Susan Orfanos' son Tel was one of the victims of the Thousand Oaks shooting last November

By Christine Pelisek
April 06, 2019 10:52 AM
Susan and her son Tel
Marc Orfanos

Not long after Susan Orfanos returned from identifying her son as a victim of last November’s Thousand Oaks, Calif., shooting, a news crew pulled up to her home.

Her first thought was to ask them to leave, but her anger at what happened to her 27-year-old son  — one of 12 victims fatally shot inside the Borderline Bar & Grill — took over.

“I don’t want prayers,” she told reporters on Nov. 8. “I don’t want thoughts. I want gun control.”

Orfanos’ emotional plea for gun-control legislation went viral and she became an unintentional activist.

“I’ve never been so angry in my life — ever,” Orfanos, 59, recalls in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I just couldn’t control my rage. We loved our son. He was supposed to come home that night and he didn’t.”

Tel, an inventory manager at a car dealership and a part-time bouncer at Borderline, had gone to the bar that night to hang out with friends. It had become a sanctuary of sorts after he survived another mass shooting: the 2017 rampage in Las Vegas that killed more than 50 concertgoers at a country music festival.

“Tel mattered and all those other people matter,” Orfanos says “I can’t stay silent.”

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Since that fateful November day, Orfanos, her husband Marc and their youngest son have lobbied for stronger gun laws. They are pushing for federally mandated background checks for all gun sales.

Orfanos, who works as a project manager for an insurance company, wrote an op-ed just weeks after her son’s death, pleading for an end to the bloodshed.

“I woke up this morning realizing that Tel was one of approximately 35,000 victims of gun violence for 2018,” she wrote. “The violence must stop. We need to stop the money that FUNDS this violence. Tell your senators, your congresspeople, that this MUST stop. Go to your local Moms Demand Action meeting. DO SOMETHING. ANYTHING. NO ONE is exempt. And lightning strikes twice.”

Tel Orfanos

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Orfanos wonders if more people would have survived if the shooter, a Marine veteran, didn’t have a semi-automatic weapon and a high capacity magazine.

“What if that man didn’t have a semi-automatic weapon and a high capacity magazine?” she wrote. “Would more have escaped? Would more have survived their injuries? What if that man didn’t have a weapon at all?”

She also wonders if things would have turned out different “if we treated our military not as troops but as the protectors of our homes and families?”

“What if we provided those men and women with full support during and after their service? With financial aid and a holistic approach to their care? Their minds and hearts as well as their bodies? What if we didn’t require them to justify their needs but provided that support to them as their due? What if? Then we would not be living in this alternate, splintered life in which Tel does not.”

“I know they say it’s political,” she says. “I believe it’s a public health issue. They said it’s complicated. It’s life or death. I choose life. I would have chosen life for my son.”

Tel had grown into a good man, she says. “One of the tragedies of this is that we won’t be able to experience the man he still could become,” says Orfanos. “We miss him every minute of every day.”