Editor’s Note: Forgotten Survivor

Emily Cantrell’s experience at the Vegas shooting turns into a journey to help others

By Rob Smith

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November 1, 2022

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

At first, the crowd of more than 22,000 thought they were hearing firecrackers. Then the second round began, and many realized they were gunshots.

In an instant, Emily Cantrell’s life changed forever. Fifty-nine people were killed and more than 700 wounded that night almost four years ago at an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. 

Cantrell, a Seattle resident employed as COO at Provail, a nonprofit that works with persons with disabilities, never much cared for guns. She’s now a staunch gun control and mental health advocate who is a board member at Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a Seattle-based nonprofit working to end gun violence and promote a culture of responsibility among gun owners. She has testified in Olympia. She speaks at press conferences. She gives speeches.

She cannot forget. “Time does not heal all wounds,” she says. She thinks about the shooting every day, especially the sounds of the bullets ricocheting off the metal. She felt a bullet graze her hair, “right by my ear,” as she and countless others scrambled for cover. A woman next to her went down, her leg covered in blood. Cantrell hid for several hours, eventually winding up in an airplane hangar. It wasn’t until the next morning that she and her friends, who became separated amidst the panic, realized exactly what had happened.

“It was pure chaos,” she says. “The sounds, the sights, the blood, the piles of bodies. You couldn’t tell who was alive and who was dead.”

Cantrell struggled. She cycled through six mental-health counselors within the next two years. None knew how to treat her, even experts in PTSD, because they couldn’t understand what she was experiencing. One counselor suggested they meditate together. She participated an anxiety study at the University of Washington, but says, “I quickly learned that PTSD (to most mental-health professionals) is rape or domestic violence. That sort of thing.” 

Today, her advocacy is twofold: She wants to bring some sense to America’s increasingly violent gun culture, and to emphasize that victims of gun violence are more than those who’ve lost a loved one.

“That’s why I do a lot of public speaking,” she says. “You don’t need a bullet in your body to become a victim of gun violence.”

Loud noises now spook her. The Fourth of July, once her favorite holiday, now causes painful flashbacks. She even fled the United States the past two Independence Days because of the noise. At any public event, including at T-Mobile Park to watch her beloved Mariners, she won’t sit anywhere but in an aisle seat near an exit in case she needs to flee. On opening day a few years ago, she cowered and cried uncontrollably during a post-game fireworks display. 

Washington, several other states and the federal government have since banned bump stocks like those used in the shooting, but as recently as this past August an appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld a challenge to that law. Other challenges are anticipated.

Cantrell laments that more progress hasn’t been made. She notes that the U.S. still averages two mass shootings a day. She vows to continue to tell her story and is included in an upcoming book about survivors of shootings. 

“We’re not making any progress,” she says, noting that the Supreme Court recently expanded gun rights. “We’re going backwards. If guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country in the world.”

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