Chiefs’ Bryan Witzmann went to Congress to fight for gun reform. 6 hours later, the Parkland shooting happened
WASHINGTON — Right before 3 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, Bryan Witzmann felt his heart break again. The Chiefs’ lineman — all 6’7, 304 pounds of him — was sitting at his desk in the office of Robin Kelly, a black Democrat from Chicago, whom he is working for this offseason. On the TV in the office, a breaking news chyron came on the screen: There had been a shooting at a school in Florida.
The death total wasn’t yet confirmed as Witzmann kept his eyes glued to a nearby screen, but soon enough he would learn that 17 people were dead at the hands of a shooter. Around him, the office’s staffers were already in motion. In an office whose agenda is often centered around gun violence and reform, they knew what to do.
And Witzmann, who started 13 games at left guard for the Chiefs this season, had a job to do as well. He manned the phones, dealing with the uptick in constituent calls. He assisted in office fact-checking before Kelly gave a speech this night on the House floor.
Witzmann is in D.C. as a part of an NFLPA externship program that provides experience outside of the league for active players in the offseason, and one of the reasons he wanted to work for Kelly was he felt so passionately about gun reform in America.
“You can see that this is exhausting,” Witzmann says. “It’s exhausting when the other side doesn’t give any ground up. They’ve stayed there through Newtown and all of these events.” He sighs deeply. “It’s shocking to see this happen again, but, it’s tough being in an office on the forefront of gun reform, watching the events happen, wanting to fight, and knowing nothing might not change.”
Drained at the end of the day, Witzmann headed back to his temporary Washington apartment near the White House. By the time he was home, Kelly was heading to the floor, where she would speak slightly after 9 p.m. that night. She pushed for Congress to act or to, at least, remember the same fear from last summer when a shooter walked to a morning softball practice, took aim at House members, and fired 70 rounds.
“Do you remember the terror you felt as grown men on that baseball field?” Kelly said. “Well imagine our young people in that school, in our neighborhoods, at a concert, at a park. Despite your words and prayer, you have proven over and over, you don’t care about anyone but yourselves and your contributions.”
When you’re in Washington, fighting for gun reform in a short, three-week externship, you tend to be in a hurry. Witzmann usually rises around 6 a.m., lifts with his roommate, Cole Toner, a lineman for the Chargers, and then hails a cab to the Capitol.
In the days after the Parkland shooting, constituent calls came pouring in. Voters talked to Witzmann about guns from all sides, arguing that guns should go or that guns should stay, that guns are safe in the right hands or that guns kill too many people, regardless of the owner. People consistently asked that their Second Amendment rights not be infringed.
“It’s like they have a playbook,” he tells me.
And some of their arguments puzzle Witzmann.
“It’s crazy to me that there’s some Second Amendment people that think gun reform is taking your guns,” he continues. “It doesn’t meant that. It means being a responsible country that takes care of people and schools by having legislation that is good for the majority of America. Nobody is taking anyone’s guns. Nobody is saying you can’t hunt or protect yourself. They’re just saying you might not need an AR-15.”
It’s these thoughts that brought Witzmann to Washington. And while he feels passionately, he is a measured man. He doesn’t answer many questions if he cannot provide a stat to back it up. His speech is precise, careful. He’s a Wisconsin boy by way of South Dakota State University, a Jackrabbit that saw his father, his friends and college teammates adore the spoils of 6 a.m. Midwestern pheasant hunts.
As the football locker room has acknowledged politics more readily in the last two years than perhaps ever before, Witzmann has had conversations with teammates about gun violence and the reforms necessary to save lives. He enjoys those conversations, but doesn’t make an effort to push for them at his place of work.
He’s a calculated reformer who seeks to gather his viewpoint from hearing multiple sides, which is how he grew into being an Independent.
“Even if it’s far-fetched and doesn’t make sense to you, it still does you justice to try and understand where they’re coming from,” Witzmann says. When I point out that the right wing doesn’t always want to seem to want to listen, he offers a compromise: “Ninety percent of the country wants gun reform, but it can’t get passed in Congress.”
I look up at him. “There’s a reason for that.”
Witzmann rolls his eyes and chuckles, sliding deeper into a plush couch in Kelly’s office. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “I don’t know how you vote against that. This is a universal issue. If a rational person sits down and thinks about it, it should be a rational thing to come to by looking at the facts.”
I ask, in jest, if the government should take away all guns from Americans.
“People should still be able to own guns, protect themselves with guns, it goes against our constitution,” Witzmann says. “But rational reform doesn’t.”
“What about just AR-15s?” I ask.
Witzmann pauses. He says he doesn’t know enough to give an informed answer. It fits into his stated need for facts and numbers before offering responses. But, it doesn’t make sense that a man positioning himself as a reformist on this issue doesn’t have a stance on a weapon that was previously banned in 1994 after it was used in a string of mass murders.
I ask him again.
“Should AR-15s be banned?”
“There’s a very good possibility [they] should be,” Witzmann says. It seems he realizes his calculated approach isn’t always the best for situations like these. If he’s going to win the argument against opposers to gun reform, he must also ask the same questions of himself.
“You gotta look yourself in the mirror,” he says. “Is your skepticism greater than those kids?”
“Athletes have that power and sway,” Kelly told me of Witzmann. “They are people, too. They pay taxes, too. It just so happens they play football. They have the right to speak up just like I have the right to speak up.”
The day Witzmann and I finish lunch he hears his phone ring across the office and jogs back to his tiny wooden desk. Panelists fill a nearby TV screen in a heated discussion. As they talk about bump stocks and the aftermath of Parkland, a moderator cuts them off.
News is erupting that seven San Francisco Police officers fired 65 shots at a suspect in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle. Witzmann springs back to action. It’s happening again. America’s gun problem isn’t going to go away. It merely pauses for a moment, before springing up elsewhere. There is another attack, another news segment about the outrage. More prayers are offered, and then the stories change, and are forgotten.