Julian Archer is lucky to be alive.
He knows what the surviving victims and families at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed by a lone gunman inside the school on May 24, are going through. Archer was 19 when he stopped at a Porter Ranch intersection in May of 2014. A lone gunman, later identified as Alexander Hernandez rolled up next to him, firing into his car, after Archer had dropped off his girlfriend after their prom.
He recalled the early morning streets were empty except for Hernandez, who positioned his tall truck next to him and shot at him directly downward, bent on ending the teenager’s life. Archer was shot four times, nearly fatally by Hernandez, whose killing spree occurred in April, May and August of 2014.
Last week on May 25, Hernandez was convicted of five counts of first degree murder and 11 counts of attempted murder.
In detailing his wounds and injuries, Archer, now 27 and living in Sherman Oaks with his mother Johanna Archer, said one of the four .357 magnum bullets went through the back of his neck, “about an inch from my spine.” Two others went through his shoulder. And the fourth round did the most damage.
“I got shot in the side of the ribcage. And that bullet went through my kidney, went through my liver, went through my diaphragm and through the vena cava vein (which is the largest vein in the body),” Archer said.
“It fractured my Thoracic 12 vertebrae” — located above the lumbar spinal column — “which paralyzed me from the waist down. And then, I believe, it either got lodged in my spleen or went through my spleen. [The surgeons] had to completely take out my whole spleen.”
In addition to the paralysis, Archer had lost a lot of blood when he was brought to the hospital. Subsequent surgeries and physical therapy have restored some feeling and movement, and he can walk short distances with the help of a single cane. But his spine is fused in three places. He spends most of his days fighting muscle spasms in his legs due to nerve damage — “stairs are very difficult for me, my legs feel like they’re on fire” — and relies more on a wheelchair and a specially equipped car to get around.
Archer also has nightmares, and is battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“If I’m driving at night and somebody pulls up, specifically on one side of me, then I get anxious. My heart rate increases,” he said. “I can’t speak on other people’s trauma, but for me, when I’m in similar situations like that moment when I got shot, or like people at night sobbing next to me, then I definitely have some sort of trauma with heart rate increase and things like that.”
His mother said her son works hard at staying upbeat.
“He just gets up every day being positive,” Johanna said. “He never complains. I can see some days where his eyes go a little bit darker, I ask how he’s feeling and he’s like, ‘today’s not a good day.’ You know, he maybe didn’t sleep the night before, and I can see the emotions. But he always picks himself up the next day.
“But it’s hard. It was really hard for me to see him in the hospital for three months suffering like that. He was in excruciating pain for three months. And still today, with what he’s going through, I don’t think I know if I should forgive this man. I’m not there yet.”
Still, as Archer noted, he survived his attack. Others, like the students and teachers at the Texas school, did not.
“This is super sad,” said Archer, who wants to be a teacher when he finishes college.
“Thinking about that, it’s like how do you protect these kids? I’ve always treated guns respectfully, something to protect yourself with. And having been shot, and knowing this [happened to] somebody else again, I think I’d like to have [a gun again], too. As long as they’re a part of the American culture, it’s something I think that I’d probably look into.”
Archer feels the continued escalation of gun violence in the US — the Robb Elementary School massacre was the 213th incident so far this year where four or more people were shot or killed in a single incident (not including the attacker), according to the nonprofit organization Gun Violence Archive — is not just an American cultural issue.
“I see this whole situation more as, like, a mental health problem, especially with the rise of social media,” he said, adding he’s unable to watch the continued reports of the attack in Texas for his own mental state.
“[People] are getting further away from each other than they’ve ever been before,” Archer said. “I think we need to return to more conversation and less yelling, if that makes sense. I definitely see it as more of a mental health issue than anything else.”
Johanna, who came to the USA with her son and her then husband from the Republic of South Africa in 1997, said there needs to be stricter gun laws in this country, especially when it comes to assault weapons.
“I don’t agree that [people] have to have automatic guns that shoot so many bullets. You don’t need that,” she said. “I think we should have rules and laws that you’re not allowed to buy automatic assault rifles. I don’t believe in that. I think our laws should be a lot stricter when it comes to that.”
She said she and her family had guns and rifles in South Africa because they lived in a remote part of Johannesburg.
“We were taught on the farm to use guns because we had a lot of wild dogs coming after our sheep. So we were taught how to use guns. I taught Julian how to use a gun [because] I wanted him to know how dangerous guns are,” Johanna said.
“I was taught when I was small that you keep it in a safe, that this is only for an emergency if you really need something. It wasn’t a sport; it was just because we’re out in a remote area.”
Even though she said she and her family came to the USA in part to get away from “the high crime rate” in her native country, Johanna was “not prepared” for the extent of America’s gun culture. And, after nearly losing her son to gun violence and the repetitive cycle of shootings broadcast on the news, she is firm in her belief there must be a change.
“I’m not against guns. But there should be stricter laws on who’s allowed to have a gun,” Johanna said. “We should do background searches on people like they do in Canada. Call the ex-wife of somebody who was buying a gun and ask, ‘Are you scared of this person? Do you mind if he owns a gun?’ I think that will help a lot.”
Alexander Hernandez will be sentenced on July 8. The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol will provide additional coverage in coming weeks.
Diana Martinez contributed to this article.