‘Time to galvanize’: Healdsburg winery owner touts gun reform after niece killed in Nashville school shooting

Evelyn Dieckhaus was killed March 27, along with two other kids and three adults when a former student, Aiden Hale, 28, shot open a locked door to the Christian private school and indiscriminately fired rounds, according to police.|

Kelly Dorrance embraced her 9-year-old niece, Evelyn Dieckhaus, before dropping her off at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, and traveling back to her home in Healdsburg.

Dorrance’s sister and Evelyn’s mother, Katy Dieckhaus, 42, snapped a picture of that moment.

Wearing her Covenant uniform, Evelyn Dieckhaus wrapped her arms around her aunt Kelly who held her tightly. Dangling from Dieckhaus’s backpack were pieces of her personality: a rainbow craft, a mini stuffed tiger, a friendship bracelet that says “best” and an E-shaped keychain.

Evelyn Dieckhaus was killed six days later, on March 27, along with two other kids and three adults when a former student, Aiden Hale, 28, shot open a locked door to the Christian private school and indiscriminately fired rounds, according to police.

Hale, who had brought two legally obtained AR-style weapons and a handgun, was killed by law enforcement within 14 minutes of entering the school.

Dorrance is co-owner of two Healdsburg wineries and tasting rooms — BloodRoot Wines and Reeve Wines — and antique shop The Stand with her husband, Noah Dorrance, 46.

She’d flown to Nashville the prior week for no particular reason, just wanting to spend time with her sister and her children.

Those memories and pictures with Evelyn are now even more treasured by the couple, and are a reminder that life is precious and they must fight to protect it. To that end, the couple has started several fundraising efforts to support gun law reform.

Honoring Evelyn

Dorrance describes her niece as having a calm sense of spirit, while being incredibly strong and having many friends. Evelyn loved rainbows, tigers, hearts, butterflies, and combat boots.

“She’s like a perfect balance of light and love and strength,” she said as she sat in the BloodRoot tasting room in downtown Healdsburg and held her husband’s hand. “My sister says she was destined to do big things. And now she's going to do big things ― from the other side of the universe, I suppose. And that is what is holding our family up right now.”

There have been 16 mass killings already in 2023. In the most recent, four people were fatally shot and 28 injured at a 16th birthday party in Alabama.

Firearms are the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re not anti-gun,” Kelly Dorrance said.

“I believe that people for the right reasons, in the right ways, should own a gun if they want to, but it's just absolutely out of control. Our country has this sick, almost religious fervor about guns. I think, you know, broadly, we need to make it harder. We've got to put up some barriers to entry.”

The couple said they’re in support of universal background checks, bans on assault-style weapons and red flag laws — high-risk protection orders — all of which garner vast support among Americans, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Since the Tennessee mass shooting, the Dorrance family is in the legal process of establishing a nonprofit, light-catchers.org, in honor of Evelyn, to advocate for the passing of bipartisan “common-sense gun laws that will protect our children,” Kelly Dorrance said.

They’ve also organized a fundraiser, Wine Country Unites, in which wineries and restaurants in Sonoma and Napa counties can pledge to donate $10 of every wine bottle sold June 3, which is the Saturday after National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

On June 9, BloodRoot wines will host a music festival and fundraiser at Little Saint in Healdsburg with Shannon Shaw, lead singer of Shannon and the Clams. Ten dollars of each ticket will go to fighting gun violence, the couple said.

“I think also, we live in a special place,” Noah Dorrance said. “We've seen all kinds of different disasters and tragedies and the way our community rallies around to support and to give time, energy and money toward various causes when the time calls for it.”

“I think it's one of the best things about Northern California at large,” he added. “It's that spirit and willingness to put the energy and effort behind change.”

Moving forward

After her niece’s death, Dorrance, 47, waited three days before she flew out to Tennessee, which “felt like agony,” she said.

Those days were spent in shock and confusion. They attended Evelyn’s funeral Friday and her burial the next day, “then we galvanize,” as Dorrance had said in a text the days following the 9-year-old’s death.

A few things have given the family comfort. Noah Dorrance said Evelyn was supposed to sing “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong at a school play that Friday. Instead, country music artist Vince Gill sang the song at her funeral.

“It seems kind of odd you know, that song given the tragedy,” Noah Dorrance said. “But in a weird way, it kind of reminded us about love and the preciousness of life. It's like Kelly says, it fits Evelyn and just going forward with this idea of life and love and soaking up the world around you.”

The days of providing her family support through the grief have just started, Kelly Dorrance said.

It’s been busy and loud, with an outflow of support from across the nation. But she knows it will be the hardest on the quiet days, when grief sneaks up unexpectedly at the dinner table, she said. They had been a family of four — now reduced to three.

“We're in a climate right now that is divided across the country,” she said. “And I think people want to be brought back together, collectively, I think we're all tired of the rhetoric and the divide. People are craving, togetherness, and rallying behind something that's for the common good.”

“I'm still like, do I feel like this because this is happening to my family? Or is this actually happening? I have to hope it's actually happening to our country at large. Because I think we've reached a tipping point.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

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