* Welcome to the 81st installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m listening.
The gun nonsense in this nation has to stop. It absolutely, positively has to. There are too many guns, used by too many unqualified and unreasonable people, who obtain them too easily. There are too many angry citizens being paired with devices of anger. It’s a joke. Beyond a joke. People are dying, and our elected officials—thanks in large part to the power of the NRA—nod and do little.
I’m sick of it.
So, for that matter, is Paul Ercolino, the sort of man I aspire to be. Four months ago Paul’s brother, Steven, was shot and killed by a deranged former co-worker outside the Empire State Building. He was 41. At the ensuing wake, one of Steven’s cousins asked a question that now, in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, so many are also wondering: “Why are the good ones taken?”
Paul Ercolino hasn’t accepted the tragedy meekly. The president of U.S. Monitor, the nation’s leading mail monitor service, he now devotes himself to curtailing gun availability in the United States, and has become an outspoken critic of the proliferation of violence we’re experiencing. He’s actively involved in the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence, and longs for a time when these tragedies cease. You can—and should—follow him on Twitter here.
I am honored—beyond honored—to have Paul Ercolino participate in the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Paul, before I go anywhere with this interview, I’d like to ask about your brother Steven, who was shot and killed four months ago outside the Empire State Building. Who was he? What was he like? What was your relationship like? What do you want people to know about him?
PAUL ERCOLINO: Steven had a big personality and carried himself with a certain swagger. As my sister Maria said in her eulogy “When Steven walked into a room, you knew it.” First, you were captured by his bright smile and blue eyes. He was full of life and had a work ethic and drive like no one else. He was artistic, creative and articulate. Throughout his career in the fashion industry Steven helped people, changed their lives for the better, advised and mentored them. Steven had an amazing ability to make others laugh and he had a knack for impersonating people and movie characters, which always left people hysterical.
Steven had finally settled down with his soul mate Ivette and he was as happy as I can remember the last time I saw him in August at a family get-together in Warwick, N.Y. He was a wonderful brother and son to my parents, but what I really admired most about him was what a great uncle he was to my children and his other nieces and nephews. He would take my son Vincent into Little Italy for dinner and always have the latest handbag for my daughter Sofia. The little ones called him Uncle Duckie because one time he came to a family get together with his hair dyed blonde. He loved life and he lived it.
Sports were a big part of our family growing up. We were Mets, Knicks and Rangers fans but we split on football. My dad and I are Giants fans, while Steven and my brother Peter are Jets fans. In fact, my last conversation with my brother came after a phone call to WFAN’s Mike Francesa. After I hung up the phone, I got a phone call from him and he said, in typical Steven fashion, “You’re still talking about the stinkin’ Mets.”
It hurts, I really miss him.
J.P.: I’m writing these questions just four days after the Sandy Hook nightmare, and everyone’s talking gun control-gun control-gun control. This has obviously become an issue near and dear to you. What, Paul, needs to be done? What can be done? I’m fearful time will pass, distractions will take place and, as always, we’ll do shit. Please tell me I’m wrong …
P.E.: I think you are wrong this time, Jeff. The tragedy in Newtown has had such a powerful impact on the country as we watched in horror the slaughter of children and their teachers. The American public can’t allow this to pass and do nothing about it. We must demand that our politicians on both sides of the aisle get together and tackle the issue of curbing gun violence. The first and most obvious thing to do is ban assault weapons and high capacity ammo clips. We can close gun show loopholes and mandate background checks on anyone who buys a firearm. Just as importantly, we need find ways to stop access of lethal weapons to the mentally ill.
J.P.: How did you find out about your brother’s death? How did you and your family handle it? And is there any advice you can offer to the Sandy Hook families? Is there a way to cope with this? Is it even possible?
P.E.: We were moving my son into his dorm as an incoming freshman at Syracuse University. We had just finished breakfast and were walking to the Carrier Dome for a ceremony when my father called me with the news that turned one of the happiest days of my life into the worst nightmare I could ever imagine. We have pulled together as a family after this tragedy and have become a stronger unit. No longer do we go a month at a time without picking up the phone and talking with each other. Our faith in God has been renewed as we feel the energy of Steven around us in everything we do. We will be starting a Steven Ercolino Foundation that will give back to the causes he believed in. The Sandy Hook families are in a much more difficult place than we were. I had 41 years to love my brother, while these poor families had the lights of their lives ripped from them at the ages of 6 and 7. My only advice is too celebrate their short lives and try not to agonize over their horrific deaths. That is what I am in the process of doing and it is very difficult.
J.P.: After the incident, you were outspoken in your criticism of the media’s handling of the incident. Why? What, specifically, bothered you? And how do you feel about the Sandy Hook coverage?
P.E.: I was outraged by the New York Times Online Edition and the New York Post front page posting an overhead graphic photo of my brother that was recognizable to anyone who knew him, lying in a pool of blood. The photo was taken by someone in my brother’s office building and sold to the New York Times for $300. As a brother of the victim and former journalist, it sickened me that someone made the decision to run that photo. As for the Sand Hook coverage, I think the rush to be first with a story has led to so many inaccuracies. They identified Ryan Lanza, the 24-year-old brother of the murderer, as the initial suspect. It was reported that the mother was a teacher in the school, and was killed along with her class. When did get it first instead of get it right become the norm? In our case, reporters would not stop calling my parents’ house, which led me to hold a press conference outside their home. At least in Sandy Hook, I believe the press has respected the victims’ privacy and allowed them to grieve privately.
