You might say that what Andrea Koller did that night in New York, and what she lived to talk about, personifies what thousands of women in red T-shirts have set out to do across the country: Protect their young.
Koller, of course, had no plans to personify, or even join, the Moms Demand Action movement against America’s gun insanity. She merely acted on a fiery instinct to stop a criminal from harming her daughter.
This happened on a Thursday night in January 2016. Koller drove from her home in Towson to a hotel near John F. Kennedy International Airport. Her daughter, Meredith Stifter, was 20 at the time, a student at Lehigh University headed for a semester abroad, in South Africa. She was scheduled to catch a flight from JFK the next morning.
Koller went into the hotel to register. Her daughter waited in her mother’s Hyundai Santa Fe. In the next instant, a white sedan pulled up, a masked gunman got out of the passenger side, forced his way into the Santa Fe and started pistol-whipping and robbing Stifter. He got behind the wheel and moved the car about 20 feet. Koller saw what was happening, ran out of the hotel and confronted the robber with a punch to the nose.
He shot her once in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.
“The responding officers had EMT training and one worked on me the whole way to the hospital,” Koller says. “I had emergency surgery to close a hole in my subclavian artery. My Egyptian immigrant doctor saved my life. I spent six days in intensive care and still deal with nerve damage throughout my chest, back and arm.
“Meredith got five stitches in her head and spent the night in police interviews. She left for her trip five days later and had a fabulous five months in classes at the University of Cape Town, seeing the country, and working at a hospital.”
Back in Maryland, Koller decided to get busy with Moms Demand Action. She and a friend founded the Baltimore chapter in September 2016. The chapter’s March 14 meeting, coming one month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, drew its biggest crowd.
“I joined Moms Demand Action because I am fed up,” Koller says, echoing the frustrations of millions of Americans who, having seen the nation’s dominant male power structure do little to curb gun violence, plan to march on Washington to demand action.
Another school shooting, in Southern Maryland Tuesday, just days before the march, is bound to heighten the sense of urgency about the abundance and access to guns. Authorities say a 17-year-old student opened fire at Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County with a 9mm Glock handgun, wounding two students before he was killed.
“The horror of a 17-year-old having access to that kind of gun should give everyone pause,” Koller says. “But that’s what happens with the National Rifle Association’s guns-everywhere agenda. … I'm sick of the NRA making our gun laws.”
Koller says police arrested her New York assailant, a parolee reportedly linked to a series of robberies near JFK.
“He got his hands on a gun and used it to terrorize people, ending with me,” she says. “He and [an accomplice] were sentenced in late 2017 and got off easy, if you ask me — 14 years for the shooter, 12 for the driver. Both were career criminals with numerous robbery and gun crime convictions, yet guns were readily available to them.”
Koller wonders where the shooter obtained the revolver. Had it been stolen? Had he managed to purchase it at a gun show? Had he obtained it in Vermont, with its liberal gun laws?
“Guns in cars, guns in nightstands, guns in backpacks and purses — the NRA's guns-everywhere agenda is destroying the country,” Koller says. “The mass shootings that now regularly occur across the country are shocking and sickening, yet an average of 96 people die from gun violence every day in this country.”
It has been a reality in Baltimore for decades, of course. And Koller knows something about that, in a personal way, from her job.
“As a teacher in the west side, I am very aware of the plague of gun violence in the city,” she says. “Students at my school have lost parents to shootings and I fear for my school families every day. My son has a friend in the Mount Clare neighborhood — when we drive him home his mother meets him at the door and slams it shut behind him.”
So Koller wears the red T-shirt of Moms Demand Action, vowing to work against “loose guns on the streets, loose attitudes toward gun violence,” and what she calls “the fantasy of arming up,” including teachers, as an answer.
She’s doing what more American adults need to do: Stand up for the next generation, protect our young.
“Moms Demand Action respects the Second amendment and the right to responsibly own and use guns,” Koller says. “But the proliferation of firearms has risen to national crisis.”