Pediatrician who survived Highland Park shooting becomes activist
When Emily Lieberman heard the gunshots, her first instinct was to grab her then-5-year-old daughter.
She and 13 members of her extended family were attending the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, just as they do every year. But this time, in seconds, the lively summer celebration had unraveled into a scene of terror, as the distinct popping sounds of gunfire rang through the street.
“When you hear these pops overhead, and they’re one after the other, they sound so close to you,” Lieberman said. “You have no idea how many people are shooting or where it’s coming from. All you know is that we are under attack and people are going to die, and I hope it’s not us.”
By the time Lieberman scooped up her daughter, her husband, Elliot, and 8-year-old were already out of sight as a stampede of paradegoers swarmed the streets, fleeing for their lives.
As she tried to shepherd her child, her mother and stepfather to safety, she couldn’t get one thought out of her mind.
“All I could think about was my husband and my daughter getting shot in the back as they ran,” she said.
Lieberman, her daughter and parents sought refuge inside a single-occupancy bathroom at a winery storefront, with about a dozen others. The adults held their children in their laps, she said, so their bodies could shelter theirs.
“I was just holding my daughter, trying to prevent her from crying, telling her it’s gonna be OK, I’m going to try to protect her,” Lieberman said. “But really, it could have been anything but OK.”
In the worst way, Lieberman said she feels lucky. All 13 of her family members survived the shooting, which claimed the lives of seven people and wounded dozens of others. While they are physically unharmed, nothing is the same. Parts of life that once felt normal now come with fear and uncertainty. Something as simple as the revving of a motorcycle engine can trigger the anxiety, she said.
Lieberman continues to see the effects of the massacre unfold in her home, in her pediatric office and in the entire community, a place where she grew up and is raising her own children.
Now, as a mother, physician and mass shooting survivor, Lieberman is turning her experience into fuel for change through March Fourth, a foundation founded shortly after the Highland Park shooting to advocate for a federal assault rifle ban. She wants to reframe gun violence as a public health crisis and has worked nationwide to mobilize others in the medical profession to join the fight to end mass shootings.
“I’m a pediatrician, I’m a survivor of a mass shooting, I’m a parent of children who may be forever scarred by their experiences, and I refuse to let other families, neighborhoods, suffer,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman said she has helped recruit over 50 physicians and experts across 24 states to meet with senators and other policymakers in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6 and 7. The goal is to push for Senate Bill 736, which would impose a ban on assault weapons. The meeting will also overlap with the 10-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Lieberman first connected with Kitty Brandtner, another Highland Park native and survivor of the July 4 shooting, just about four days after the shooting. She saw a social media post by Brandtner, who shared her anger at the continued cycle of violence.
Brandtner, a mom of three, said the issue “hit home” after she was forced to protect her children — who were dressed in red, white and blue with tiny American flags ― from an active shooter. She said she felt helpless and turned to social media for answers.
“I just started asking questions like: Why can’t President Biden sign an executive order to ban assault weapons? What am I missing? Why would someone need an AR-15?” she said. “The more I posted, the more I got fired up.”
In the days following the shooting, the foundation began to take shape. When Brandtner founded March Fourth, her first mission for the group focused on organizing a rally in Washington, D.C., to call for a ban on assault weapons.
“The outrage is shared among not just parents, not just women, not just moms, but American citizens who feel unsafe in public areas, at parades, concerts and movies at schools,” she said. “It’s a choice. We don’t have to live like this.”
With the help of over 90 volunteers, Brandtner organized a march in D.C. in July, which drew over 500 people, including survivors from Highland Park and Uvalde, Texas. Emily Lieberman was one of them.
From that moment on, Lieberman said she felt compelled to do more, particularly in her role as a pediatrician.
“I went on the first trip in July more as a mother and a survivor,” she said. “While I was there, I realized that as the voice of a child advocate, that it’s inherent in my job to spread this message and help to secure change.”
With the help of her husband, Elliot, an ENT, Emily has developed a medical outreach arm of March Fourth with the goal of bringing medical expertise to the gun violence epidemic. A practicing pediatrician for nearly 10 years, Emily Lieberman said she believed physicians needed to take a more visible stance on the issue.
“While there are many coalitions, fantastic advocates, out there, there isn’t a coalition I’m aware of that is specifically dedicated to the assault weapons ban,” she said. “I think a physician’s voice on this issue is the most sensible way to prevent mass shootings.”
Elliot Lieberman said the couple turned to activism as a means of healing and coping with the trauma. The pair realized that as mass shooting survivors with medical expertise, they held a “unique voice that has not been told.”
“We’ve always felt through the years that there’s nothing that she and I cannot accomplish together if we put our minds to it, so we are determined,” Elliot said. “We feel that we know the tools and the keys to make this a successful mission.”
Emily said she wishes it hadn’t taken a firsthand encounter for her to become the advocate she is, so her children never had to witness what occurred on July 4.
But beyond her personal experience, she believes her role as a physician compels her to push for such safety measures. The obligation to protect the health and safety of the public is set from the moment someone devotes their life to medicine, she said.
“As soon as we start medical school, we swear, by the Hippocratic oath, that we will do no harm, and we dedicate our lives to protecting others and keeping them safe and healthy,” she said. “That is exactly what I intend to do, not just in the four walls of my practice, but in our nation in general.”
As a pediatrician and “child advocate,” she said this mission is even more pertinent.
While Lieberman said some criticize her for getting involved in something they see as a politically divisive issue, she said physicians have been at the forefront of other systemic public health issues. Doctors were always major players in creating a healthier public, she said.
