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Into the Line of Fire : Rebecca Schaeffer's Death Led Her Parents to Fight for Gun Control


PORTLAND, Ore. — Since her daughter was shot to death, Danna Schaeffer hasn't thought twice about jumping into the line of fire.

Last spring, the petite woman with short red hair bounced to her feet in a suburban Oregon church auditorium filled with angry gun-control opponents. Without blinking, Schaeffer faced the crowd and said exactly what they didn't want to hear.

Earlier, the rage in the town meeting had been aimed at Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), a recent convert to the Brady bill, federal legislation that would require a seven-day waiting period for all handgun purchases. But when Schaeffer stood up, the anger arced in her direction.

"I want to commend you for your courage," she told AuCoin. "And I want you to know that the voices in this room represent a minority of the voters."

From all corners of the auditorium, outraged gasps gathered into hisses. Then a hail of boos rained down. Schaeffer's husband, Benson, sitting beside her, gazed stoically into the middle distance. Schaeffer smiled up at AuCoin.

"Were they booing me?" she asked later. "I didn't even hear it."

Danna and Benson Schaeffer can live with the booing. It's the quiet times that are hard: that first waking moment of the morning when they realize again that their daughter is dead.

"We face death every morning," says Benson, sitting with his wife on their living-room sofa. She reaches across the cushions for his hand. "Sometimes you're overcome with despair," he continues. "You never cease missing the person. The gun issue lets us focus our anger."

Sometimes the anger looms too large to focus. In 1989, Rebecca Schaeffer, their daughter, was a successful actress making her way in Los Angeles. Only 21, she had starred in the television series "My Sister Sam" and appeared in the films "Radio Days" and "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills."

Preparing to audition for a role in Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather III" on the morning of July 18, Rebecca heard a knock at her front door. When she opened the door, a gunman shot her in the chest, killing her almost instantly.

Robert John Bardo, an obsessive fan from Arizona, was accused of firing the shot that killed her. Bardo has pleaded not guilty to the crime. His trial is set to begin Sept. 25 before Judge Dino Fulgoni in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The Schaeffers' trial began the moment their daughter died.

Recovering from a child's death can be an endless process. Some couples arm their anguish with recrimination, blaming one another for the wages of fate. Eventually, many also lose their marriages. Aware of the dire statistics facing parents of murdered children, Danna and Benson worked at staying together.

And in mourning their daughter's lost life, Benson and Danna have resumed theirs with a new sense of purpose. Once relatively apolitical, they have become leaders in Oregon's gun-control movement.

Danna, a playwright who taught at the University of Portland, abandoned her academic and literary careers last year to help start a gun-control lobbying group, Oregonians Against Gun Violence. She also traveled recently to Washington to accept an award from Handgun Control, the national lobbying group, and to help lobby for the Brady bill.

Danna also plans to write a book about Rebecca's death. She's trying to write out some notes for the project, but these days she rarely has time.

"All I write now are letters about gun control," she says.

Danna Schaeffer was writing a play that morning. Sitting at her basement desk, she tapped dialogue into her computer, working from pages of notes she'd scattered across the desktop. Upstairs, the telephone rang just after noon.

Deep in her work, Schaeffer ignored the call. But 10 minutes later she went upstairs for lunch and played back the message on her answering machine. Call Tom Noonan, it said. She dialed the Los Angeles number. He was a friend of Rebecca, although Danna didn't know it then. When she introduced herself, he stammered, looking for words.

"Mrs. Schaeffer, I have terrible news for you," he said.

She didn't believe him--at least, not at first. Growing frantic, she called the hospital where Noonan said Rebecca had been taken. But the doctor in the emergency room wouldn't release any information over the telephone.

"She would only say a woman had been admitted and had died," Schaeffer recalls. "At that point I kind of knew. Then the detective called. And it was all over."

A year and a half later, Schaeffer found the notes from her play, dusty and stiff, where she'd left them on her desk. She still carries the telephone bill, the one that shows the precise moment--July 18, 1989, 12:15 p.m.--when her life changed.

The Schaeffers still treasure their past. In the living room, the mantle overflows with dozens of framed photographs, many of them souvenirs from Rebecca's fashion shoots or from her movies and TV shows. She stares down from every direction, and at first it gives the room an eerie, melancholy feeling.

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