Hours before Mayra Rodriguez was shot to death in the early morning of December 6, 2015, the 19-year-old pulled her cousin, Dasie Rodriguez, aside. It was December 5, 2015, and the cousins and their best friend, Cindy Garcia, had been looking forward to a house party that evening in the northeast area of Reno, Nevada. It had been a while since they’d gone out. Mayra, a college sophomore who normally preferred a casual wardrobe, opted for a cream lace-up dress that night. With her long dark hair, Mayra said she felt like Sacagawea.
“She was just hugging me and telling me, ‘I love you so much.’ It felt different . . . it was really weird,” says Dasie, also 19. “She said, ‘I appreciate you.’ It was out of nowhere.”
At the party, Rodriguez says she and Garcia went to the bathroom for about two minutes when it happened.
“I’m opening the door, and there’s so many people huddled up around the bathroom,” Rodriguez says. “Someone said, ‘It’s Mayra.’” Rodriguez says she found her cousin lying on the floor with a shot wound on her back. She rushed toward Mayra, cradling her head and speaking to her. Mayra was unresponsive.
According to the Reno Police Department, the shooting took place about 1:30 a.m. and left two others injured. Police say several uninvited people who had shown up at the party earlier that night were asked to leave. One or more of them returned a short time later and began firing from the outside.
The tragic story of Mayra’s death from gun violence in the United States is just one of many. It's a serious national problem and at the center of fierce debates between those who demand gun control and those who defend their right to bear arms.
The conversation surrounding gun violence and ways to prevent it has magnified in recent years as countless mass shootings have rocked the country. The tragedies in Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and, most recently, San Bernardino, California, are just a few.
There were a total of 406,496 American deaths by firearms on U.S. soil from 2001-2013, according to CNN. The figure, which was compared to just 3,380 American deaths by terrorism, comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of State and covers all manners of death, including homicide, accident, and suicide.
Americans are 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a movement aimed at ending gun violence and building safer communities.
“Everything’s getting out of control,” Rodriguez says. “The crazy thing is a lot of people are getting ahold of guns. Bad people. Anyone can get a gun now and it’s just horrible . . . especially young people.”
After crime scenes are cleared and victims are laid to rest, what remains are grieving families like Mayra’s, struggling to cope.
Adriana Rodriguez says her world flashed before her eyes when she
found out her younger sister — who she affectionately called Mayrita — was
“I didn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe it until I went to my dad’s house,” says the 26-year-old Rodriguez, who took over as a maternal figure for Mayra and her other younger siblings years ago after their mother walked out on the family.
Rodriguez, who lives in Reno, said she found her father on Mayra’s bed, rocking back and forth with one of her sweaters wrapped around him. “Mi chiquita no!” he cried.
“It’s really hard to not have her around because she was the one that I would call if something great happened, if something bad happened,” she says.
Gun violence wasn’t something the family grew up around. Their father, Rodriguez explains, made it so she and her siblings didn’t have to know about issues like that.
“I feel like people can be responsible gun owners, but there’s always those few who go and shortcut their way around the process and this is the outcome,” she says. “Guns are scary no matter how responsible you are with them . . . it gets into the wrong hands more times than most.”
There have been no arrests in the case, which means there’s no real closure yet for Mayra’s family.
“Just knowing that that person who did that is still out there is really heartbreaking because that person, whoever they are, they’re just there living . . . and a good person is not here anymore,” Dasie says. “It’s heartbreaking for my whole family.”
It was a Saturday night in late November 1986, and a nine-year-old Martinez heard her grandmother receive a call with the news. The following morning, Martinez woke up to sobs and wails.
“I hear my mom’s voice, but it’s hoarse. It’s a sound I never heard before. I held onto my teddy bear . . . I knew something was really wrong,” she says. “My brother comes in and he cautiously and slowly tells me that some bad guys went into the business and now my father was going to be in heaven because he was shot by the bad guys.”
The prime suspect, a 16-year-old named Justo Santos, had fled to the Dominican Republic after the shooting. According to Martinez, Santos served time in the Dominican Republic, but she later found out he was released. In 1988, her father’s case was closed.
“I remember a lot of frustration,” Martinez says. “Now I understand how angry my mother was at some point.”
In 2006, after completing an exercise from a book titled Coach Yourself to Success, Martinez decided to do something about her father’s death.
“I’m going to find this guy and he’s going to pay for what he did to my father,” she recalls thinking to herself.
The need to find the person responsible for her father’s killing felt like a force.
“It was something that wouldn’t let me almost live because it was always around me,” she says. “I could be enjoying something, and it was like, ‘Are you really going to leave it like this?’”
After years of visits with law enforcement officials and spending late nights in grueling online searches, Martinez finally located a man in Miami whose name and birth date matched her father’s case file. Her eyes widened. She couldn’t breathe.
A judge later dismissed a murder charge against Santos because his right to a speedy trial had been violated, according to The New York Times. An indictment in Miami for Santos, however, was later obtained for charges that he provided false information to get citizenship and a passport.
Martinez, who said she’s been back and forth emotionally over the entire ordeal, described growing up without her father as a “scary void.”
“Usually I have an empty feeling in my stomach. It was something that I couldn’t even understand. I didn’t realize until recently that a part of me thought he was going to come back somehow,” she said. “Two years ago when I got the murderer . . . I was upset that I actually found someone because that means it actually happened.”
In Martinez’s eyes, the right to bear arms has become the right to kill in this country.
“The right to bear arms wasn’t meant to be the right to kill whomever I wanted. It’s crazy,” Martinez says. “My father had a gun with a permit, the way you’re supposed to have a gun. The guy with the gun, he was 16 years old — if you’re going out at 16 with a gun, you’re looking for trouble.”
Jose’s death rocked the entire family to the core, including his half-sister, Rafaela Martinez.
“He was an exemplary brother, a humanitarian,” the 60-year-old says in Spanish, her voice coated in grief even after all these years. “I know Papa Dios has to have him a in a good place because he was a good brother — that man who killed him doesn’t know what he took from us. He took a part of us.”