Jennifer Poff Cooper
With the wind whipping and temperatures dropping Wednesday, the line for the Community Conversation on Reducing Gun Violence snaked up and down the sidewalk outside The Lyric Theatre.
Once the doors opened, the over 400 seats quickly filled with community members young and old alike.
Audience member Andrew Trent said he was attending because he has two small children and wanted to know what he can do to keep them safe.
He grew up with guns and was never concerned about them, but he finds it disconcerting that his first grader must participate in so many lock-down drills at school now. Trent wanted to hear the solutions the experts are talking about.
Also drawn to the event were Rebecca Zewdie and Angela Zadrima, Virginia Tech juniors from northern Virginia. Zewdie grew up in a politically active household.
She and her father, who spent half of his life in the United Kingdom, discuss the gun issue a lot.
He witnessed gun violence being virtually eliminated in the U.K. and “feels that children’s lives here are undermined by assault weapons,” she said.
Zadrima’s interest in the gun issue was sparked by the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting.
“It feels really personal when it comes into schools,” she said.
Del. Chris Hurst (D-12th District), moderator for the event, began the session by referencing the well-known gun deaths of his reporter girlfriend Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward.
Even after that public tragedy, Hurst said he did not think anything would change. However, he feels the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has altered the conversation.
The day’s event, hosted by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), was designed to reach out and get perspectives from a host of people, Hurst said before introducing the panel.
Dr. Gene Deisinger, director of threat management at Virginia Tech and a clinical psychologist as well as a law enforcement officer, said he helps look at proactive ways to deal with tragedies.
He mentioned gaps in the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting response and said he was brought in to close those gaps.
Gun violence is not solely a mental health issue or a law enforcement issue, but rather a complex mix of problems, he said. Three Cs are critical, said Dr. Deisinger: communication, collaboration and coordination of effort.
Uma Loganathan was impacted as a college senior by the April 16 massacre when her father, Virginia Tech professor G.V. Loganathan, was killed. She discounted the idea that if he would have been armed he could have “changed the story.”
He was shot in the back of the head while he was turned with his back to the door writing on the white board, she said; it happened so quickly that there was no reaction time.
Up until then, Loganathan had seen her hometown of Blacksburg as a safe community. Even at that time, she saw April 16 as an anomaly. However, now she sees a pattern. So she decided so do something.
Loganathan has been active in the Brady Campaign and the organization that is now known as Everytown for Gun Safety. She has lobbied for universal background checks on the state and federal levels.
Universal background checks are the number one priority to combat gun violence for Kaine. He said he is typically an optimistic person but had grown to be “despondent” about Congress doing anything about gun safety.
Lately, he said he is starting to feel more optimistic because of young people like those in Parkland who are asking why the National Rifle Association is more important than they are.
There were 20 gun control marches in Virginia on a recent Saturday, “forcing us to look in the mirror,” Kaine said.
The senator talked of the lessons he learned as the mayor of Richmond. He said that certain things can, in fact, make citizens safer—policing strategies, mental health reforms and some gun control measures such as decreasing the gun carry rate.
After the VT shooting, Kaine, then governor of Virginia, appointed a panel that recommended changes in campus safety and addressed mental health issues. The shootings happened, though, he said, because of a failure in the background check system.
Kaine said that “you won’t eliminate gun violence but you can reduce it.” Still, Virginia legislators at that time would not go along with reforms in the system.
In April 2013, after he became a Senator and after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, background check legislation fell a few votes short in Congress.
Kaine said his experiences in painful situations have shown him that there are things to do to reduce gun violence and, “if you don’t do them, you bear responsibility”—an indictment of Congress.
In the recent federal budget bill, Kaine said there were two things to help: one was eliminating the Dickey Amendment, which restricts the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence and its effects on public health, and the other was a bill to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System known as the Fix NICS bill.
Also on the panel was Harley Huffman, president of the Virginia Tech Students for Non-Violence (SNV). Huffman shared his story of being held at gunpoint at age 15 and only surviving because the gun jammed.
In his emotional testimony, he said he was speaking vicariously for those who have lost their lives. SNV is working with the community such as partnering with One Voice Blacksburg on school walkouts.
Hurst then asked the panel what research is needed to stop gun violence. Dr. Deisinger answered that few lessons are new, and we need to apply lessons already learned. It is not as simple as “see something, say something,” he said; rather action is necessary.
To begin the question and answer period, the legislators were asked what arguments those against gun control use. Kaine said that the Second Amendment is often raised. His opinion is that all amendments “convey rights with limits,” with the Second Amendment emphasizing a ‘well-regulated’ militia.
Most legislators, Kaine said, are afraid of losing campaign contributions from NRA leadership and gun manufacturers, which produce propaganda that can ultimately only be combatted by skeptical citizenry. Kaine maintains an “F” rating by the NRA.
Hurst, a gun owner, added that it is misinformation that Democrats are trying to repeal the Second Amendment, and said that there are areas all should be able to agree on, such as not wanting to see children die.
Loganathan talked about NRA videos on YouTube being clever in tying guns to individual freedoms. She advocated accepting some constraints; for example, First Amendment rights do not include being able to yell “fire” in a theater.
Alexa Parsley, last year’s student body president at Virginia Tech and the sister of a suicide victim, asked how to change mental illness from being deemed the only reason for gun violence.
Hurst, who was the mental health reporter when he worked at WDBJ-7 and has a mentally ill parent, asserted that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violence. He said that mass shootings are only one aspect of gun violence—others including threat assessment, suicide and accidental deaths.
Deisinger agreed that very few mentally ill people are violent, with the risk of violence being four percent among this population. Domestic violence is a better predictor, he said.
Gun owner Carl Absher of Blacksburg said he was in favor or “sensible gun control” but feels that weapons bans are a “waste of time.” He asked the panel what happens when a weapons ban fails.
Kaine advocated discussion and finding areas of agreement. He also said that research showed the 1990s assault weapons ban worked. Kaine favors putting limitations on the magazine size, which is more enforceable than a general assault weapons ban.
Loganathan agreed, saying that reducing the number of bullets available would reduce casualties and also give time to take action.
For example, she said in the 2011 Tucson, Arizona incident where US Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot and six others were killed, it was when the shooter was changing magazines that someone was able to end his reign of terror.
Hurst asked: where do we go from here? He cited the General Assembly’s Safe Virginia Initiative, of which he is the southwest Virginia region chair; he envisions more forums.
Saying it is clear that the epidemic of gun violence has grown out of proportion, Loganathan affirmed it is “good to come together” and that “solutions start from the community.”
However, she was firm in her belief that it is up to the government to respond or we should find other representatives.
Kaine concluded the meeting by thanking the audience for coming and said his time as governor during the April 16 crisis cemented a bond with the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech community.