She recalls the cholera and dysentery outbreaks of past centuries, when physicians played key roles in discovering that contaminated water and lack of proper sanitation were major causes of the illnesses. She points to car accident fatalities and said physicians have petitioned for a variety of public health initiatives, such as making it illegal to drive without a seat belt or requiring the use of car seats for children. While motor vehicle accidents remain a leading cause of death in children, the numbers have declined.
“Physician-driven implementations are what brought motor vehicle accidents off the No. 1 cause of death of children in our country,” Lieberman said.
Today, firearms stand as the No. 1 killer of U.S. children. This rise of gun violence fatalities highlights the significant role physicians could play in leading reform, Lieberman said.
While assault rifles remain the weapon of choice of many mass shooters, she acknowledges more work needs to be done to fully address the scope of gun violence. She believes that a key step right now is addressing assault weapons.
“I recognize that there is a lot of legislation and change needed to help bring down firearm-related injury as the number one cause of death in children,” she said. “I recognize that, but to me, it is simply common sense to have military-style weapons off of our streets.”
She said some people tell her that the goal of banning assault rifles on the federal level is too lofty. But she thinks back to 1994, when the United States did just that.
That year, President Bill Clinton signed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The ban prohibited the manufacture of certain semi-automatic firearms defined as assault weapons, as well as certain large-capacity ammunition magazines. The measure expired in 2004.
In July, for the first time in almost 20 years, lawmakers passed a measure to reinstate the expired federal ban. HR 1808, which March Fourth lobbied for, bans the selling, manufacturing and possession of assault weapons. The bill now goes to a vote by the Senate.
“Many of these shootings take place with assault weapons that are purchased quite quickly before the shooting takes place,” Lieberman said. “If we prevent new ones from being made and purchased, we are probably saving a lot of lives and increasing the sense of safety and security of our citizens.”
She said the upcoming December trip will bring together health care professionals from around the country, including researchers who’ve conducted studies on gun violence, physicians who survived mass shootings or trauma surgeons and ER doctors who treat gunshot wounds on a daily basis. The meetings will target specific senators who have not yet co-sponsored the bill. They need 60 votes for the bill to pass.
She said that past mass shooting survivors have taken their stories and testimonies to policymakers time and again, but they still fail to act. Bringing in data, medical expertise and scientific analysis may be the tipping point.
“Physicians bring a very analytical, data-driven approach,” Lieberman said. “As a human being, as a mother, this is a very emotional topic for me, but I can use the scientific part of my brain to say, ‘Look at these graphs. Look at this data. This is a public health crisis.’ It’s time to let physicians fix this problem.”
During the meeting, senators will not only hear about the impact of assault weapons, but see them. She said presentations will show images of bodies inflicted with wounds from these styles of weapons, which are powerful enough to “liquefy” organs. The grotesque nature of the images are purposeful, she said, saying policymakers need to see what the devastation looks like.
“A normal gunshot has a clean entry and exit wound — an assault weapon obliterates,” she said. “There’s no comparison. You can’t eat the deer that you killed with an assault weapon. You’ve just exploded the deer.”
In Highland Park, the July 4 shooting has left a community in fragments. Lieberman said her hometown always felt like an oasis from city life. The shooting acted as a reminder that these tragedies can happen anywhere.
“There is no one, no community that’s spared from this,” she said. “It really touches any and all people.”
Lieberman has witnessed firsthand the way the shooting has shaken community members in her work as a pediatrician, creating what she calls a ripple effect of damage in children. She said many of her patients who were at the parade struggle with their mental health, noticing increased anxiety over the course of day-to-day life, such as being in crowded spaces or going to school.
“I have plenty of kids who are needing therapy as part of their recovery process or have just general increased anxiety about doing basic things the child shouldn’t be anxious about,” she said.
According to Lieberman, data suggests when people experience such trauma in childhood, when their “brain architecture is still being molded and created,” it increases their risk of future health complications when they’re older. It also increases their likelihood of anxiety and depression, she said.
Parents now seek guidance from Lieberman, asking if they should find day cares with bulletproof windows or if they should send their children to school at all.
“These people were experiencing immense trauma, even if they weren’t shot, even if they weren’t injured,” she said. “They now carry with them for the rest of their lives, including my own children.”
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She said active shooting drills, now a common practice, can retrigger memories of the shooting for kids. Emily’s oldest child told her she knew to run away after hearing gunshots at the parade because of what she learned at school.
“My 6-year-old and my 8-year-old do active shooter drills in school now,” Lieberman said. “When I was growing up, I did tornado drills because you couldn’t prevent a tornado. I did fire drills because you can’t prevent that. To be doing drills on things that are easily preventable, they should just be prevented in the first place.”
She sees the ripple effect in her own household, saying her children made her promise that she would never take them to a parade again. She said she couldn’t get her daughter to ride a bus to camp.
“She was hysterically crying, ’Mommy, how do you know this won’t happen again? How do you know?’” she said. “I had a moment of realization where I was like: Oh my God, I can’t even tell my 8-year-old she’s safe at camp. Nowhere is safe.”
As the Liebermans and other medical professionals prepare to make their bid for a federal assault weapons ban, Elliot Lieberman said the fight won’t end if the bill falters.
The upcoming 10-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre makes the trip even more poignant for the Liebermans, who said they never imagined their family would be mass shooting survivors themselves a decade after the elementary school tragedy occurred.
“I am doing everything in my power to show my kids that out of tragedy can come strength and that in this house, we make change — we don’t sit back,” Lieberman said. “Instead of leaving them with the scars of what occurred that day, I hope I’m teaching them to be leaders and to make the world better.”