Rep. Jackie Speier on how Jonestown changed her life

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“It is irrational that we as a country are responsible for the highest percentage of deaths due to gun violence — that we don’t have just rational laws around gun violence prevention. We’ve got to become much more compelling in terms of dealing with this issue,” she told Press Play.

“Everyone has a right to own a gun. They don’t have a right to own an assault weapon, and have more firepower than law enforcement.”

Speier at an Assault Weapons Ban Press Conference. Photo courtesy of Speier. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Speier’s strong position on gun control was partly spurred by her own harrowing experience of getting shot in 1978. At the time, she was a young lawyer working for San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan. She had been given the opportunity to join a fact-finding mission to the infamous Jonestown commune, where thousands were being held against their will, and hundreds were be poisoned to death. “Our greatest fears had been realized,” said Speier.

Jackie Speier and Rep. Ryan. Photo courtesy of Speier (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Speier’s group was trying to flee the compound when they were ambushed. Rep. Ryan and four others were killed, but Speier survived. “I was shot five times at point blank range. I had been playing dead. So the right side of my body had just been hit, and my eye looked down, and my right arm had a bone jutting out, and my leg had a hole the size of a football in it. And I thought, oh my god I’m dying,” she said.

When she returned home, after months of intensive care, she ran for Congressman Ryan’s seat. “As much to continue his legacy as to make it be an emotional form of therapy to get me out of my focus on myself and my pain and suffering,” she said. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being a victim of Guyana.”

The event would stay with her through decades of public life. “I made a commitment to myself that I would live every day fully, that I would commit my life to public service.”

Speier has been in Congress for a decade. She says that following the midterms, she looks forward to working again. “I must say that California knows how to legislate, and Washington does not. Hopefully we’ll change this with the Democrats taking over the House again… We owe it to the American people. They’re really sick and tired of what has been a do-nothing Congress.”

Speier’s new book is Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back.