -- and it was somebody who had survived. Not too many of our children are surviving this mess that's going on," Rodriguez says. "For me, that was something special because I have always thought: What would've happened if my daughter would have survived?"

When her daughter was killed in 2006, Rodriguez had to figure out how to grieve by herself. There were not many groups for people with loved ones killed by gun violence. Certainly, none reaching out to her at the height of her pain.

She knew the turmoil Yates was suffering. Ever since they connected, they've spoken by phone and texted daily. It's a shared camaraderie that only these families know, a pain so great it reaches into the depth of the soul.

"We share tears and we just talk, you know," Rodriguez says.

Yates felt that instant connection, too. When Rodriguez rests her hand on Yates' shoulder, you can see the love the two share. It radiates from their faces. When they speak, they finish each other's sentences. Yates wears a purple and black bracelet for Rodriguez's daughter Samantha. Rodriguez wears a beaded bracelet for Dre.

Just a week before Dre's recent hospitalization, the two shared monumental joy: Dre had walked on a treadmill for the first time since being shot. Now, he was struggling to live.

Yates couldn't have gone through the ordeal without her best friend and the others who support her.

"My son is still struggling with his disabilities, and everyone else has lost their children. People are like: 'Wow, her son is alive, but look at what she's having to go through.' It opens up other survivors' minds -- that this is an everyday battle.

"And for me, I look at them and say, 'I know it's hard for me, but it's even harder for them because they can't even touch or see their child.'"

Rodriguez and Yates vow nothing can break their bond. Don't tell them America's gun laws can't be changed. Because the fact is, Rodriguez says, "Something's gotta be done. The violence needs to stop."

But, Yates adds, "We are learning that something greater is coming out of it. ... From so much pain, we have found triumph."

-- Wayne Drash, CNN

Tom Sullivan and Jane Dougherty
'Superman' and the dressmaker

Tom Sullivan "is our tough guy," says Jane Dougherty. "I'm the heart."

At home, Jane Dougherty is a mother, wife and bridal dress maker in Littleton, Colorado. But when she talks about the need for tighter gun laws, she speaks as a woman who lost her sister to gun violence.

Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist and Dougherty's older sister, was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut.

Dougherty is often joined in her activism by Tom Sullivan, who lost his son, Alex, in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre five months earlier.

A retired postal worker, Sullivan says he represents the fathers and "lunch bucket guys" who try to do everything right and keep their families out of harm's way, only to find that gun violence is random.

Together, they make a formidable pair when they call on Colorado lawmakers to support universal background checks and gun restraining orders for domestic abusers and the mentally ill.

"He's our tough guy. He's the one calling legislators out," Dougherty says. "I'm the heart. I can make legislators cry."

And they have each other's back.

The two were at the Colorado State Capitol in 2014, waiting outside a committee room to testify, when a man wearing a brown robe emblazoned with gun patches approached Dougherty and started ranting.

"Your sister should've had a gun," she remembers him saying. "If she had a gun she could have shot that guy."

Alex Sullivan was killed in the Aurora massacre while celebrating his birthday.

Sullivan stepped in and yelled for guards to let Dougherty enter the room and escape the confrontation.

"He was there for me," she says. "He'll always be my Superman."

Dougherty and Sullivan met at a rally in Denver on the first anniversary of the Aurora shooting. Her sister's death 2,000 miles away inspired Dougherty to work for stricter gun laws in her home state, and Sullivan knew of her activism. They became fast friends, joining Facebook groups for gun violence survivors and getting to know each other's families.

News stories often refer to Sullivan's "superhero-like" insistence on creating positive outcomes from shootings. It's part of his "Irish DNA," Sullivan jokes. "We're kind of built for death and problems in our lives."

Sullivan and his son bonded over superheroes during regular trips to All C's Collectibles, a comic book store just down the road from where James Holmes killed Alex and 11 others at a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises." Alex was there with friends to celebrate his 27th birthday.

In the wake of the shooting, Sullivan joined forces with Jason Farnsworth, owner of All C's, to launch Aurora Rise -- a Batman-themed charity that provides financial and moral support to Aurora survivors.