J.P.: Why do you think people are so passionate about guns? To me, they’re objects. Inanimate objects that kill. Why such strong feelings from gun owners?
P.E.: I am similar to you, I have never owned a gun and I look at them as objects that kill. Some people have a passion for cars, I look at them as an object that gets me from point A to B. I was brought up with sports in my house and I have a passion for sports. I guess in some cultures in America, guns are a way of life, people grow up with them and start using them at an early age. Now, when the government discusses putting limits on their passion, people get very protective of their guns.
J.P.: This might sound stupid, but I’m wondering—can you walk past the Empire State Building any longer? Do you avoid it? Do you even look at it?
P.E.: It is not a stupid question. The first time I had to drive into the city for business after the murder I was crossing the George Washington Bridge and looked at the skyline as I had done hundreds of times before and started to cry. I realized this symbol of American greatness was now an image of horror for me and my family. In November, the family got together for what would have been his 42nd birthday. We went on the roof of his Union City, N.J. condo and released balloons in his honor. Before we released the balloons my 5-year-old nephew, Matthew, said, “Hey, isn’t that the Empire State Building? That was Uncle Steven’s favorite building!” It was as only a 5-year old could. It brought more tears to my eyes but I realized that Steven bought this condo for the view of his favorite building in the city he loved and now I can look at the Empire State Building again.
J.P.: Has anyone from Jeffrey Johnson’s family ever reached out to you? Apologized? Anything? And did/do you want them to? Does it matter?
P.E.: No one from the Johnson family has ever reached out to us, nor would I expect them. It is not something anyone in our family is seeking and there is really nothing they can say at this point.
J.P.: Whenever tragedy happens, clergy speak of “learning” and “healing” from said incidents. Is that nonsense to make us feel better? Or is there learning and healing to be done?
P.E.: No, I don’t think it is nonsense—there is learning and healing that can come from tragedy. What I learned from my brother’s murder is that life is too short to be worrying about all the BS that goes on around you in your daily life. Life is precious and it can be taken away from you in an instant, without warning.
J.P.: Paul, I know much about your brother, little about you. Where are you from? What’s your life path? Job? Kids?
P.E.: I was born in Brooklyn and we moved to Nanuet in Rockland County when I was in first grade. I graduated from Clarkstown South High School and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. My wife Elisa and I have been married for 21 years and we have two children—Vincent, 18, and Sofia, 12. I worked for five years after college as news anchor and reporter at radio stations in Rockland and Westchester, N.Y., as well as in Tampa, Florida. After Vincent was born in 1994 in Florida we decided to move back to New York to be closer to family. After being the runner-up for a reporter position at WCBS News Radio, I began working at my in-laws’ direct marketing company. Eighteen years later I am now the President of U.S. Monitor, the nation’s leading mail monitor service. Since my brother’s murder, I have been working with Dan Gross at the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and I have become active in ethics in journalism regarding victims’ rights.
J.P.: Do you think we’re a violent people who need to learn to be peaceful? Or are you peaceful people who gravitate toward violence? And is there a solution?
P.E.: We are peaceful people who gravitate toward violence. I think the solution starts with parents, teachers and mental health professionals. If we recognize the warning signs early and make the choice to take the appropriate action, many of these tragedies can be avoided.
• Three most important steps we can take, RE: gun control: Ban assault weapons, close gun show loopholes, background checks on 100-percent of gun sales.
• If you could say one thing to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA CEO, it would be …: Do the right thing and rise to the moment.
• Do you believe video games predispose people to violence?: No, I think people are predisposed to violence and those people when exposed to violent video games may become more predisposed to violence.
• Your brother’s five favorite Jet players: His favorite all-time was Joe Klecko, he also liked Freeman McNeil, Wayne Chrebet, Curtis Martin and Darrelle Revis is no particular order.
• Does God exist?: Yes and in the past four months my faith in God has become an important part of my life.
• Do you believe in the death penalty? Why or why not?: My position has evolved on this issue. I used to be pro-death penalty but I have been convinced that it is not a deterrent and that life in prison without parole is a harsher punishment for murderers.
• Why do you think people who commit violent acts don’t just shoot themselves?: Why take out others, too? I think they want to go out in a blaze of glory and destroy the people who they feel are responsible for their lot in life.
• You studied broadcast journalism at Syracuse. Why aren’t you a broadcast journalist?: I worked as a journalist for five years after graduating from Syracuse and after my son was born in 1994 I decided to work in my in-laws’ business. Journalism is still in my blood, though.
• On your Facebook page you “liked” Walmart. I know no one who likes Walmart. What up?: Last I checked over 26 million people agree with me … who are you hanging out with.
• Why Syracuse’s football team ever win anything?: Coach Doug Marrone has us on the right track, the move to the ACC should help us. As for competing with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world—that is wishful thinking. Let’s talk Orange basketball …