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Do towns ever get over shootings?

A look at Binghamton, N.Y., four years after 14 died in a mass shooting at an immigrant center.

By George BaslerCorrespondent / March 10, 2013

David Marsland kneels next to a victims' memorial in the American Civic Association Memorial Park last month in Binghamton, New York. The park and memorial, dedicated to the 13 victims of the 2009 shooting at the American Civic Association, is due to be opened this spring.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Binghamton, N.Y.

For a solid year Jeffrey King found it nearly impossible to drive by the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., where 14 people, including the gunman, died in a mass shooting on April 3, 2009.

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The emotion was too intense for the Binghamton physician, whose mother, Roberta King, a volunteer teacher at the nonprofit agency, was one of those killed in the rampage that briefly put this small upstate New York city in the national news.

Now, nearly four years later, Dr. King can go by the building without bitterness, instead remembering how much his mother loved the agency and volunteering there. "I miss my mother every day," he says. "But, after a year or two, you move on. It's just what you do in life."

What King says for himself could also be said for the Binghamton community as a whole. While the memory of that horrible day remains strong for those closely involved, the community's focus has turned to other issues, notably the controversy over "fracking" for natural gas in the region, and recovery from major flood damage in 2011.

"There's never a time that I go by [the building] that I don't remember the worst time of my mayoral life," says Mayor Matthew Ryan. At that same time, he adds: "I don't want the community to be remembered for the shooting. It's an aberration, not who we are."

The tragedy occurred when Jiverly Wong, a mentally disturbed naturalized American citizen from Vietnam, entered the agency, which is devoted to helping immigrants and refugees, and opened fire with two Beretta handguns. Mr. Wong killed 13 people, and wounded four others, before killing himself.

After the rampage, Wong's father begged forgiveness and moved from the area. The community also raised some $270,000 for the victims' families and survivors.

But the national media's attention faded after a few days, and Binghamton is rarely mentioned in stories on gun violence. This lack of attention is resented by some of the victims' families, who wonder if the tragedy gets ignored because 11 of the 13 victims were refugees, immigrants, or foreigners.

Still, the shooting is not forgotten locally, even if it has receded from day-to-day consciousness. This spring, the community will dedicate a memorial for the victims of the shooting, located about a block away from the American Civic Association on a piece of green space donated by the city. A committee of family members raised the $225,000 to build the memorial from hundreds of private donations from individuals and local companies.

"I don't have words for the way the community responded," says David Marsland, who led the fund drive after his wife, Hong Xiu Mao Marsland, died in the shooting. What's important to the families is to remember the victims, Mr. Marsland adds: "It's meant to be a place where people can stop and think about beauty, truth, and life."

Meanwhile, the 75-year-old American Civic Association reopened after a year with significant renovations, financed by donations from local foundations, businesses, and individuals.

"Folks could have abandoned this organization," says Andrew Baranoski, the agency's executive director.

"It would have been easy because we're not a rich organization. But it didn't happen." At the same time, the agency has had to strike a balance between honoring those killed and continuing to operate as "a functional, living, breathing facility" that is not defined by tragedy, Mr. Baranoski says.

Some wonder how long the community will remember.

"In the United States, things are shortlived; and when it becomes history, how many of us read, or react, to history?" says Lubomyr Zobniw, whose wife, Maria Zobniw, a prominent member of the Ukrainian-American community, died in the shooting.

Others feel the tragedy will be remembered for decades, and the memorial will always be there to honor the victims. "It's something that people can look at and say, 'something horrible happened in this community, but we didn't let it defeat us,' " Baranoski says.

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