Sullivan also uses his postal service past to reach out to labor unions, a group he says is "not our friend on gun violence prevention issues."

The son of Air Force parents, his family moved around before settling in Rochester, New York. He grew up playing sports instead of hunting and fishing. After he joined the Air Force, he picked up a firearm just once -- during basic training.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Terry, and they moved to Colorado in 1980. He got a union job delivering express mail so he could someday retire with a pension. He worked hard to provide for his wife and "Irish twins," Alex and daughter Megan, born 15 months later.

He raised Alex to play by the same rules. Alex wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was killed, his father says. "He was right where he was supposed to be, at the movies, celebrating his birthday with his friends."

Sullivan thought he had done his part to protect his family, and he assumed the gun industry was doing theirs to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

Then he sat through the trial of his son's killer and was alarmed to learn how easy it was for Holmes to assemble his artillery unnoticed: He had 4,000 rounds drop-shipped to the FedEx near the coffee shop where Megan worked; he periodically showed up at a shooting range with a trunk full of ammo for practice; he spent $11,000 in three months on firearms, tear gas, ammo and body armor.

Dougherty's sister and school psychologist Mary Sherlach was killed at Sandy Hook.

Nobody connected the dots.

"We have a whole section of the government that's supposed to be watching for terrorists coming, and it's pretty clear a terrorist could be sitting right here and order all the ammo he wants," Sullivan said.

"You come to learn that it's run by an industry whose only interest is to make money, sell more guns and keep the public scared."

Before the shooting, Sullivan was a sports fan, another passion he shared with his son. After July 20, 2012, "that stopped." Now he's a news junkie, and fighting to change gun laws has become his life.

It's much the same for Dougherty. Like Sullivan, guns were not a part of her life growing up in Binghamton, New York, the fourth of five children. Now, she admits it's an obsession, a promise she made to her sister on the day of her funeral.

A graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Dougherty built a successful business designing wedding dresses -- first by word of mouth in Westchester County, then again in Colorado. It's the other half of what she wryly calls her "sad reality show" life: "guns and brides."

The first time she thought about gun violence was December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was gunned down outside his Central Park West home. She was living in Manhattan at the time, and it felt close to home.

After she moved to Littleton with her first two children in 1992, gun violence continued to swirl around her, getting closer and closer.

First came Columbine, in 1999. She remembers filling up her car at a gas station on the road to Columbine High School when police cars zipped past, sirens screaming. Her children's two schools were locked down.

Then, in 2010, a gunman opened fire outside Deer Creek Middle School, where her youngest daughter, born in Colorado, once attended. Two students were injured before her daughter's former math teacher tackled the gunman.

Dougherty was in her workshop, sewing dresses for clients, when she learned about the shooting at Deer Creek. She was putting the final touches on her daughter's wedding dress in her workshop when she learned about Aurora on TV.

It's also where she was when she got the phone call from her husband saying there'd been a shooting in Connecticut.

She knew that gun violence had finally caught up with her family.

The last time she'd seen Mary alive was that August, at the wedding of Dougherty's daughter. Married for 31 years with two children of her own, Mary had flown in from Connecticut. Though the sisters spoke often by phone, it was a rare reunion, so Dougherty sat Mary at the family table.

"I was selfish and I wanted her at my table because I never get to see her," Dougherty says. "I'll always remember her walking in my house and giving her a hug in my foyer."

Dougherty has found solace and solidarity with the survivor community. They're like family, which is why she jumped at the chance to help Sullivan's daughter prepare for her own wedding. It would fall during the trial of Alex's killer. Perhaps she could make it easier on them.

After seeing Megan write on Facebook about problems find a wedding dress, Dougherty reached out, reminded her she worked in bridal and invited her to the shop.

Jane Dougherty with her sister on Mary's wedding day in 1981.

Megan came in with her mother, Terry, and chose an A-line strapless dress. Dougherty customized it with a netted neckline and added pearl buttons from Terry's wedding dress up the back.

While working on Megan's dress, she couldn't help but think of the first bridal gown she made. It had been in 1981, when she was still in New York. It was for her sister Mary.

"I was just so happy that Megan was smiling," Dougherty says. The dress was her gift -- from one surviving sister to another.

-- Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

Guns in America