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October 22, 2014

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The legacy left by a bullet

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Before Monday morning I hadn’t seen Matt Gross in more than 15 years. That last time, in the spring of 1997, I’d watched as someone tried to teach him to shave. Reteach, I should say. Matt was then 28 and had once known how, but you lose things — memories, skills — when a bullet tunnels through your brain.

The one that tunneled through Matt’s destroyed about half of his left frontal lobe. This happened at the Empire State Building. I’m not talking about the shooting there this year, on the sidewalk, but about the prior one, on the Observation Deck. We’ve now had so many gun-related blood baths in this country that we’re into reruns.

Matt was clean-shaven when I reconnected with him. Somewhere along the way, he told me, he’d figured out anew how to use a razor, though he can’t recall when.

But he recalls Friday. He recalls the news from Newtown, Conn., to which he paid rapt attention.

“They’re saying that this is the 9/11 of shootings in this country,” he observed, laughing a bitter laugh. “The 9/11 of shootings happened years and years and years ago.”

He meant that there have been massacres aplenty to rouse Americans from their complacency and lawmakers from their torpor. And yet ... nothing.

“It’s a travesty,” he said.

Matt was shot by a immigrant who illegally bought a semi-automatic handgun in Florida using a motel room as his address. He killed one of Matt’s best friends and injured five people in addition to Matt.

Afterward, Matt, his two brothers and his parents allowed me into their lives for a story in The New York Times about his vibrant past and uncertain future. He’d been a force of nature: the president of the student council at Montclair High School in New Jersey; a double major at Bennington College; the lead vocalist in a progressive rock band, the Bushpilots, that was just starting to make some headway in Manhattan.

If you’d told me back when I was chronicling his recovery that 15 years later, gun laws in this country would be less stringent, not more, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But that’s the case, despite what happened on the Observation Deck and then at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, in Aurora.

In 2004, the federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation allowing concealed guns in national parks. Between the mid-1990s and today, the number of privately owned guns in this country is believed to have risen to about 270 million from nearly 200 million. And the number of states with prohibitions on carrying concealed firearms dropped to one from seven. Illinois remains the holdout, but perhaps not for long: a court just struck down its ban.

Matt, meanwhile, has been trying to piece together a new life. In most ways he’s made an astonishing comeback, his reading skills sharp, his speech articulate, his guitar playing fluid.

But his memory is spotty, his energy diminished, his concentration flawed and his self-expression labored. “In the last 16 years, I’ve written maybe four songs,” he said. “I used to write four a day.”

He has off-kilter emotional reactions, laughing at things that are sad and crying when there’s no cause to. He’s sometimes blunt in unintended ways.

Dating used to be easy but isn’t anymore. He’s at once wholly aware that he has a different personality and utterly unable to retrieve the old one. He said he missed it.

Now 43, he shares a state-subsidized apartment with another man who suffered a brain injury, and he takes a special bus three days a week to a job at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, where his chores include pest control and sweeping floors. That’s where I spoke with him.

He wishes he could afford a place of his own. He wishes he could perform “Jingle Bells” — which he will, at the food bank’s holiday party — without a sheet of lyrics.

The shooting, he said, “ruined my life. I wouldn’t be working here. I’d be putting out albums. I’d be touring the world.” His voice was matter-of-fact.

“A lot of what he was has been taken forever,” said his older brother, Dan, the current president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But what’s left, Dan said, “is pretty amazing.”

That includes a son, age 7. Matt fathered him for an unmarried family friend who “knew that I was talented and funny,” Matt said. “And the kid is all of those things.” Matt showed me a picture of the thin blond boy, who now lives in California, and beamed.

Dan, noting that Matt’s struggles have nothing to do with heredity, said: “To all of us, and I hope to him, there’s some deep fulfillment in the fact that the stuff that made him great is being passed along in pure form to this new life.”

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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